Follow Your Passions: How to weigh your options after high school and decide among college, a gap year, or a unique path

Graduating from high school opens up a whole new world of experience. You are given the freedom to explore, meet people from many different places, and become more independent.

Many students are headed straight to college. And that's great. But it's not the only path to success.

And going to college and studying your face off is not enough to prepare you for the independence and (often frightening number of) choices that await you when you graduate.

You know how adults use this vague phrase "the college experience"? That's our way of encouraging you to take this precious time and find out who you are. Challenge yourself. Try new things. Learn what motivates you.

Whether you attend college or continue your education in another way, your job right now is to become a productive, passionate, motivated human being. 

If college is your next step, make the most of it.

The independence and the chance to participate in the “real world” more is definitely a big deal. All of a sudden you are deciding what you want to do instead of just how you will react to what other people put in your path.

I highly value the many non-classroom experiences I had at college, including having the luxury to think deeply about the world and who I was in it, having "continuing conversations" with wise people (other students as well as professors), and making life-long friends.

I also found it extremely rewarding to discover new talents and develop skills I had always been told I didn't have. My family was flabbergasted when their non-athletic, crybaby, night owl youngest child began waking up before the crack of dawn to row crew competitively and even win medals for it. But I felt free to try this because I was remaking my identity around people who didn't have preconceived notions about me.

Take full advantage of opportunities to discover your passions and hidden strengths:

  • Join a choir or hang out in the pottery studio. 
  • Explore service organizations. Try a beach clean-up or a month doing peer tutoring.
  • Start your own club for gourmands or people who want to practice speaking German.
  • Write for the college paper or submit your poems or photographs to the literary magazine.

Because yes, "the college experience" is real! If you don't take this time to grow as a person, you will surely regret it. A huge part of your education at this point should be to find out who you are and how you learn and grow.

Consider this, too: "the college experience" is only one facet of a larger larger phenomenon I would call the "independence experience". That means college is not the only place to get it! 

Look beyond college.  

For some students, heading immediately into college or a job feels overwhelming. They may not have any clarity about what they want to study or do in the world. They may feel that they haven’t yet discovered their interests and strengths, and they may feel the pressure that if they don’t figure it out soon, they’ll be wasting a lot of money and energy trying to make it work at college. (And this is true!)

If you feel really lost, a “gap year” experience might be the right way to have some of the “college experience” without getting stuck on a path that you aren’t really sure about.

But more importantly, hands-on experience is just a better learning modality for many people! I knew a really bright student who ended up in the career he was meant for, but only after feeling like a failure in school. The classroom was not his ideal learning environment. But when he was in the rodeo ring or at a cattle auction, he was unstoppable. His mind would go a mile a minute as he observed and practiced new skills. He would pick things up quickly, and new information would stick. 

If you learn better by doing, or if your passion is taking action, don't be afraid to make your own path!

In the US, the majority of schools teach in only two ways: showing images and talking. But you’ve got five senses! 

Many students spend their entire elementary, middle school, and high school careers thinking they are missing something, when it turns out their classrooms just aren't serving their brains. Sitting still and listening while staring at a whiteboard doesn’t fire up their neurons. But getting up and moving makes everything click!

If you learn best by jumping out of your seat and building, testing, doing, and practicing, you might find your best experience in one of these options:

Gap Year

  • Travel to other countries and expand your knowledge of languages and cultures
  • See new ideas firsthand and learn through experience
  • Find work so you can gain experience and earn money while you see the world

Uncollege

  • Get an unconventional education that engages your whole self
  • Travel, learn, and intern while on your own path to career success 
  • Don't go it alone -- get a plan of action to move forward with your goals and be held accountable 

You can still get the job of your dreams if you don't go straight from college into the workforce. 

Of course, going to college and traveling or volunteering aren’t mutually exclusive. If you’re passionate about making a difference in the world and you are also ready for college, look for service clubs at the schools you’re applying to. Start a volunteering club or apply for a semester or a year abroad or at a sister or affiliate school where you can have unique experiences and build your “doing” muscle.

And taking a “gap year” is something you can do after completing your bachelor’s or associate's degree as well.

Here’s what I think is an inspiring story. It’s about a dear friend of mine, whom I’ll call Nina. Following college graduation, she knew she wanted to experience more of the world and make a difference in it, so she applied to the Peace Corps.

Nina comes from a large family of master’s degrees and PhDs, and her parents and siblings thought she was making a risky choice. After all, she was going to lose two years of working in her chosen field, writing. They thought she would return to the US “behind” others of her age group and struggling to get a job.

But Nina knew getting out into the world was the right choice. She spent two and a half years in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer, helping make farming improvements in a small village, and later coordinating money and volunteers in a big city plagued by corruption. She was faced with challenging experiences unlike any she would have encountered had she stayed at home. Nina was already a decisive, capable person, but this experience helped her build strong leadership skills and refine her ability to thrive amidst limited resources and non-negotiable deadlines.

When she returned to the US, Nina was able to land a job as an editor of a small magazine without having to rise up the ranks as a feature writer. Why? She was a master of calmly managing multiple people and projects and moving them all smoothly toward a deadline.

While she still loved writing, Nina’s editing position made her wear many hats and led her to discover another talent she never knew she had: designing layouts. Nina moved from the magazine she was editing to a company with more growth potential where she also expanded her responsibilities to include design and graphics.

This new company offered employees the option of earning a master’s while continuing to work—a degree the company would pay for as an investment in their own workforce. Nina completed her MA in graphic design, which gave her even more options for advancement and pay increase.

Waiting to complete her advanced degree was exactly the right choice for Nina. Her experience in her “gap years” gave her valuable skills and maturity, and also an edge when she did return to the workforce. She was able to specialize in an area she never would have considered right out of her undergraduate program and is now on the career path of her dreams.

Finding your path takes time.

I hope this short series hasn't made you feel more lost than you did before. But if it brought up a lot of questions for you, I can't pretend that wasn't part of my goal... ;)

The reality is that you young whippersnappers graduating high school right now are part of an incredibly lucky generation. You still have the option of four-year degree programs to launch careers in academics and specialized fields. But you  can also jump right into technical schools and start on certain careers much quicker and with more practical training.

You can take advantage of the para-college and non-college educational experiences available while still being able to network with large companies for great hiring opportunities. Plus, thanks to the web, starting your own business or non-profit is more accessible than ever before!

Many roads lead to success. So don't worry about a "perfect path." Instead, choose the path that's right for you. Talk to lots of adults and other people your age about your plan. Take in as many opinions as you can, weigh options, and discuss outcomes. And above all, listen to that little voice in your head that makes you want to push yourself toward what makes your soul sing!

Already have a plan or been through this decision yourself years ago? What's your advice to others setting out on this journey? Share in the comments below!