At a Glance
The U.S. is waking up to the benefits of taking an intentional gap year before college.
Colleges value gap years and many Ivy league schools are requiring students take one.
In recent years, the U.S. has been warming up to the idea of taking a gap year before college. For those on track for university, this hasn’t traditionally been part of the plan, but it has long been an acceptable option for students in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
In the U.S. a year off from education to travel, work or just take a break from school has long been viewed as detrimental to your overall success. But over the past decade, statistics and testimonies from students have been telling a very different story.
According to a study by the Dean of Education at Middlebury College in Vermont, the average student who took a year off consistently had a higher GPA than students who didn’t. Students who take a year to discover their passions, go to college with more direction and sense of self.
Princeton Bridge Year Director, John Luria said, “A lot of our students who take a gap year say when they enter as freshmen, they have a greater sense of purpose in their studies.” The average student who takes a gap year reports feeling more sure of who they are and more clear on what kind of impact they want to make in the world.
According to Time Magazine, the number of students taking a gap year has quadrupled since 2005. Gap years are even becoming a required prerequisite for many Ivy league schools. Harvard has seen a 33 percent rise in deferment over the past decade and among that group was President Obama’s daughter, Malia. MIT even funds deferment year experiences for many first-year students.
So if a gap year is now possibly an accepted option for you, why should you take one now, before you go to college?
1. This is the most formative time in your life
As a young adult graduating from high school, you are just beginning a journey toward becoming a full person. You make huge decisions at this age – what you will study, what you want to do, possibly who you want to marry and what you want to believe in and fight for.
So much of who you are will be traced back to this season of your life and it should be treated with that level of care and priority. So many students jump into college, not knowing what is coming to them, or what they actually want out of it – it all just sort of happens to them. There will be no other time in your life when you are more impressionable, vulnerable or eager. Yes, you can shift and grow as an adult, but this is the prime time. These are the years you are becoming who you are, so ask questions, explore, try things and expand your perspective, surroundings, and experiences.
2. Grasp how different school is from everything else
Many college graduates emerge with their degrees and are slammed in the face when they realize working full time is so different than school. In school, if you don’t do what you are told, you get a bad grade. Outside of school, if you don’t do what you were asked, you get fired and you can’t pay your bills.
The differences obviously don’t stop there and for a lot of people, these differences are actually a good thing. If you’re 18, you’ve most likely been in school since you were 4 or 5, possibly younger. Almost all you know is a world where you are graded and rewarded based on a small set of skills you may or may not have. School is limited in its ability to measure and celebrate all intelligence and talent on a broader spectrum. For many people who don’t excel at math, literature or athletics, school can be really discouraging. Outside of school, there are so many other ways to contribute to the world, you don’t have to be good at everything and you usually don’t have to take tests or do homework.
The life of a student is so different than the life of a non-student, and it could be endlessly beneficial for you to learn this before beginning college. College is intended to be a place to prepare for the contribution you want to make in the world. If you understand how the world works before you begin this journey, the culture shock will hit you less hard when you graduate.
3. Realize how many options you have
There are so many ways your life could look as an adult. With modern technology, internet, and social media, you have more options than ever before. Growing up, many children have no idea what options they have for studying and careers. Many think their career options are limited to becoming a teacher, doctor, lawyer or firefighter. When you take a year before jumping into higher education (and hopefully leave your hometown) you will start to see all the options out there, not only for education but for careers and overall lifestyles and areas to commit yourself.
As a young person, you have everything in front of you and all the time and potential to start new things – but you vastly limit yourself when you don’t know what options you have. Taking a year to explore, work, travel, or volunteer will open your eyes to the multitude of ways adults can spend their time. You can’t pursue your dreams if you don’t know they exist.
4. Discover what you actually care about
Along with opening your eyes to the options you have in life, taking a gap year can wake you up to what you truly care about and how you actually want to spend your time. College, though expensive, can be an incredibly worthwhile use of your time if you take classes toward a future you know you want. According to a study by CareerBuilder, 47 percent of the college graduates surveyed didn’t take a job in the field they studied in college and 61 percent wish they had majored in something different.
If you had the time and space to realize what you actually care about and what matters to you, then you could pursue a degree that you know you want to use after you graduate.
5. It will only get harder in the future
When will there be another time in your life when you have this much time and space to take all for yourself The answer the most likely never. When you’re 18 or in your early 20s, you likely will have the least amount of responsibility and highest amount of energy and stamina. As you get older, you slowly add responsibility to your life and taking a year off will become more and more difficult. As a young person, you might not see the full value of taking a gap year, but in a few years when you wish you had, you might find yourself with job offers, bills, relationships, car payments, a dog, house plants and a myriad of other responsibilities you likely opted in to and are hard to walk away from. Now is the time taking a year off will not only make the biggest positive impact on you, but it is also the time that it will make the smallest negative impact on you. And that balance will shift every year you don’t do it.
Gap years are becoming more accepted in the U.S. because their positive benefits are starting to become hard to ignore. This is the time of your life that will most influence who you ultimately become. A gap year will help you see what options are out there for you and what is even possible. From all that possibility, you may start to understand what you care about and what you want to focus on. And if you decide you want to take this break later in life, you might not have the time, energy, or freedom to step away. This is the best opportunity with the best timing, and you have the most to gain from it now. If you take a year to work, travel, serve others, try new things and ask big questions, you could go into college more prepared and walk away from it significantly more satisfied than if you jumped right into higher education straight out of high school.