As a sophomore, it is a daily occurrence for me to hear my friends utter phrases such as “maybe I’ll take a gap year,” “I need a break,” or — best yet — “I think I’ll drop out.” There are a lot of stress factors here at Princeton — academically and socially — and sophomore year seems to be around the time when people start to feel the effects of an approaching burnout.
But the fact of the matter is, not many of these people will actually follow through with such utterances. Sure, work is hard and everything, but the vast majority of students are afraid of the uncertainties of taking a gap year, whether they be changing graduation year, recruiting, friendship dynamics, etc. As people, and especially as Ivy League students, we all tend to be quite risk-averse. At the moment, taking a gap year may feel like a significant risk.
To those people, I say, take a gap year. More likely than not, you won’t regret it.
As for myself, I am an international and a Korean citizen — which means that I am obligated to take not one, but two gap years to serve in the military, and I will most likely be leaving after this year to do my service. While my thoughts, initially, were similar to how most other people reacted when I told them that I’d be gone after sophomore year — a mix of denial, apathy, and sympathy — I do now think it may be a necessary break from the high-pressure environment of the University.
An academic break could do wonders for your mental health, as well as for your future. I see a lot of students at this University — including myself — often relentlessly chasing short-term goals, such as a problem set, grades, or the next big recruiting event without really taking the time to think about the big picture. As former Yale professor William Deresiewicz puts it in his book, elite students can easily become “excellent sheep” — professionals who chase vague notions of success and status, but never really have a deeper sense of motivation for why they do what they do.
A gap year gives us time for more introspective evaluation and some thinking about what we want to do and, more importantly, why we want to do it. In such a fast-paced, high-pressure environment like Princeton’s, this kind of “thinking to oneself” is incredibly difficult. When you finish one problem set, the next one is due by, say, next Tuesday. We end up pushing off the idea of “introspection” until we completely run out of time. Before we know it, we graduate.
At some point, this cycle needs a break. This is not a criticism of the University’s education or the environment; I strongly believe that the curriculum offered by this University is the best that any institution could offer. But there does exist a firm distinction between mindlessly taking classes versus engaging with the curriculum with a greater sense of purpose — a better idea of and satisfaction with how we could take advantage of the broad opportunities offered here.
A gap year is precisely the opportunity to gain a greater sense of purpose and to get to know yourself better. It’s not just introspection you could be doing with a whole year. You could perhaps travel to other locations, spend time with family, or complete a couple of internships in areas of work that you were interested in but never dared to explore during the summers — summers that were generally reserved for more prestigious tech/finance/consulting internships. One year of break will not only prepare you better for Princeton but also broadly for your career path and life.
People do not know what they’re missing from within the Orange Bubble. We frequently worry about being left behind, things changing on campus, etc. But really, the University will always be here — and in fact, will be more willing than not to support your gap year endeavors.
So if you are burnt out, or feel as if you are slowly losing motivation, perhaps you need a vacation. And not just over the summer, but for a year. College could really be the last time you could take a good break — and you should take full advantage of it.
Jae-Kyung Sim is a sophomore from Sejong City, South Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com.