In Europe, taking a year off to travel or volunteer before entering university has been a long-accepted practice. Although it is still the exception in the United States, this concept of the “gap year” is steadily gaining popularity. Gail Reardon, of the gap year counseling firm Taking Off, says that this term is a slight misnomer; instead of a “gap” in a person’s education, this year actually fills in what can’t be learned in school:
A gap year is about what happens after school, how you make decisions, how you figure out who you are, where you want to go, and how you need to get there. It’s about the skill set you need to live your life. (Kern, 2010)
This added life-experience brings maturity for most that cannot be learned elsewhere. The current dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard says, “The more life experience you bring, the better off you are in school.”
The idea of their child taking time off before college worries some parents, who become anxious that their 18-year-old will lose her drive and not complete her college education. Robert Clagett, a former senior admissions officer at Harvard, responds to such fears: “The prevailing wisdom is that kids are going to lose their hard-earned study skills if they take a gap year. The opposite is true.” He has found that those who delay a year before starting college have GPAs (on a 4.0 scale) that are .15 to .2 higher than expected. He believes that taking some time offer can offer beneficial relief to students “who are burnt out from years of piling on honors and AP classes” along with many other commitments (Hoder, 2014). Students appear to arrive freshened and excited to get back to their education after the brief time away. They also have the time to figure out what they actually want to do, instead of floundering between majors.
Several of the possible benefits of a gap year are
A break from academic pressures
Time away from the familiar world to see other worlds and gain a bigger picture
A time to give back, to serve rather than be served
A chance to clarify one’s identity, core values, and to consider the future
A chance to grow up and mature
A return to school with solid, real life questions, rather than passively taking in lectures
With these benefits in mind, it isn’t surprising that many in high school and university education are increasingly supportive of the practice:
Many educators tout taking a gap year, saying that kids who step off the academic treadmill after high school to work, travel, volunteer or explore other interests are more mature when they arrive at college and more engaged in their education going forward. (Hoder, 2014)
Reflecting this support, some major American universities now have formal policies allowing students to defer admission. Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer scholarships and fellowships to incoming freshmen who take a gap year, and Tufts University recently launched a program which offers gap year opportunities regardless of a student’s ability to pay (Hoder, 2014).
Formal gap-year programs can be expensive—as much as $30,000!—but there are many low-cost options and students can easily craft their own program. Regardless of the format, there are three essential guidelines experts offer for a successful and beneficial gap year experience: 1) Apply to college and defer enrollment, to ensure something solid waiting at the end; 2) Have a structured plan; 3) Help to fund your own gap year plan, which may result in working for part of the time to pay for a shorter international experience (Hoder, 2014).
With these guidelines in mind, there are countless options for a gap-year. Some options to consider are travel, internships in a field of interest, volunteer work both in the U.S. and abroad, academics for those not pleased with high school records, or work to gain real-life experience and save funds for college. When deciding between these options or other formal programs, it is essential to consider what the ultimate goal is for your gap year (NACAC).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What is your interest in a gap year? What particular angle do you bring to this topic—are you a student, a parent, an educator, etc?
What are your opinions on students taking a gap year before starting college? What do you perceive as benefits and dangers?
If you are a student, what goals would you have for a gap year? What would you hope to learn and how would you hope to grow? What are practical ways you can make this happen?
If you are a parent, what are your fears or concerns about your child taking a gap year? What measures might reassure you? Does the information on the benefits of a gap year provided in this article help at all?
Do you know anyone who has taken a gap year? Was it a good or bad experience, and why? How did they benefit or struggle? How can you learn from their experience?
Taking a gap year can provide life-experience lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom, as well as bring maturity that will make students better prepared for a university setting.
Some parents express fears of their children’s higher education plans being derailed, but there is an overwhelming amount of support for gap years from those within higher education.
Although some guidelines must be followed, a carefully planned gap-year can be a decision that both student and parent are confident about. This being said, taking a gap-year is not for everyone. It must be a decision carefully made and thought-out.
Having a clear plan for the gap year is essential. This will assure that the time is well invested to reap rewards—and not spent on the couch playing video games.
Many experts recommend applying for college and deferring admission. There is a greater access to the resources needed to apply to college during one’s senior year of high school (guidance counselors, people to write recommendations, school fairs, etc.). Also, correspondence could be challenging if the student spends the gap year abroad.