The typical timeline for a teen in the U.S. is probably something like this: graduate high school, go straight to college, finish college, get a job in your career or go to grad school after college. The education system pushes us towards college as early as elementary school, by hanging up signs or having classrooms assigned university mascots to encourage students to attend college after K-12. Starting junior high, we are told to start thinking about what we want to study, where we’re gonna go for college. But what is the big rush?
In psychology, it’s a known fact that our brains don’t finish developing until the ripe age of 25, the prefrontal cortex being the last thing to develop. The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe of our brain and is largely responsible for higher mental functions like concentration, judgement, planning. So essentially, we as humans aren’t fully mature until the age of 25. That’s not to say I think we are irrational before the age of 25, as that’s a pretty wild statement. But it’s clear that biologically, we aren’t fully ready to make decisions as big as choosing what we want to do for the rest of our lives.
I was discussing my plans after UW with my mom; I plan on taking a break from school for a bit to learn from experience too. I’m in my junior year of college, I’ve been working almost full time the entire time, while being a third parent in my family and I’m honestly tired. A lot of students are tired too. But another reason I’m choosing to wait to continue into law school is because I want to give myself a couple more years to mature more. By the time I graduate with my bachelors, I’ll be 20 years old (hopefully lol). That is still so young. I have only been alive for 20 years and I want to give myself the opportunity to not only learn from academia, but also through experience. Plus, biology just kind of works in the favor of that, since I’ll go to law school with a slightly more developed prefrontal cortex.
Why is there even such a rush to the finish line? Probably because there’s the pressure to settle down before the age of 30, and the longer one takes to get settled in their career the longer they put off starting a family. A concern that leads those who do want to be parents is that the older they get, the more infertile they get. Which is why there still continues to be a lot of pressure on people to go straight through their education.
The problem with that being the norm is that it leads to an increase the number of people experiencing burnout. About 30% of college students reported feeling burnt-out, and the number is steadily increasing even more thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is why I think we should normalize gap years and putting off college for a bit after high school. This is obviously already becoming more common, at least in the environment that I’m surrounded by. More students are already taking a gap year or going to community college before university, but I think we should have institutions encourage students to make their own decision about when or if they’ll continue onto post-secondary education. If schools would encourage their students to attend college when they feel ready to instead, I think that would allow for students to not be as pressured into deciding what they want to do for the rest of their lives at the age of 18.
I wholeheartedly encourage those who feel they can and want to, to take a gap year either during undergrad or after. It allows for more “real life” experience, which can only just help your learning. I have grown so much over the last years that I cant imagine how much more I'll grow and how much further I want to grow before I tackle grad school on. I think its completely normal to do that, and we as a community and society need to encourage not only taking it easier on themselves but also to value life experience as formal education too.