We shouldn’t shy from taking time off before college

Climb in my DeLorean for a minute and let’s go back in time to your senior year of high school. What do you want to do with your life? How are you going to make it happen? What’s your major going to be? That last one was a real kicker for me, as I’m sure it was for most.

On the morning of my summer advising conference before my first semester, I just forced myself to choose something — not a great idea. But I’m certain I’m not the only person to have made that snap decision regarding a major. I ended up choosing forestry. I spent most of my time outdoors and I loved the idea of taking an active role in conservation, so forestry didn’t seem like the worst idea, right? As it turned out, forestry was not a practical decision for me, and a year later I switched to journalism, a major that much better suits my skill set and interests.

My story is nothing special. In fact, it would be more unusual had I not switched majors at all. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of college students nationwide change their majors at least once before they graduate. And it’s not just a statistic: almost all of my friends have changed their majors. Of course we can’t really go back in time to tell our 17- or 18-year-old selves to choose the right majors in the first place, however convenient that would be. But can’t we do something to make major selection a more connected and thoughtful process?

Most of my childhood friends in Zimbabwe and South Africa did something very common in Europe and other parts of the world after high school: they took gap years. They saved up money in high school and spent a year traveling. They got to have adventures at a crucial moment of growth and exploration in young adult life. They took opportunities to test their skills and interests in the world, giving them insight into appropriate majors for them in college.

Of course this doesn’t seem like an obvious option for everyone, for financial reasons, amongst others. There seems to be some stigma in America about taking a year to “travel,” as though it’s a waste of time or as though you’ll never go to college. But it seems obvious to me that taking some time to get to know yourself and how you fit in the world can only benefit you in the long run.

Of course, there are surveys most of us took in high school to discover which careers we were best suited for, but for everyone who got odd answers (I got astronaut every single time), the survey didn’t do much good. Nothing’s wrong with taking some classes that fall off the beaten path. Breadth of knowledge can be as valuable as depth of knowledge, but on a more practical level, many of us are here to get a degree to start a career. We don’t want to be stuck in chemistry classes only for those credits to become useless.

If not for my change of majors, I’d be graduating in May. As it is, my graduation date is a bit murky. On occasion I still find myself daydreaming about that DeLorean, and going back to give my younger self a bit of advice, and I know I’m not the only one. The fact that four out of five students are changing their majors (and losing out on time and money) must be acknowledged as a problem.