If I’d told my parents that I wanted to spend a year doing some other stuff before starting college, they would have freaked out. American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness. Americans have less vacation time than almost any other first world country, not to mention longer work weeks. The trajectory is supposed to go high school -> college -> job or graduate school -> job -> job, with no variations. Saying “I’d like to spend the 18th year of my life backpacking around and maybe working in a cafe” in America is tantamount to saying “I’d like to drop out of society, not be productive, and waste my life.” – Lillet Marcus
There’s been a lot of buzz about gap years recently. Since the beginning of the gap year phenomenon in the 1960s, the practice has increased in popularity, especially in Europe. More recently, more American students have begun to take a structured break between high school and college, as well, but the expectation for most American students is still that they will progress directly from high school to college without a break in between.
While it might be tempting to write off a year-long “break” as indulgent, silly, or even reckless, many colleges actually encourage students to take a gap year. Princeton has gone so far as to institute its own Bridge Year program. Contrary to some popular perceptions, 90% of students who take a gap year do enroll in college as planned, and students who take gap years perform better once they enroll in college than students who start college right after high school. They also report that their gap years helped them choose their majors more wisely, and ultimately claim higher job satisfaction.
What is it about the gap year that contributes to these outcomes? The benefits are different, certainly, for each student, but here are a few:
- A gap year allows time for recovery from high-school related burnout. Many high school students are sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, running with all their might towards the light at the end of the tunnel – college – as if the next phase might bring them a respite from the hectic pace, frantic studying, and late nights. While college can’t provide that relief, a gap year might.
- Students can experience something more of the world – and of their own interests and abilities – than they might otherwise. Wherever a student spends their gap year, working or volunteering in a new environment provides an opportunity for a completely different type of experience than those typical of high school or college environments. Broader experience leads to more knowledge about the world and what you’d like your place in it to be.
- Taking a gap year can provide an opportunity to develop life skills and independence that will lead to greater success in college. Stepping outside of your comfort zone builds confidence and independence, ensuring that when you do arrive in college, you’re ready to get the most out of the experience, not stressed out by learning how to do laundry or trying to get to know whole groups of strange people for the first time.
The most important thing about taking a gap year is making sure you have a plan to spend the time wisely. There are a lot of organizations that provide structured programs and help make that planning process a little easier. Check out groups like Thinking Beyond Borders, American Gap Association, and Cross Cultural Solutions. Of course, you can always plan your own unique experience, but having a plan is critical. Consider your interests, goals, and budget when devising your strategy.
And no matter where you decide to spend your gap year, plan to complete your college applications in your senior year, just like everyone else. It’s much, much easier to get all of the necessary information compiled when you’re in school, with face-to-face access to the people writing your recommendations, than it is if you’re on another continent doing service work.
Do some research into the gap year policies at the schools you’re considering: some schools are flexible, and even encourage students to take a gap year, while others require that you re-apply if you’re not enrolling in the semester for which you initially applied. Check to see which colleges are likely to offer deferments, and whether or not the deferment will affect any financial aid you’re offered. If you plan carefully and do your research, taking a year “off” can be an adventurous addition to your educational plans, and may even give your grades a boost in the future.
Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.