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February 27, 2024

Are You Burned Out? Why I Took A Gap Year for a Mental Health Reset

By Kyra W.
, 20
, from Ann Arbor, MI

I’ve been thinking lately about where I was two years ago, watching all my friends talking about how excited they were to graduate high school and leave for college. 


I said all the same things (Can’t wait! Amazing!), but it wasn’t true. I wasn’t excited. I was burned out.


Like many college students, I had just spent four years taking rigorous classes and participating in too many extracurricular activities, leaving me tired and without enough time to take care of myself. I pushed myself so hard that when I finally got into the college I wanted, my first thought was, I DID IT! And my second thought was, OH, NO, I HAVE GO BACK TO THE RIGOR OF SCHOOL IN JUST A FEW MONTHS. IS THIS THE PRIZE I WORKED SO HARD FOR?


High school can be a pressure cooker. The constant stress of exams, extracurriculars, and then months of college applications can leave you feeling like you’re running on empty. I was embarrassed to tell anyone that I wasn’t 100% excited about starting college in the fall, and I noticed that I started feeling worried all the time about whether I’d start college completely burned out. When my college counselor said something about how well I’d do in college and how proud she was of me, I finally confided in her and told her the truth. She sat me down in her office and explained that what I was feeling was normal and that I might want to consider a gap year. I did some research, and knew right away I would do it. My parents were hesitant at first, but once I presented them with my research, they agreed that it sounded like a good idea and would ultimately set me up to be more (not less) successful in college.


Taking a gap year would give me the chance to hit pause and catch my breath. I could finally take a step back and pursue things I was interested in, without the weight of grades and pressure bearing down on me.


A gap year is just a year that you take off between high school and college to do… whatever you want. I don’t mean that you sit around binging Netflix (though you can do that sometimes!), but instead you get to do things that recharge you that you didn’t have time to do in high school. You can travel (there are cheap ways to do this for teens), pursue a passion project, volunteer, work on your fitness, intern in a field you’ve always wanted to explore… anything you can dream up now that you have the space in your mind to dream beyond academics and college acceptances.


When I told friends I was taking a gap year, they had questions: How will it feel to be a year older than your classmates when you start college? Won’t you feel weird graduating from college a year after you would have – won’t you feel behind? What if you get bored?


None of that was true. In fact, taking a gap year was the best decision of my life because I got to learn about myself and my interests, discover places and cultures I wouldn’t have otherwise, meet interesting people outside of my school bubble who have very different lives from mine, and give myself the confidence to do something I needed without succumbing to peer pressure to stay “on track.” 


I thought my gap year would be pretty chill, but once I had the freedom of a year, I ended up finding so many things I wanted to do. I volunteered in a foreign country, learned a new language, pursued my art in a serious way and found new artistic mentors, set a fitness goal and became healthier than I’ve ever been, started meditating each morning (for 10 minutes, but still), and started playing pickleball. Through these experiences, I met a lot of new people that became deep friendships in my daily life.


Sure, I also slept late, watched shows, listened to music, and scrolled through my phone, but by the time school started the next fall, I was more than ready—and truly excited! Because of my volunteer work abroad, I even chose different classes than I would have a year ago, such as international relations, which I’d never been exposed to before.


I came into my freshman year of college with independence, confidence, and “real world” skills I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t take this time away from school. I learned how important it is to take care of your mental health with balance between hard work and downtime. I saw the value of going outside of my comfort zone and exploring new areas even if I had no experience in them before. My gap year made me into a more open person who sees the world as much bigger and the possibilities greater than I had from my years of just going to school.


As your college acceptances roll in and you start thinking about the fall, if you feel like you need some time before embarking the next four years of college, don’t hesitate to ask your college counselor about taking a gap year to see if this might be right for you!

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