To gap or not to gap; that is the question.
December 5, 2012 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Should I take a gap semester or gap year? If so, what should I do?

Hey Metafilter. I'm at a good university in the U.S., and I feel like I'm throwing my tuition away. This semester, I'm withdrawing from two classes (out of four total). Last semester, I withdrew from one (out of four total). My transcript is otherwise all As and Bs.

I spoke to my dean today, and she strongly suggested I take a gap semester or gap year because of the overall downward trend in my grades. I just don't know what I would do if I left school (my dean just told me to become a barista). I can't drive (I kill cars), so I wouldn't be able to commute to a job, and I don't really have any skills I could use to get a job. And I'm the head of a club this year. I feel like it would be terrible to ditch it and the person I run the club with (I love this club and the person I run it with is really nice). And I finally made friends this semester, and I really don't want to throw that away.

The thought of leaving terrifies me, but I'm scared I'll just keep on with my downward trend if I stay.

More handy background:
* My school's counselling center diagnosed me with anxiety/depression last semester and put me meds, but it made me sort of manic, so I'm off it for now.
* Things I like: science, computer science, writing, copyediting, basic graphic design stuff, and semi-useless crafty things like music, baking, and knitting.
* I'm a junior, and I don't know what I want to do after college.

Throwaway email (it'll last a month):

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total)
Can you graduate next year, or in 3 semesters? If so, I say buckle down and finish. Being stuck in a minimum wage lifestyle when you were that close to graduating would really suck.
posted by COD at 7:47 PM on December 5, 2012

You speak and write English... go teach English overseas for a year.
posted by matty at 7:50 PM on December 5, 2012

I took a gap year for reasons related to anxiety and depression. For me, I did need it to help me clear my head and get my shit together so I could not waste my time in school. As for what I did, nothing really - therapy, working out. And I think I had job because my mom wouldn't let me live there without working. I think it was Dunkin Donuts. If university is overwhelming you and you feel like you have more potential than you can possibly achieve right now, then maybe a break would help refresh you. If you will have nothing to do, feel like a loser and slip deeper into depression, maybe you shouldn't. Are you getting anything out of school right now? Would you get anything out of a break? A change of scenery, even temporarily, can help clear your head, free you of some baggage you may feel and allow you to put things into perspective. What if you transferred schools for a semester? Being somewhere new and knowing there is a defined end in sight can be a good break.

My question for the dean is, why does it matter if you have a downward trend in grades? Is the dean concerned that you will keep sliding and flunk? Or is the dean concerned that it looks bad? A positive upward trend in grades is important if you're applying to grad school or some sort of next academic program, but to get a job, I'm not sure how much it matters beyond being able to make a positive impression on professors who can recommend you. (I did poorly in some classes my senior year, but kicked ass at the ones that matters, and those professors helped me get my job upon graduating.)

I did have people who doubted me in college, and in high school, because I was dealing with depression. I wouldn't let what the dean said get to you if you don't share the same doubts. You have control over your grades. You should decide if you think he/she's right and you think you will prove him/her wrong. Or if it's bothering you because you agree. Good luck!
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:56 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, when I was in your position I decided to take a semester off from school because I was burnt out, depressed, and unable to put forth even a decent effort towards my education. I went back to school feeling much better four months later after finally taking a break. Granted, I only had two courses left to complete so it worked out for me. But, I noticed that I felt ready to go back to school at that time. I think you will notice a sense of readiness after taking 1-2 semesters off.

Also, in regards to your other questions--is there a way for you to stay in your university town/city while taking some time off from school? Perhaps you can find a job, take public transportation to get to and from work, and still volunteer with the club. As for the friends that you've made, reach out to them if you feel ready to do so. They might be able to offer some more advice because it seems like you could use some in person support as well.

posted by livinglearning at 8:36 PM on December 5, 2012

My school's counselling center diagnosed me with anxiety/depression last semester and put me meds, but it made me sort of manic, so I'm off it for now.

Have you gone back and talked with them about this, or did you just stop taking the meds? The point being, you need to fix the mental health issues before you can be a good student, and the dean is probably right that you need to not be taking classes while you get this figured out. The club doesn't matter.
posted by Forktine at 9:37 PM on December 5, 2012

Your health, not your clubs, come first. I'm assuming that you will need to be meeting with a therapist regularly, but at some point you will be ready for "something else" to occupy your time. Once you have things more under control, you might find doing "something else" before returning to school a viable option.

How does your family fit into your situation? Are you able to move back in with them? Are they willing and able to support you (emotionally, financially) during this time? Can you bike and walk places?

Can you live at home with your family supporting you, have regular meetings with a therapist, and take a class or two at a local college? Can you live at home and volunteer for a cause you feel passionate about (say... the animal shelter)? Can you live in a city with an older sibling/ other relative? Can you live near your family but also near a place of employment? What about traveling/ volunteering abroad? (Obviously you would want to make sure your medical issues were addressed first). What about WWOOFING? What about being a house/ pet / baby sitter/ au pair/ tutor? The timing might be wrong for this, but what about City Year/ Americorps? What about volunteering in a research lab? Becoming an "apprentice" to a chef? Working in a restaurant? Working a "seasonal" job at a ski resort, national park, or an amusement park, which may have employee housing? If you/ your family has the money there are companies that help students plan gap term(s).

If you ultimately decide not to take time off, then you may have other options. Can you go to school part time (it may be possible for you to get a medical exemption to take a reduced course load, with full time financial aid "benefits")? Can you take one or two courses pass/fail? Can you select courses that aren't setting you up for failure? (For instance, if you have trouble turning in papers, maybe you would be better off in classes that have all in class exams, for example).
posted by oceano at 10:12 PM on December 5, 2012

Yes. At my college (Williams, 15 years ago), it was widely understood that people who took a gap year generally came back happier, better directed, more engaged, or not at all. In any case, it was a big win for those people, and I wish more of us were encouraged and enabled to do that. If you think it could benefit you, it probably could.

The one caveat I'd include is: do something you feel good about for the gap. If you are able to travel or get involved with a bit project or similar, it is more likely to feel like you made good use of the time.
posted by rosa at 5:42 AM on December 6, 2012

I was in a somewhat-similar situation in college. Though my first semester was brutal (A, A-, C and a D-), I otherwise had A's and a couple B's. But I had to withdraw from 3 classes in my time due to being overwhelmed, two in one semester and one in another. Also, in each of my last two semesters of college I took 2 half-credit PE classes (karate, social dance) to fill my schedule instead of taking a fourth single-credit class, because frankly I was finding the full load of classes to be too much. My dean and advisor both liked to tell me moralistic things about how I was getting less out of my tuition by not taking as many classes, but technically the number of credits I had (with my PE "fun classes") constituted a full load, so I was technically a full-time student and I graduated on-time. I was lucky enough to graduate into a decent economy (mid 2000's), got a job, and am now in management. Everyone's definition of success is different, but by my own metrics I've been pretty successful despite my course withdrawals, and I would not say I wasted my education. I had no idea what I wanted to do while I was in school either.

What I'm getting at is: withdrawing from a few courses is not necessarily a crisis, despite college administrators' moralistic hand-wringing. If I took 3 classes while others took 4 or 5, but I killed those 3 classes, learned lots outside of class, and graduated on-time, who's to say that I did anything wrong? Frankly, I think learning your limits and still graduating is a very valuable experience. Moreover, I had anxiety and depression while in school that were significant enough to warrant medication, and being in school enabled me to visit the compassionate on-campus counselors. I had time to work on myself (getting to a healthy mental state) and still finish school.

So in your case, I think staying in school but finding a way to make is manageable is an acceptable solution. I can't really say which way is the best solution, because I never took a gap year. But if you do decide to stick around and finish, I suggest doing your own research into the graduation requirements and picking a schedule that allows you to graduate without stretching yourself too thin. Maybe that means taking some more "fun" classes - if you can find classes that will be easy and fun and still count towards full-time status, maybe taking a semester of 3 credits + 1 fun credit isn't a bad idea (make sure you can still graduate on-time with those "fun" credits - I could only count 1 of my 2 total PE credits towards graduating, but I still had enough credits total anyway). Or some other solution that your school will approve. Don't do something foolish like taking an extra semester to graduate if you can help it (an extra semester = lots more tuition), but maybe it's time to explore some options within school, but outside of the predefined course.

Anyway, here's what I did with my extra time when I stopped loading up with so many classes.

1) Worked on my mental health in therapy, which left me with an abiding belief that I can overcome and change at least some things. Also, therapists on-campus are a) provided by the school and b) familiar with problems that students often face.
2) Worked on developing friendships, and also learning the limits of friendships (they're nice, but not everything)
3) Was VP (essentially, COO) of a club I'd been involved in.

I almost hesitated to mention #3, because "running a club" is sometimes very beneficial and sometimes not, but here goes. All 3 of these were useful long-term, as they kept me sane. Frankly, #3 led to success in my career more than any of my classes did. It just so happens that the VP position let me use my skills in ways class never did, and when I landed a job I was much more prepared that I would have been without it. And this wasn't one of those ladder-climbing clubs, like student government, campus politics, university entrepreneurship programs, or any of those other things that the preprofessional crowd competes for. No, this was basically a drinking club that served no purpose other than its members having fun together. But I learned a tremendous amount about organizing, working with people, and leading anyway.

Of course, you can probably do similar learning during a gap year, which is why it could also be a good idea. What I'm trying to say is: staying at school doesn't have to mean putting your personal development on hold. So if you don't go for the gap year and return to school, go ahead and be a round peg. Rather than trying to fit into a square hole, try making the rest of your time fit you better
posted by Tehhund at 10:58 AM on December 6, 2012

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