When I was a junior in college, I spent six months studying in the UK. I was surprised to discover that most of the freshmen in my dorm had taken a “gap year,” meaning that they had taken a year off between high school and university to travel, work, and volunteer. Gap years are very common in England, but are still exceptional here in the US, where the usual rule is that you graduate from high school in the spring and find yourself in college three months later. I found myself thinking a lot about gap years after that time in the UK, especially years later when I was in graduate school. I taught a number of intro-level courses to students in their very first semesters in college—which, for most of them, were also their first semesters living away from home. Although many of my students were bright, mature, and eager to learn, I also had dozens who were clearly overwhelmed, struggling to transition from the highly structured, highly supervised life of a high school student to that of an independent adult—while also keeping their grades up in a full-time academic program. Many of these fledgling adults were simply not ready to be in college, and I often found myself wondering: How many of these students would have benefitted from taking a year away from school before starting university?
According to the American Gap Association, a nonprofit organization that develops accreditation standards for gap year programs, more and more American students are taking gap years to travel, volunteer, and work. Many universities are now encouraging students to take a year off, and are even willing to defer enrollment so that students can do so. If you’re a graduating senior, consider these benefits of taking a gap year before college:
1. A gap year can teach independence
During your year off—whether you’re volunteering in a foreign country or working at a local business—you’ll learn what life is like outside of the protective bubble of school. By facing—and hopefully conquering—challenges in new situations, you’ll become more independent and confident in your ability to deal with whatever life throws your way.
2. You get a break from school
Not the worst thing in the world, right? Senior year of high school can be really stressful: You’ve got college admissions, standardized tests, AP classes—the works. When students jump straight from this environment to college (which is usually even more demanding) they risk burning out on school altogether. By taking a year off to exercise your mind in a different way, you can enter university with a fresh, ready to learn brain.
3. Your gap year will give you an opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone
By the time you get to your senior year of high school, you’ve been in roughly the same environment for twelve years. You’re comfortable. You may hate high school, but you know it inside and out and are able to navigate it with ease. By taking a gap year to travel or work, you’ll be putting yourself in situations that are new and potentially uncomfortable. Learning to handle these situations—from dealing with a language barrier to having new responsibilities in your job—will both give you a broader worldview and show you that you’re capable of working through the unexpected.
4. You can learn about what you actually want—and what you don’t want
A lot of people enter college having a very limited sense of what they actually want to do in the future. Having some real world experience with work or volunteering will give you a better idea of what kind of work appeals to you. Having a strong understanding of what your ultimate goals are will help you immeasurably in your college career because you won’t waste time flitting between majors. You’ll also be less likely to complete a degree only to realize that you don’t like your field.
Similarly, your gap year can teach you a lot about what you don’t want. Maybe you’ve always been convinced that you want to work with children, so you spend your gap year doing just that. But after spending a year volunteering as a teacher in Latin America, you might realize that, while you love kids, you actually hate working with them. That’s something worth figuring out before you spend four years earning a degree.
5. You might learn that college isn’t for you (and that's OK)
Right now, our society is putting a lot of pressure on all students to go to college. Although I fully agree that anyone who wants to go to college should have the opportunity to do so, the truth is that college isn’t the best path for everyone. Some people, for instance, are really well suited to technical trades, and it would make more sense for them to attend a vocational college or serve as an apprentice than to spend four years (and lots of money) on a degree in Art History. By taking some time away from school to assess your goals for the future, you can make an informed decision about whether college is right for you.
6. You can make money
College is crazy expensive. Taking a gap year to focus on working can help you to build a nest egg for when you do start school again. Having a nice little savings account on hand will make your freshman year that much less stressful.
7. You can travel
A lot of students spend their gap years traveling. Traveling, especially internationally, can be a life-altering, mind-expanding experience. You’ll meet new people, experience new customs, deal with unfamiliar languages, and navigate foreign spaces. Your vision of the world will change dramatically, as will your own sense of self.
Of course the rub here is that traveling can be prohibitively expensive. However, there are a few options for making it financially manageable. There are gap year programs which subsidize traveling costs in exchange for volunteering, as well as programs that help you find paid-work in foreign countries. There are also scholarships and other financial aid options available; check them out here.
8. You can get a taste of college classes
Some people use their gap years to work while also attending a class or two at their local community colleges. Taking a few classes early can give you a head start on credits when you enter university as a full time student. More importantly, the experience will give you a chance to adapt to the faster-paced, more self-directed nature of college-level courses.
9. You’ll be a better student when you do get to college
The American Gap Association argues that students who take gap years have more success in college:
[U]niversities are reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, increased likelihood that students will graduate 'on time' or within four years, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions.
When students go straight from high school to college, some seem to approach college as if it were simply “High School, Part 2,” yet another hoop through which their parents are forcing them to jump. These students, perceiving college as something forced upon them rather than the product of conscious choice, often lack motivation and focus, a state that is inevitably reflected in their grades. Students who have had a gap year enter college with a sense of ownership over their choices and the knowledge that, in the real world, the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning is a rare and precious gift.
10. You may be better able to get a job post-graduation
Gap-year-taking students get to include diverse real-world experiences on their resumés, making them look shiny and interesting to potential employers. In fact, the American Gap Association reports that 88 percent of students who have taken a gap year say that the experience positively contributed to their employability.
Images: Shena Tschofen/Flickr; Giphy (6)