Sometimes, starting university right after high school isn’t for you. Maybe you aren’t sure what to study, you want to travel and experience the world before getting back on the academic treadmill, or there are personal reasons why you just need to take a year out. No matter what your reason, taking a gap year can be a really fun and eye-opening experience, as I hope to show you by sharing my gap year experiences before starting at Durham University.
Why did I take a gap year?
One of the big reasons I took a gap year is that I had no idea what I wanted to study. The year I was taking my final exams, right when all my friends were checking their university options, I suddenly realised I had no clue what I wanted to do. It was terrifying! My parents thought that instead of just starting at uni for no reason, I should take a gap year to travel, maybe do a short course or two, so I could figure out where my academic interests lay.
The other reason is that I wanted to study overseas. Because the academic year in South Africa ends in December, I would have to wait nine months to start uni anyway, so why not take advantage of that?
What did I do that year?
I had over a year and a half between when I finished school and when I started uni, so I had lots of time to fill. That’s why I decided to fill it with as many exciting opportunities as possible.
I did a 3-month short course at Oxford and a 2-month short course at Stanford University. I travelled around America and Croatia. I worked at a hospital and as an editor and did a bartending, barista and first aid course. Not all in one course, but three separate courses. I’m not sure what a bartending barista first aid course would look like …
Essentially, I tried doing a little bit of everything during my gap year to make the most of my time and prepare when I set off for university.
How was it a useful experience?
Honestly, everything I did was helpful in some way. Travelling and doing my overseas courses helped me get a taste of subjects I might want to study and figure out which ones I wanted to pursue. They gave me some experience doing university-level work, a chance to immerse myself in different cultural experiences, make new friends and see what it would feel like to live in another country by myself, away from my family and friends.
The work experience was helpful because I had to collaborate with loads of different people, both in an office space and online, when lockdown hit. It was also a fun chance to save up some money from uni, which is always great!
In a way, everything I did in my gap year was metaphorically dipping my toe in the water before jumping in. It’s not that the experiences weren’t intense or challenging at times, but knowing I could go home soon was like a little safety net. It really helped me gain confidence in the independence I would have and need at uni.
How did I find settling into uni when I got back?
Surprisingly, it was really easy. After my short courses, I couldn’t wait to start uni. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but when it came to dealing with things like living by myself and doing all those ‘adult’ things that seem a bit intimidating, I was confident and ready to go. I knew how to cope with homesickness and moving to another country. Even throwing myself into uni experiences wasn’t as stressful because I’d had to do it more than once during my gap year, and learnt that if you don’t try, you’ll never know… even if it’s scary!
Taking a gap year, even though it wasn’t something I ever imagined doing, turned out to be just right for me. It wasn’t my plan or the traditional route, but it helped me grow in many ways and gave me an opportunity for new experiences.
If I can impart any wisdom, I’ll say make sure you make your gap year productive. When I was applying to university, taking a year out did raise eyebrows, and many schools wanted evidence of what I’d done, so keep that in mind when planning. You don’t have to do the same things I did, but make sure that whatever you do is something you’re passionate about or something you feel can help or contribute to later in life. A year is a long time, so don’t waste it. Make the most of it!
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