To Gap or Not To Gap?

Georgie Palmer (Jun 28 2021)

That is the question, and it’s probably one of the biggest questions on the minds of many Year 13’s right now. I know that in the latter half of 2020 when I was a Year 13, it was constantly at the forefront of my mind. All of a sudden, come the end of Term 2, my classmates began travelling to Open Days, picking up university brochures from the Careers Centre, filling out application forms and excitedly discussing degree ideas in the corridors. It was impossible to get away from university talk, not only at school but outside of school too – my parents, friends and extended family were all so eager to hear about every little detail of the university preparation process and offer advice wherever they could. However, despite getting an Excellence endorsement in 2020 and going through with an application to Victoria University of Wellington, I ended up not going to university in 2021, which has since turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What follows is a bit of an insight into the reasons I decided not to go, and how having a year away from formal education has benefitted me and how it could benefit you too. (Disclaimer: Obviously, everyone’s personal and academic situation is different, and I don’t intend to persuade every reader to cancel their university applications, but I would like to think that what I’ve written could get Year 13’s to think a little differently – and perhaps a bit more long-term – about their futures and self-growth).

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the main reasons I decided not to attend university in 2021 was because of my after-school extra-curricular activities, all of which I’ve taken very seriously from a really young age. I’ve been competitively dancing since 2007 and sitting various piano exams since 2008 (I’ve since picked up a few other instruments too). Being involved in such time and money-consuming activities as dance and music for that long means that I feel like they’re both very significant aspects of my life (I actually want to study music composition at university) so, naturally, feeling a sense of completion with these once I leave for tertiary study is important to me.

Covid impacted most of the final exams/diplomas that I’d intended to do for music and what was to be my last-ever dance nationals in 2020 got cancelled as well. I wanted to sit those final music exams and do all of the dance competitions that I’d missed out on because of the pandemic, so that I could feel like I’m ready to move on to bigger and better things without leaving anything unfinished and unsatisfactory. If you’re doing something similarly time and money-consuming, something that you’ve done for such a long time that it feels like one of the most important aspects of your life, wouldn’t you feel at least a bit regretful and incomplete if you were to just suddenly drop it from your life, likely never to return to it again as an adult? Especially if it’s something with an exam/qualification aspect… doesn’t it feel good to really stick at something, commit to it, persevere through the difficult moment, and really do it properly for a number of months and/or years to then finish on a high? It’s definitely food for thought – I can’t be the only kiwi student who’s stuck with such activities right throughout school, can I?

Another reason, which may be a bit more commonplace, is that money doesn’t just grow on trees (or, *cough cough*, inside my parents’ pockets)! As you may have assumed, I didn’t work throughout my time at school because I was incredibly busy doing other things, all of which cost money. (In hindsight, I’m really grateful that my parents didn’t encourage me to get a job during school, because it adds - in my view - unnecessary extra levels of pressure to the already very-stressful life of an NCEA student, plus it meant that I got to continue with the extra-curricular activities which I am good at and love doing). Suddenly, I have much more time to focus on earning money – and also earning more of it than high-school students (turning 18 increases your wages! Woohoo!).

At the time of writing, I’m employed by a local dance school (the one where I’ve trained for the past decade) to teach some weekly classes and coach the younger competitive dance teams. I’m also hoping to get a position at the local greengrocer for a couple of days a week. Having more time to get a job means that a) you can take on more hours without feeling the pressure of school and NCEA and all that jazz, and b) you can potentially get a better job than just the after-school shifts at Fresh Choice or Burger King. In my case, I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten a job (which, by the way, pays a lot better than the minimum wage!) in a field that I actually enjoy and which I may even consider as a career option down the road. A gap year of working can be a great opportunity to get some cash AND some work experience in the field/s you’re interested in. Does this not sound like a win-win to you?

The final, and perhaps most important, reason for me not going is simply not having the right gut feeling about it. Yes, I know, it’s the sort of thing your grandma would say, but as Audrey Hepburn once said: “I always follow my instincts; that’s all I have to go by”. Wouldn’t it be criminal not to follow the advice of the Ultimate Queen of Style? Icons aside… amidst the excited chatter of my classmates when they started receiving university information packs in the mail and then comparing what Halls of Residences they’d gotten into, something simply didn’t feel right for me. And it felt that way from the beginning, even before the Covid lockdowns. It was very peculiar and unexpected – I’d been looking forward to attending university for so many years, and now my chance to go was finally here! What was going on in my brain?! Had I suddenly chickened out? Was I nervous? Anxious? Stressed? Or simply not ready for such a drastic change of lifestyle?

To this day I’m still not sure which of these questions I’d answer “yes” to, perhaps all of them. But something just didn’t feel right about going. I wasn’t 100% sold on the university I wanted to attend, even though I’d known for years what courses I wanted to take. I think, to a degree, my significant lack of social skills and even just general life skills (I still can’t peel a banana, after years of trying to) made me feel like I wouldn’t cope with a brand-new way of living, away from Mum making my lunches and Dad fixing my car and basically everyone doing stuff for me. But fundamentally, I just didn’t have the gut feeling of wanting to go. It’s amazing how something as simple as a physical reaction to a situation can actually help you make the most important decisions in your life. As someone with a lot of trust issues, it’s the one thing I’ve always always trusted and it’s yet to fail me. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your instinct – you and only you knows what it’s telling you!

Alas, that all being said, maybe you’re not committed to a bunch of things outside of school, so sticking around to keep doing them doesn’t mean anything to you? Maybe you spent your free time working instead, so you’ve got a bunch of cash stowed away and you feel financially, academically and mentally equipped to take on the world of REAL student life? And maybe your gut feelings will tell you that you should go to university? Who knows? As I said earlier, everyone’s situation is different, which is why you shouldn’t feel obliged to launch yourself into university life just because it seems like everybody else is doing it, because they’re not. What’s important is that you really think about all your options for the years after high school. Would I recommend doing a gap year if you’re a social butterfly? Definitely not; it can feel very isolating much of the time (depending on what you’re doing with yourself on your gap year, but in the age of Covid I don’t imagine that’s going to include a lot of Camp Americas and overseas volunteering programmes, sadly). But would I recommend applying for university simply for the social aspect of it, without really knowing what you want to study and where you want to study it? DEFINITELY not. Sure, the change of scene and the change of people means you’re likely going to want to get out and have a good time in one way or another, but university is a long-term financial and academic investment and the novelty of parties certainly wears off (from what I’ve heard from the dozens of university friends I have). O-week is called O-week for a reason!

All in all, I just think that it’s really important, at such a crucial point of your Year 13 year, to think a lot about what you want to get out of university and if you feel ready to take on a completely new lifestyle and (likely) a completely new city. Gap years are definitely not for everyone, but they are for some (even Dean from LearnCoach took one! And now he runs the coolest online competition ever!). You can learn a lot about yourself and about life, make some new friends, earn some cash, get a bit of experience in the field you want to go into, and you can also get valuable insight from university friends as to what’s hot and what’s not at their particular uni, so that when/if you apply you can do it right first time around! And if you’re still unsure at the end of the day, there’s only one thing to do: just trust your gut… if Audrey can, so can you!

For NCEA Students
By NCEA Students