Why to take a gap year after high school

When Paddy Bruington graduated from Fairfax High School in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2007, she didn’t know if she was college material. She was popular in high school and was involved in everything — “all the sports, art club, things like that,” she says.

Despite her positive high-school experience, Bruington, who has acute dyslexia and short-term memory recall, labored academically.

“I was never the studious type in high school,” the 25-year-old said. “I struggled in high school. It was a great accomplishment I even graduated.”

After graduation, Bruington, with a push from her mom, decided to spend a year in Australia instead of going straight to college. She left in May 2007, returning one year later.

During her time Australia, Bruington took a three-month agriculture course, worked as a Jillaroo in Goodooga, New South Wales, upon graduation until Christmas Day. Then she moved to Gilgandra and worked at an ice cream shop and at the local abattoir.

“My first day working at the abattoir, I started off slitting throats, killing the sheep,” Bruington recalled. “I started freaking out. My supervisor was like, ‘you’re here for the money so just do your job and go home and we’ll put you somewhere else tomorrow.

“I learned that when you really, really want to make some money you have to suck it up and do the job that’s given to you.”

Seven years later, Bruington is a senior criminal justice major and a minor in homeland security at Virginia Commonwealth University expected to graduate in May 2015. Her decision to take a gap year between high school and college worked out for her.

For high school seniors, here are five reasons why you should take a gap year and explore the world — or work — from someone who’s done it.

1. Find yourself first
College is where you grow up, right? Not necessarily. Taking a year off has benefits. For example, zeroing in on the goal (a degree) once you go to college.

“It’s when you’re growing into an adult,” Bruington said. “Everyone says you grow into an adult when you’re going to college, but some of the seniors that I’m in class with, they don’t know the first thing about what they’re about to enter.

“[A gap year] really does focus things for you a little bit more.”

2. Priceless experience
Whether you travel or work during the gap year, the experience itself carries weight.

“I don’t think there’s any way to put a price on experience,” Bruington said. “I think it’s an opportunity to take a step back. When you’re in college everyone is like, ‘you got to do this assignment, quickly graduate. Quick, quick, quick.’

“Sometimes it’s best to hit the pause button and take a step back. Do something else for a while. Give yourself time to think.”

3. See what the real world offers
The real world is scary. You won’t find that out in college. The only way to find out is to venture into it. And when you do return to school, it’ll mean a lot more.

“The whole year, I had so many experiences,” Bruington said, “and I really matured so by the time I started school I had a clear path. I definitely wanted to graduate. I want a degree.

“I’ve already experienced the working world without a degree and I knew I definitely wanted one. I’ve had some pretty down and gritty jobs. I value an education a lot more.”

4. Importance of education
Bruington traveled to Australia, so she was away from her family, which she said is “really hard,” but the time away “gives you more room to grow up as a person.” Another positive of a gap year is the realization of how important education truly is.

“When you do decide to go to college,” she said, “you kind of walk around campus and you feel a little difference between other students because they came in right after high school, but you have more experience under your belt. You know how important it is.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to college and party all the time. It’s, ‘I’m going to college to get my degree because I know what’s really out there.’ It really opens your eyes.”

5. Use time to travel
You probably want to see the world. So go ahead. Travel. Go spend a year in another country. Learn another culture. Drive across country. Explore. It’ll pay off in the long run — like when it’s time to begin your career.

“I got the traveling jitters out of me,” Bruington said. “I got to do all that straight outside of high school instead of outside college so I graduate I can go forth into a career without being like, ‘Oh, I never got to travel.’ So I got all that out of my way.”