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Gap years sound like they’re for spoiled brats, but they’re not

They should really come up with new wording for the term “gap year,” because right off the bat, it sounds like something that shouldn’t be there. Many people (especially parents) are under the misconception that a gap year is a vacation from getting down to the business of college. And while that might be what happens in your average teen comedy, it’s so far from what the majority of young adults who decide to take a gap year actually do.

Many pursue a yearlong study abroad program that would be nearly impossible to do while at a university. Others who already have a career in mind might take an internship to learn what that business is really like before deciding whether it’s right for them.

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Several studies have found that these off-the-beaten-trackers often end up performing much better later in life than kids who go straight from high school into college. One study conducted at Sydney University with more than 900 first-year students found that the ones who took a gap year were much more motivated to do well once back at school, and it showed in their grades. But of course, like most slightly progressive concepts, the United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t encourage its young adults to take a gap year.

Fortunately my parents have never been much like the rest of the country, which is why they agreed to let me take a stab at my career of choice between high school and college. About a week after graduating from high school, I got the opportunity to audition for Guiding Light. They were looking to age a principle character into her teenage years (something you can easily get away with on soaps), and I looked a lot like the actress who had played her previously. I had never auditioned professionally before, but I think that worked in my favor, because I didn’t know how to try to be anything other than myself. I ended up being offered the role just days after my 18th birthday, so I was just legally allowed to be on set without a parent or guardian.

I spent the rest of my summer vacation driving to work at 6 a.m. at least three days a week. It was hard making friends on the job at first, because I was one of the youngest actors on the show, but eventually the “teens” (aka 20-somethings playing teens) on the show warmed up to me. The work was definitely intimidating at times, and I often felt out of my league (at least at first). However, I learned an incredible amount about how to network, market myself and collaborate with all the various crew members on a television show (which is crucial if you ever want to work in entertainment). And yes, Matt Bomer is as hot in person as he is on TV.

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Was it the best year of my life? No, but it was certainly one of the most pivotal. Do I feel it prepared me for adulthood better than four years at a university? You bet your boots I do. As someone who matriculated through prep school, I had a very sheltered view of the world. If nothing else, working for a year in New York City was a gigantic wake-up call. I saw what my life might look like as a working actor and realized it was so much more than practicing your craft and wearing costumes and makeup. It was about being the most versatile, congenial version of yourself all the livelong day, and man, was that exhausting and exhilarating.

When I got to college (yes, I ended up going to college at the end of my gap year), it was clear my classmates were still living under that safe, school bubble. While I envied their naïveté somewhat, I knew I was 10 times more prepared for what was out there than any of them were. I also felt that much luckier for those three and a half years I had left under the bubble with them. My taste of the real world made me so thankful to return to a life of student-hood, and as a result, I never worked harder.

Ninety percent of students who choose to take a gap year end up going to college, and the percentage of students who take that path is rising. As author Jeffrey J. Selingo points out in his new book, There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow,” the path today’s kids take after high school and college is very different from the one we our our parents took.

If my future children come to me with a good reason to take a gap year and have a well-formed plan of action, I will gladly consent. There is only so much you can learn in a controlled educational environment like college, especially in a world where fewer and fewer traditional jobs are taking center stage (little acting pun for you there). So do your children a favor — allow them room to dip their toes into the world before they’re full-on adults. It will give them a view no classroom could.

More: 15 crazy courses colleges actually let kids take for credit

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