Feature image from 4frolics.blogspot.com.

Winter break of my senior year of high school was possibly the first time I ever felt like a real adult, mostly because everyone, even people I barely knew, was asking me adult-y questions about college applications and admissions and even my class rank. Also for the first time, I realized that just because you tweet constantly about how stressed you are doesn’t mean you’re acknowledging it in a healthy way. If you ask me, that is the primary hallmark of adulthood in the twenty-first century. When I finally summoned the strength to open my eyes and close Twitter the first day after classes ended (it had been open all night and I didn’t feel like reading 4378 new tweets), I decided I wanted to explore what my mom had always called “being productive.”

So, the first “productive” thing I did over my winter break was to take a few mental health days and enjoy not having to worry about extracurriculars, deadlines, and academic proving grounds. Like most of my friends who were on a break from classes, I worked more hours at the part-time job I’d held over the summer. As much as I wanted to cultivate my “broke college kid” aesthetic before even getting to college, I figured saving up for the first semester’s books wouldn’t totally violate that image, and I needed the cash—as I told all of the vaguely familiar acquaintances who tried to hug me over the cash register as they asked me if I was nervous about hearing back from schools.

Even though I was tired out from a demanding semester, I wanted to take a few steps forward over my break instead of allowing myself to fall behind. When I was in about third grade, I remember hearing from one of my parents or aunts or uncles or teachers that “kids forget 80% of what they’ve learned over the summer.” This has terrified me for years longer than I want to admit. It’s like still being afraid of monsters under your bed—it’s a little silly, but you can’t always control what stays with you as you grow older. Needless to say, I wanted to avoid losing whatever I thought my senior year had given me (calculus and anxiety, mostly).

I decided to start thinking of my time off as an independent study. That way I could give myself credit for anything I did! Watched a movie on Netflix? Film education credit. Took a Buzzfeed personality test? Psychology credit. Ate junk food and felt sick? Biology credit.

I also did some worthwhile things, like looking over my problem sets and reading about medieval civilizations in the surprisingly abundant free Kindle eBooks on the subject. I actually found some intellectual role models this way (Will Durant, how do you have so much to say about history, sir?!), and added some new favorite quotes to my Facebook profile. (Seriously, Will Durant has written more in his lifetime than I could ever read. #goals.) All in all, it was a productive experience.

The main difference between my “independent study” and my apparently oh-so-codependent studies in high school was the absence of the Last Minute, or as I like to personify the concept, My Personal Life Coach. I’d definitely recommend working a little over your break, as in, at an actual job that pays you money and schedules you for hours, because that gave me a tiny sense of accountability that I can’t guarantee I would otherwise have had. Without the Last Minute constantly looming over me, I was forced to be productive only when I actually wanted to. Following from this, I was forced to learn to want to. I started wanting to be productive for my own reasons, not because the Last Minute was waving a burning pom-pom in my face.

Thinking of my break as an independent study worked for me because it reminded me every day that I didn’t have any deadlines or pressures other than the ones I put on myself. I could have fun and relax, I could make money, and I could also spend a few minutes on Duolingo or in my local library refreshing and augmenting my work from the previous semester. I was accountable to myself and myself alone, like I will be when I get out into the “real world.”

Ultimately, though, whether in high school or college, when I’m answering to guidance counselors and AP Chemistry practice tests or professors and faculty advisors and committee chairs and club presidents, I’m accountable to myself and myself alone. (I will resist the urge to say, “Life is an independent study.”) This is true no matter where you are or what you’re doing or how important of a deadline you think you’re working toward—it’s only as important as you say it is. And it’s important (if you think it is) to take a break every so often, and use the break to make productive strides in the study of yourself and how you function best and what you want out of life. And sometimes what you want is to sleep until three in the afternoon and give yourself credit for “studying German” every time you marvel at the fact that the German word for glove is Handschuh. That’s right. A hand-shoe. A shoe for your hand. How are you supposed to focus with that knowledge in your head?

So maybe “making the most” out of anything in your life—whether it’s work or play, class or break, high school or college—is equal parts determination, execution, and rationalization, and that’s okay. At least, that’s what my winter break taught me.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.