The Academic and Career Advantages of Taking a Gap Year

Traditionally, we’ve pushed our promising students from high school to college in the hope of preparing them for a well-paying career.

But the workforce is evolving. As of the latest update from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in construction, professional and technical services, and health care are up, while jobs in mining and information are down. The result? The tried-and-true path of going straight to college from high school is no longer so true.

Data tell us that many graduating seniors are not prepared for the university environment and don’t have clear direction concerning their career path. According to a report published earlier this year by YouthTruth, only 44.8 percent of students surveyed feel positively about their college and career readiness. And almost 40 percent did not agree that their high schools have helped them develop the skills and knowledge they need for college-level classes.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to dive into a degree program with a potential price tag of tens of thousands of dollars per year without feeling ready.

So what’s the alternative?

A gap year. It is a year students typically take between high school and college to travel, explore interests, and build an education outside of the classroom — and it is quite common in Europe and Australia. The gap year provides an opportunity for students who are often burned out from the traditional education process to recharge their batteries, figure out what they might like to do, and learn in experiential ways. Does it have to be a whole year? No, of course not. A gap experience might be as short as three months, or even a semester. For students admitted as January freshmen, a gap semester is built into the academic plan. For others who opt to defer college for a year (or more) — or to forego it altogether — the gap year could be an entire academic year out in the world beyond the classroom.

Common objections to the idea of a gap year include the thought that it is a waste of a student’s time, or that delaying university admissions for capable students increases the likelihood that they will not return to their studies. Some families object to the cost of a gap year and question its return on investment, particularly as compared to expenditures (of both time and money) toward college itself. But there are proven benefits — and even schools that offer a hybrid experience so students can experience the best of both worlds.

Academic Achievement

According to the American Gap Association, 90 percent of students who take a gap year return to university within a year. Not only do they return, but their GPAs tend to be higher than those of their peers who have not taken a break in between high school and college.

Researchers from the University of Sydney also found that students who defer their academic studies after high school for at least a year have greater academic momentum in college. This is because a gap year that includes developmental activities — traveling, volunteering, taking informal or formal classes based on interest — remedies “a lack of academic motivation and post-school uncertainty and assist university students to develop adaptive patterns of behavior important for academic success at university.”

A gap year may also help students maintain consistency. Researchers Jane Halonen and John Santrock claim that “the average number of of times students change their majors over the course of their education hovers around three times,” a pattern that can add substantially to the length and expense of the college experience. Students who have taken a gap year are less likely to switch majors — though according to Joseph O’Shea’s Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, they may in fact change their intended major or alter their plan of study after returning from a gap year but before beginning classes, because they’ve “reimagined their role in the world” based on their experience.

Benefits Beyond School

The benefits of taking a gap year extend far beyond academic success and have long been associated with employability — so long as the gap year is spent in a structured program. According to the researcher Helene Snee, “There are hierarchies within the gap year field, so that different types of gap years have different values.” She notes that “formal placements like volunteering are more likely to be seen as a way to develop employability.” In other words, what you do with your time matters.

A gap year spent volunteering or pursuing other developmental activities may be appealing to potential employers — but it’s also worth considering the effects of a gap year on students. Students who have taken a gap year themselves overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs. As cited by the American Gap Association, researchers Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson found that this satisfaction had to do with a less selfish approach toward working with people that gap year–takers cultivated. They also found that the experience of taking a gap year either affirms people’s career paths or helps them find new, more appropriate trajectories for fulfilling work.

Schools That Support Gap Years

An informal survey by the American Gap Association revealed that a number of schools do not have formal policies regarding gap years, and some make it clear that taking courses for college credit at another institution could potentially change a student’s status from a freshman to a transfer student — a complication, to be sure. According to a representative from Cal Poly quoted in the survey: "Typically, we ask students who are considering doing a gap year to wait to apply to the university until they intend to enroll into the University. I would advise students to enter as a First Time Freshmen and not to take any college courses after they have completed high school.”

The University of Alabama also stresses that it is better to not take courses for academic credit during the gap year — but that the time off is acceptable: "As long as you do not receive any academic credit from another institution and meet the December 1 admission deadline for the year you are applying, you will be considered. You must notify the Scholarships department in writing of your year off from school.”

Prescott College removes almost all barriers to entry for gap year–takers: “For students that plan on taking a gap year before they apply may do so without any notification to Prescott College. They can simply apply when they are ready to enter college. We like to see gap year experience information included in students' admissions essays,” though those who have already applied may simply notify the school verbally or in writing and then need to resubmit their financial aid information.

There are, however, universities that sponsor gap years, including Tufts University, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among others.

This fall marked the first time Tufts offered its 1 + 4 Bridge-Year Program, which provides incoming students with the opportunity to participate in a full year service-learning program — for the price of Tuft’s tuition. Students are also enrolled in full-credit courses while they volunteer on site in places like Brazil, Nicaragua, Spain, and Washington, D.C. Princeton’s Bridge Year Program allows incoming students to spend a tuition-free academic school year in one of five international locations, where they engage with local communities. And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill actually pays students to take a gap year pursuing their goals through an international year of service, as Global Gap Year Fellows.

How to Plan for a Gap Year

If you have (or are) a high school student, then the time to start planning is now. Most students will begin saving for, and planning, their gap experience during their junior or senior year of high school. The American Gap Association collects statistics on the benefits of gap years, accredits organizations providing gap experiences, and lobbies in the political arena, working toward the application of FAFSA funding toward programs that include academic credit. Their website is a great place to begin your research and look for accredited programs.

Another great resource for those interested in designing an independent gap year is the Gap Year 30 Student & Parent courses, produced by BootsnAll. These 30-day bootcamp-style e-courses walk families through everything they need to consider when planning a gap year that includes travel; the courses are free.

If you’re already applying to colleges and universities, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a gap year. Just make sure to find out school policies regarding admission and financial aid deferral. Even though a formal policy may not be in place everywhere, it’s clear that more and more institutions value the experience that students gain during their time off — and developing policies accordingly.

Most universities will allow students to defer enrollment, once accepted, for up to one academic year. What does that mean? It means that if you are accepted, they will hold your place and your financial aid package (provided your financial situation remains constant) for an entire year if you want to take some time off between high school and college. How cool is that?

Read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news, and ask a question about whether the colleges you’re considering have gap-year policies.

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