“I’ve been taking a gap year, too.”
I took a sip of my coffee and smiled at the young man sitting across from me. Despite our generational differences, we had a lot in common.
Sam (not his real name) had driven across the San Francisco Bay Bridge to interview with me as part of his early decision application to Northwestern University. I’ve done volunteer alumni interviews for Northwestern for years. It’s one way I give back to a school that changed my life.
We’ve all read about the increasing popularity of students taking a “gap year” before attending college. But I’d never met someone who had taken one.
I wanted to know more. How did he decide to take a gap year? Was he encouraged or discouraged to do so? What did he do during the year? What did he learn? Is it changing the way he is now thinking about applying to college?
I won’t share all of Sam’s answers. I’ll just say that he had a maturity and self-awareness rare in a young adult. Or any adult, for that matter.
I wonder if the gap year was the source of his seemingly high emotional intelligence, or if he was just always this way.
Likely, it’s a combination of both. Because it takes courage and maturity to propose and lead a successful gap year.
This interview with Sam was one small part of my recent immersion in the college admissions process. I’m college essay coach for my niece. I’m also mentor to a young woman from Rwanda who is applying to college in the U.S. through SHE-CAN.
Through my immersion, I’ve become versed in the Common App. I’ve learned how to best present multiple ACT/SAT test scores, as well as the nuances of financial aid for international and out-of-state students.
But beyond the technical learnings, I’ve been inspired.
I’ve come to find that my math-loving niece is an incredible writer. While I’ve known her since age two, from our brainstorming calls has emerged a unique working dynamic that will be the core of our adult relationship.
I met my Rwandan mentee while in Kigali this past May. It’s hard not to be impressed by her. She ranked at the top of her high school class, wins national awards, and leads organizations. She has a deep passion for female leadership in STEM. But it is her humility, inquisitiveness, and gratitude that lured me. Skype and Facebook Messenger became the communications vehicles for our growing relationship.
But engaging in all of this college interviewing and mentoring during my own mid-career “gap year” has got me thinking:
What if middle-aged adults had to apply to college?
With age comes wisdom. We have career experiences. We lead families. We have grown in our self-awareness– we know our strengths, weaknesses, and passions.
So as an adult, it would certainly be easier to complete the Common App essays and the supplemental essays often required by colleges than it would for a teenager, right?
I’m not so sure. Ask the average mature adult to fully answer broad questions about themselves:
– “What do you really want?”
– “What are you truly passionate about?”
– “What accomplishment are you most proud of?”
Ironically, most adults struggle in answering these questions. In LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, they discussed how most adults can’t answer the question “What do you really want?”
To quote Oprah:
“It’s a deceivingly simple question — and one I’ve found most people can’t answer. Yet it’s profoundly important. What do you really want in your life? And where are you on the path towards what you really want?”
It’s almost as if the choices, experiences, and responsibilities that come with age hinder our ability to answer the question.
But come on, we’re mature adults. Let’s put our wisdom to work.
Inspired by my mentees, my husband and I took on the challenge, asking each other “What accomplishment are you most proud of?”
For different reasons, we each struggled with our answers. I found myself thinking of accomplishments within academic, career, athletic, and personal buckets. Picking only one accomplishment meant picking a bucket.
Finally, I settled on an answer.
Figuring out how to apply and pay for my own college education is the accomplishment I’m most proud of.
It was a challenge I took on alone at age 16. I aimed high, defying my adult naysayers. I chose it as my proudest accomplishment because my college experience set the stage for everything else in my adult life.
And now, I challenge you. Join the millions of teenagers applying to college this Fall who are sketching out their answers to essay questions about their wants, passions and accomplishments. Take a moment to ask yourself these deceivingly simple questions.
And then start a dialogue. Share your answers with your spouse. Ask your grown child how he would answer the question. Exchange answers with your closest colleague at work.
Because speaking that inner truth out loud is the first step towards bringing it to life.
* Photo courtesy of SHE-CAN (http://www.shecan.global)