What should I do with the next few years of my life?
January 14, 2006 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a high school senior trying to plan the next few years of my life. I'll definitely take a year off before college, but everything else is still up in the air.

I was deferred from Harvard (early action), and I'll hear back from my other colleges on April 1. All of the schools let me defer matriculation for a year. But if I don't get into Harvard, Stanford, or Columbia (which is very likely), I'll probably just reapply again next year without choosing any of my safety schools.

So, either way, I have 15 free months ahead of me. I have absolutely no obligations from June 12, 2006, to August 2007.

My brother (who just graduated from college) and I will go backpacking for at least 2 months. It's unlikely that our travel will be much longer, so I have 12 consecutive months available to fill as I choose.

Some background about me: I live in the suburbs of Chicago, IL. I have $20,000 that I've earned during high school (I sold my in-home computer teaching business), and I'd be willing to spend most of it (if I need to) to have a great experience. I'm interested in computers, and I have good work experience (thousand-plus hours, able to get good reference letters) programming Web applications and teaching computers. I'd be perfectly satisfied doing something non-computer-related, too.

Here are my current ideas, roughly ranked in order of desirability.
1. Try to get a technology job/internship around Silicon Valley or in New York City. (This is a longshot! How feasible is this?)
2. Try to get a technology job/internship in Beijing or Shanghai. I speak English well, and I've taken 3 years of Mandarin. (This is also a huge longshot!)
3. Try to get a technology job/internship in Chicago. Ideally, live away from my parents in my own apartment.
4. Teach English in China. I have taken Mandarin for 3 years at school.
5. Start my own Web company with some of my decent ideas. I'd have to live with my parents if I did this, since I'd run through my $20k far too quickly living alone with no income stream.

Has anyone else had any good experiences doing stuff in the year after high school? Any other ideas?

Is it feasible for me to get a technology job in San Jose or NYC? How would I frame it to the companies I'd be applying to?
posted by jbb7 to Work & Money (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and my parents will not contribute a penny to any of these endeavors--and I would not want them to.
posted by jbb7 at 8:43 AM on January 14, 2006

Consider working on technology initiatives in third-world countries. The Peace Corps may be a good way to get involved with this, and its credentials will certainly help you if you choose to reapply to schools on your return. Good luck!
posted by Rothko at 9:08 AM on January 14, 2006

Actually, GeekCorps might fit you perfectly on this front, especially if you are willing to travel to work in a less technological country.

Their current list: Armenia, Bulgaria, East Africa, Ghana, Lebanon, Mali, Mongolia, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal, Thailand, Vietnam, and even some work in the USA. However, I strongly suggest getting outside the US. This is a chance to really do some exploration of the world and yourself.

And I'm envious. :(
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:13 AM on January 14, 2006

man, if I had a free year and $20,000, I'd go travelling around the world. you may never have such an opportunity again.

you're at an awfully young stage in your life to be so strongly career-minded. this is a perfect time to go on a personal quest. try and figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life, where you want to live, what kind of lifestyle you want. for example, why do you want to go to college? if you want to work in IT you can get the necessary skills at a place like DeVry... and it sounds like you have the skills to go and work right away already. (I realize that this will be probably be unappealing to you. but why DO you want to go to college, really? have you ever thought about it?)

I am trying to bring up these points because you remind me a little of me when I finished high school. Then about two years later I started thinking about my own life and found that I was unhappy. I made a lot of changes and have since been much happier. I think some introspection would be healthy for you. Good luck.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:14 AM on January 14, 2006

How much do you want to continue living with your parents? If you can take it for another year I would highly suggest option #5. Getting an internship or teaching abroad can be difficult with just a high school diploma even if you do have job experience. You've already made money and you probably already have some good ideas. Learning how to write a business plan and finance a business are two of the most lucrative things you could do.

I worked between high school and college as a legal assistant/technical person in a law office. Most of my clients for my web design business were lawyers with minimal internet experience (this was the 90's), but they paid me extremely well. If you are looking for a way to make good contacts find an internship in a non-technical industry where your skills will be highly appreciated and compensated.
posted by Alison at 9:15 AM on January 14, 2006

I would guess it's unlikely that you can get a good job in technology, but if I were you I would do one (or more) of three things:

(1) Get an interesting internship. Even if it's unpaid, $20K will definitely get you through the year.

(2) Go abroad! You may have entanglements or obligations later that will stop you from moving somewhere far away.

(3) Work on a public service project, maybe something you can continue throughout college.

It sounds like you're focused on getting a technology job. While I'm sure that would be a good experience, you can do that after you start college, during the summer or part-time during the year. It's rare to have time and money with absolutely no expectations -- consider doing something that you might not be able to once you jump on the college/job treadmill. (Something to think about -- if you have a steady relationship by the end of college, you might not want to take off.)
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:16 AM on January 14, 2006

Before you decide you want to go to Harvard, read Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

All the programmers I know who have the jobs they enjoy most dropped out of college after a year or less. Don't do a startup. I'd really suggest something like Peace Corps.

What I'd probably do (although this is my own bend) is take EMT classes until you get certified at least at Basic level (this shouldn't take more than an academic year, iirc). Then you'd be in a good position to volunteer with a bunch of aid organizations, and be a bit more useful than just another person in the Peace Corps. Being someone technically minded as well, I'd vote against doing that kind of stuff for the next year. Take a break, it'll still be there when you come back.

I'm kind of also in your position (although I got into Stanford early, still waiting from Yale), but I don't have $20k to blow for the year. Congrats man, have fun with it.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:55 AM on January 14, 2006

I notice in your list of options that you did not list "blow my $20,000 on a trip/high class prostitute/champagne jam", so I am going to assume you're focusing on the future, and give you advice that involves sucking it up and working very hard.

1. Save the $20,000
2. Get a job or internship in the computer industry in Chicago, living with parents
3. Enter college with some experience and some idea of what the interesting areas and questions in your industry are.
4. Continue saving money through college
5. Go to every seminar and guest lecture you can find, networking the hell out of yourself and learning as much as you can from these experts.
6. For whatever niche in the world of technology you decide to claim as your own, figure out what it's going to look like five years later, or even 10 if you can do it.
7. Do everything you can to make your time in college preparation for that. That means if you have a project for class, try to use it as an opportunity to research or develop the specific thing you are interested in persuing.
8. Get jobs and internships throughout college, again in an area that is as close as possible to your preferred path.
9. Graduate as an expert in something that is years ahead of its time, with specific skills, experience, contacts, and some capital.
10. ???
11. Profit
posted by Hildago at 10:10 AM on January 14, 2006

$20,000! Why are you thinking about jobs now? You'll never again have that much money AND that much time to kill. Buy a plane ticket to somewhere around the world and go from there - traveling alone so young is infinitely an more valuable experience than working. You've got the rest of your life to do that. $20k will last you more than a year, and you'd have zero obligations (I think I spent about $7000 in six months in Asia, you could definitely do it with less).

As far as teaching in China goes, you'll likely have a difficult time without a TEFL certificate. Check out teflcourse.net. I did the one in HCMC, Vietnam, and while I wasn't too impressed with the actual course the living in Saigon part was fun. But really, most people who teach English abroad (this is a huge generalization, I know) are either backpackers trying to make money, people out of college trying to find their place or creepy old guys who like to take advantage of Asian women. Since you definitely don't need money and you're not the other two, I don't know if it's a great idea. Also, another part to consider - I taught English in Vietnam at 19, and it was pretty hard being so young.

So dude, fuck all that working. Take the money and see the world - independent budget traveling isn't difficult AT ALL. Just go home when you run out. You have such an awesome opportunity here, and it would be a goddamned shame for you to waste it getting a real-world job so soon.
posted by borkingchikapa at 10:26 AM on January 14, 2006

Oh, P.S. - Do you have any idea how good all that traveling looks on resumes? Most people can't do it when they're thirty five, you've got a chance to do it at half that age.
posted by borkingchikapa at 10:28 AM on January 14, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all for the insightful responses. Just to clarify one thing, I'm not planning ahead for my career. I'd only choose a job that was genuinely interesting. I had a desk job two summers ago writing C# for a search engine startup--just me and the founder. I'd much rather have a job like that than be a cog among some large group of developers.

I'm a little hesitant to travel alone. Not for safety reasons, but because I'm afraid I'd get lonely and bored. I'm plenty outgoing, but what's it like to be an 18-year-old alone in Bangkok? What would I do during the day? That's why I'd much prefer having some sort of project or goal in mind. But I am very open to the idea if my understanding of solo travel is all wrong.
posted by jbb7 at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2006

1 is almost certainly not going to happen unless you know someone, but with 20K you could afford to move to a dirtbag (or not even so dirtbag) apartment with roommates in Brooklyn and see what happens. It would probably be a fantastic learning experience. Talk about being shoved into real life, you'd have all the pain new college grads experience and then some, but I bet it would prepare you like nothing else for life after college, and quite possibly make your college experience more worthwhile.
My only other advice is that it is really, really not worth getting hung up on going to an ivy or ivy-esque school, especially if what you want to do is tech.
posted by ch1x0r at 11:09 AM on January 14, 2006

Just get the hell out of the country. Do not live with your mom and dad. Do not even write to them. Do not work. Do not study. Do not do anything but go far away and look and do and live. This will be the best year of your life. All the rest will be work and responsibility and worry.

And use condoms.
posted by pracowity at 11:24 AM on January 14, 2006

well, here's a list of things to do in bangkok, for starters. i can't attest to its quality, but I just pulled it off google. what would you do during the day if you were in chicago? go see museums, take a long stroll through the city, go up the sears tower, eat at a nice restaurant, see a ball game? find out what the locals would do wherever you happen to be and try it out.

I would have said the same thing at your age. it takes a bit of courage to go somewhere by yourself. but you don't have to be alone; if you stay in a youth hostel (which are all over the world) you will share a room with other young travellers from all over the world, and you can hang out with them if you wish.

and would you get bored? well... that depends on you. personally speaking I love exploring and seeing new things so you could drop me in a new city anywhere in the world and I'll be happy. have you ever tried walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods in a big city? you can find the most interesting things and meet the most interesting people.

the world is a big and fascinating place. if you see how other people live you will understand more about yourself and the way you live; such perspective is invaluable, especially at a young age.

even if you're not ready for such a bold leap, try taking a few days on a trip by yourself somewhere close by.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:48 AM on January 14, 2006

I think that's precisely the question a journey like that would answer - if you're alone in Bangkok, what WOULD you do?

Traveling alone does get lonely and boring sometimes. But aren't you occasionally lonely and bored at home, too? The highs you get while globetrotting are much, much greater than anything else you'll ever experience. Trust me, you'll find something to do - see the sights, taste the food, talk to the locals. There are TONS of western backpackers in Southeast Asia, and you'll get to meet and travel with a fair portion of them. If you don't like a place or the people there, just get up and leave! That's what's great about all that - there is nothing, nothing at all to hold you to any place or activity.

You could also backpack through Europe, which is easier, but you'll spend five times as much money there. I'd suggest doing that for maybe a month and a half and then going somewhere more exciting.

Pick up Lonely Planet's Europe or Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and thumb through it. I think it'll give you a good idea of all the amazing things there are to do out there. Don't be afraid of anything.
posted by borkingchikapa at 11:49 AM on January 14, 2006

I'm a little hesitant to travel alone. Not for safety reasons, but because I'm afraid I'd get lonely and bored.

This is one reason why picking a single place and living there for months can be better than tourism. The first few weeks / months probably will be a bit lonely, but you have a chance to stick in one spot and make acquaintances and friends and maybe even become part of a community.

And while travel of most kinds is invaluable in terms of broadening the mind and deepening your experience, becoming part of a new community is often more so. This is one of the reasons college is such a transformative experience.

This is also one of the reasons stuff like the Peace/Geek Corps is good. Or even teaching English. Much of your activity would be based around interactions with a community.

If it were me in your shoes, I'd probably pick a spot on the map that felt good and seemed interesting, and try to move there for at least 6 months.
posted by weston at 12:15 PM on January 14, 2006

Consider the meaning of life.
posted by pwally at 12:18 PM on January 14, 2006

Not sure about Geek Corps, but Peace Corps generally requires a college degree or a signicant amount of work experience (mostly for trades, such as carpentry, agriculture, etc). I really doubt you'd be able to go as a high school graduate. And it's a 27 month commitment, plus six months to a year to apply.
posted by handful of rain at 12:22 PM on January 14, 2006

You are in Chicago... Go to the awesome train station, buy a ticket, backpack across the US via train, stay in youth hostels,and meet people from all over the world. You will learn lots about the US and because you have met so many awesome people from far away lands, you will have some idea what country you would like to visit next and you might even have people you know to hang out with when you get there.
posted by nimsey lou at 12:43 PM on January 14, 2006

I'd take the time to travel. Why work? No, seriously, you've saved up $20k. That's fantastic. Working, while it shows future employers that you're dilligent, won't do a whole lot else for you at this point in your life. Use your freedom to *not* work.

Take the trans-siberian railway. Bicycle europe (using the partially-completed eurovelo system) or through the US (adventurecycling).

Also, if you're friendly you can often meet travel compatriots at youth hostels. I was alone in the baltics and met a nice english guy at a hostel in Vilnius, and then we spent a week together. Freghter travel can be fun, too.
posted by lorrer at 3:07 PM on January 14, 2006

See the world as a couch surfer.
posted by geekyguy at 3:33 PM on January 14, 2006

n+1ing the travel suggestion. Broadens your mind like none other and it really helps you learn more about yourself.

Take a look at Transitions Abroad for ideas.
posted by divabat at 6:05 PM on January 14, 2006

If I have one regret of that time (for me it was a bit of lag between college and job) it was not being able to travel. As noted, you don't even have to go anywhere "exotic".

Are you a baseball fan? Spend the summer going to ballgames from Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium. Do you mountain bike? Spend six months at Whistler in British Columbia, then another six in Moab. Be a river guide on the Colorado. Circumnavigate the US without driving on an interstate, etc, etc.

And congrats, you seem to have a better handle on things than some people twice your age - good luck in whatever you decide.
posted by jalexei at 6:30 PM on January 14, 2006

Like everyone else says, travel travel travel. At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy at the ancient age of 32... look, I was all feeling like I had to be responsible at 18, too. Fuck that shit. You have the rest of your life to work, and you could spend the next ten years simply figuring out what it is you want to do career-wise and STILL be ahead of a lot of people who choose a career early and then realize way later that it's not what they want.

If you're not used to traveling, then start inside the US. As someone else said, train ticket and youth hostel would be nice. I believe Greyhound has a one-fee unlimited-riding option. Move somewhere random and live in a shack. Backpack around Europe. Whatever.

If you're even remotely cute and outgoing, you'll have no problems making friends. If you're socially stunted, this experience will make you incredibly attractive once you do go to school.

And yes, please wear condoms. Every time. Nothing drags down a hot young kid with $20k like a baby.

Rip apart the umbilical cord with your teeth and get out there and LIVE.

(PS go see live music whenever possible, and dance dance dance!)
posted by p7a77 at 6:54 PM on January 14, 2006

I'd suggest travel as well--no matter how well-educated & street-smart you are, exploring other cultures and putting yourself in an unfamiliar place is an invaluable learning experience. I understand your worries about traveling alone (I lived in Japan teaching English for a year, and though it was the most amazing experience of my life, I was severely lonely the whole time [part of that was certainly my own personality; part was the fact I lived in the middle of nowhere]).

One solution is to find a short-term teaching gig, a volunteer job, take language classes, or at least live in a large city where you're likely to meet other English speakers or expats. Since you're not restricted to reasonably well paying jobs, why not pay for a short-term EFL placement in, say, Borneo. It'll provide a bit more handholding (arranging a job & place to live), and you'll have the experience of living in Borneo (or wherever) short-term--after your several months of teaching are up you can leave for more familiar climes, or stick around & explore the amazing, now-navigable culture.

Here's one place to start, but googling for "volunteer abroad" & "gap year" will probably net good results. Read the Lonely Planet messageboards for a little more insight.

(And, re: travel guides, someone mentioned Lonely Planet. In my opinion they make every place seem like a collection of bars & party hostels. Rough Guides seem to have a lot more cultural/historical background, & aren't quite so centered around backpacker culture. Either way, check out a couple different guides & also personal travel narratives about the places you're interested in going.)

Finally, I'd suggest an Amtrak trip in the US--the trains are comfy for sleeping on overnight, even with coach seating, there are good meals in the dining car if you're not on a budget, and plenty of space to make peanut butter sandwiches (etc) if you are. Get tickets (or a "all you can ride" pass for 15 or 30 days) and go between amazing cities you've always been curious about. If you're looking for a longer-term, more structured experience in the US, the Backdoor Guide to Short Term Adventure Jobs.. has info on everything from being a tour guide on Alaskan tourist railroads to leading wilderness kayaking trips..
posted by soviet sleepover at 8:11 PM on January 14, 2006

And, no kidding on what p7a77 said: if you have the smarts & drive to have $20k, self-made, at age 18, and had your own business in high school, and are going to Harvard or Columbia, it's not likely that taking a year off to enjoy yourself and have new experiences will in any way set you back career-wise.
posted by soviet sleepover at 8:15 PM on January 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another vote for traveling. I traveled by myself in Europe and in the US when I was 18-20 and those trips were some of the best experiences of my life. People seem to find single travelers more approachable, and I met many more locals than I did traveling with a friend - with her I tended to just meet other travelers.
It was occasionally lonely - particularly when I was sick with a cold or by myself on a family-oriented holiday - but the benefits really outweighed these downtimes. And it's a wonderful feeling, being able to change your plans on a whim without consulting a partner.
posted by sophie at 8:17 PM on January 14, 2006

Peace Corps is cool, but they won't take you. They require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. AmeriCorps, though, accepts anyone as long as they're 18 or over (and during my pre-service orientation with them there was a 17-year-old, so it seems they'll even waive that).

I don't know of the programs, but I suspect you may have similar difficulties trying to teach English in China.
posted by Anonymous at 10:35 PM on January 14, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for the input. I've got a lot of thinking to do now.
posted by jbb7 at 6:54 AM on January 15, 2006

jbb7 - I am in somewhat of a similar situation, send me an email, its in my profile.
posted by ac at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2006

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