Science Suggests A Gap Year Is A Good Idea

by Megan Grant

News recently hit that Malia Obama will be taking a gap year before heading to Harvard in 2017 (class of 2021, whoop whoop — do you feel old yet?), and for many of us, this is the first time we've even heard of such a thing. What does this entail, and should you take a gap year? Let's take a look at what the research can tell us about the whole thing. The short version is, signs point to yes — but there are a lot of considerations that might go into your decision to take or not to take a gap year.

First, the basics: A gap year is defined as a break between high school and college. It could be a full year, or you could do it for less; the main thing is that if you take a gap year, you don't start your first year of college the fall after your high school graduation. Many young people take this time to work and save money, while others choose to travel or "voluntour" (that is, engage in tourism with the goal of volunteering). Despite what some make think, students aren't taking a year off to sit on their butts and watch TV 24/7.

While gap years are a more common practice in Europe, the concept has just recently started making its mark on the United States. I personally love the idea. High school graduates are still so young — in many cases, too young to pick a course of education and decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives. (Seriously, why have we ever expected this of teenagers?!) I also think we tend to underestimate just how stressful high school can be for some students. A little break to focus on something else might be just what the doctor ordered.

There are understandably concerns over the idea of a gap year. For starters, won't it leave a giant... gap... in students' learning? Won't they lose their momentum? Their motivation? Won't they fall out of the routine of going to school and doing homework, and have a difficult time getting back in the swing of things? It's a tough idea to wrap your brain around, particularly in the culture of the United States, where the mentality is work, work, work. Go to college. Get good grades. Get a good job. Get a good paycheck. Get a better job. Get a better paycheck. We don't take breaks, and certainly not after high school.

However, it turns out that we may be underestimating the benefit of a gap year. Science Of Us found research in favor of the gap year — a study showing that for students who struggled in high school, they came back from a gap year and entered college with more motivation than their peers. In comparing other students who did not struggle, no differences were found between those who took a gap year and those who didn't. The point? In large part, either no difference whatsoever was witnessed, or there was a benefit. So at the very least, taking a gap year is not actively detrimental; it's either neutral or positive.

Believing wholeheartedly that a gap year can be a wonderful choice for some people, I started digging into what else I could find on the topic. And if there's any doubt that gap years are catching on, let this one marinate in your brain for a minute: The American Gap Association found that enrollment in gap year programming jumped 27 percent from 2012 to 2013, with burnout being the biggest reason why. (Harvard alone has seen a 33 percent increase in the last decade.) And the breather does students good: A 2011 study at Middlebury College found that students who took a gap year had consistently higher GPAs than their counterparts.

In Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People In Ways The World Needs , author Joseph O'Shea reports that students who deferred their college admission returned to college at the same rate as those who went immediately after high school. Similarly to what Science Of Us explained, O'Shea also says that while gap years can have a positive impact on all students' academic performances, it was the strongest with students who applied to college with slightly lower grades. Data has shown that these students catch up, and are actually likelier to graduate with a higher GPA than others.

It's not just about the grades, either. Consider this: It's totally normal for a college student to change their mind (several times, even) regarding what they want to major in. Hell, I wanted to be a lawyer, surgeon, CPA, astronaut, actress, teacher, psychologist... I'll shut up now. Taking a gap year means that students are likelier to finish their education in four years, since they're less likely to keep changing their minds after a year to consider their plans; and one study even confirmed that 60 percent of gap year students reported that the decision to take a gap year helped influence or determine the major they picked.

While it may feel like it's going against our nature to postpone college upon graduating high school, it's hard to argue that there are benefits to taking a gap year. No need to be concerned about a lack of structure: Programs and services are popping up all over the place to assist young people in the planning, and it's proving to be quite the fruitful experience for many.

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