Things to do during your (semi) gap year

I’ve recently been getting questions from people graduating from Korean high schools and are going to colleges in the US or UK, where the school year starts in the fall, not in the spring. Many people graduating from my high school or similar high schools that follow the Korean school year then have a problem of what to do during the seven or eight, sometimes nine months that they have before they start college in the fall.

So, what should I be doing during my (semi) gap year?

I remember I had a similar question around this time last year, and asked a lot of people the same thing. My friends and I even started a group to discuss some meaningful things to be doing during this time (creatively named “THE BEST GAP YEAR EVER”, still there in my list of Facebook groups). Free time like this is a great opportunity to try out new things, and once school starts it’s hard to find that kind of time.

My advice is that it’s good to go out, have fun, party – but looking back, wouldn’t it be nice to say “I did X during my gap year”, and feel a sense of accomplishment for anything at all? A lot of people that do traditional gap years in the US go on volunteer trips, but most of them cost a lot of money, and besides there are a lot of things you can be doing from home that are pretty laid back but productive at the same time.

So, with that really long introduction behind us, I’ll just introduce a few things that I did and that I found meaningful.

1. READ. A lot. One thing that I did that was fun was starting a book club with my friends. Admittedly, we didn’t make a lot of progress in terms of reading, but I read on the side and mainly used the group to discuss (as well as to have a good excuse to hang out with friends and visit nice cafes). For the book club, I chose books that were either long or that I couldn’t motivate to read by myself – a memorable one was Guns, Germs and Steel, which was surprisingly not that hard to read, but just really really long. This was lots of fun, and I remember that for the most part we finished the readings and actually talked about them too. Works best if you enforce rules, or make someone in particular responsible for something, etc.

2. Coursera (or other MOOCs): At first I made the mistake of signing up for a billion courses, getting overwhelmed, and then not even logging in past the first two weeks. I also made the mistake of, in the beginning, trying to go faster than the syllabus, or trying to “catch up” by watching hours and hours’ worth of lectures at once. Instead, this is what worked: I ended up just concentrating on one or max two courses I was really interested in (even if this meant giving up on some). Here’s a useful tip: take courses that assign readings! This helps you pace yourself, and you learn a lot just through the readings. One course that I’d really recommend is The Modern and the Postmodern – the professor is great, and the readings are really important things that you should probably read anyway.

3. Travel. I did a lot of sightseeing in Seoul, probably spent more time than necessary at Itaewon, watched shows, and just went to cool places with friends. There are a lot of great neighborhoods in Seoul, I cannot emphasize this enough, and once you leave to study in another country you won’t be able to explore them. Please do, because I think for the vast majority of us Seoul is an underutilized resource. Feel free to ask me more about what places to see!

4. Learn a language! I took French classes pretty intensively for a few months, and it really helped. I went to a hagwon in Gangnam, drastically improved my French speaking/hearing skills (as in, prior to taking the class, I had none to speak of), and even made some friends and had meals with them after classes. Languages take a lot of time and attention, both of which are not readily available during the school year.

The other benefit of taking lessons in something (I also did yoga and dance) is that it makes your day more structured, so that you don’t end up getting up at 11 every day and just watching TV. (Occasionally sleeping in is a great break from having to get up at 6 every day in high school, but I would strongly advise against letting it continue for your whole gap year. And it DOES happen!)

5. Work. I did a lot of tutoring, but if I were to do my gap year again, I’d probably try to get a job with fixed hours and a boss. Then again, flexibility is a big part of what makes tutoring great, but I think there’s a lot more to get out of a more structured job. Try looking for opportunities that are somehow related to your field of study, even if it’s unpaid, because being able to commit for longer than three or four months doesn’t happen once you start college.

6. Exercise. Besides taking classes, like I mentioned above, I also went hiking with my mother every morning. I probably hated it then because my mother is one intense hiker, but looking back I only have good memories. Hiking turned out to be especially meaningful because mountains are a distinct part of Korean topography that I sometimes miss when I’m in America or Canada. Bonus points if you can work out with your parents or siblings, because it’ll give you time to bond with them to make up for all the time you spent away in boarding school.

Lastly, I had a lot of fun just meeting friends and hanging out, as well as getting the time to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise met – friends of friends, church people, and also teachers from high school. As a lot of my friends know, I started going to a new church during this time which was a great experience, and through that and a lot of other things I met people outside of my high school group of friends. It’s easy to be insular especially when you’re in school, but I’d really encourage trying to meet people who come from different backgrounds and offer different perspectives.

It’s easy to set a bunch of these goals and never follow through, but the point is to always be trying to do something. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re doing much, there’s a big difference between making a conscious effort to make the most of your gap year and not. This is just a starting point, to talk about what worked for me, but ask yourself what you want to try out and take this time to explore. It’s a really great time, so enjoy it!


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