“Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way—provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college.” – Harvard College Admissions & Financial Aid
A gap year is an emerging trend in American education: taking time off between senior year in high school and freshman year in college. But while it’s surfaced in the past few years in our society, in Europe, a gap year is a common thing.
In European countries, students are encouraged to take a year to intern/work in an industry that interests them, volunteer, or travel, allowing them to experience the real world before heading off to college. It is thought that the gap year would enable students to gain more real world experience, become more mature and come back with a firmer grasp on their future plans. Now, in the United States, this trend is becoming more prevalent — with prominent figures like Malia Obama taking and advocating for them.
In the US, public opinion (based off of media articles/reporting) falls under two major schools of thought: For a gap year and against a gap year.
In a recent anonymous survey conducted by James LePage, it was found that Chappaqua parents are for gap years – with some caveats. Of 59 voluntary responses (it is important to note that only 94.5% stated that they were parents), 61.8% of respondents stated that they like gap years (“YES”).
Nine stated that they were against gap years (“NO”) and the remainder of responses, entered by parents, falls under the category of “it depends”.
It is also interesting to note that while the vast majority of responses were from parents, they fell under different age ranges.
Like the media and public, our respondents had two schools of thought – for and against. “If it is the right opportunity for the right kid, it is invaluable,” wrote one. “It must be a chance to grow and mature.” Another had similar thoughts; “I think a gap year would serve every student well, either to do Civic duty, charity, volunteer, etc. Builds maturity and character.”
Even many of the parents for gap years saw the benefit, most recognized that it has the be the “right person,” and it depended on the circumstances for that specific
For those against gap years, opinions were short and to the point, and parallel with the opinions of the mainstream media. “It’s keeping the student out of the routine of learning,” wrote one. “[Taking a] gap year gets [the] student out of the academic mind set and makes it more difficult to succeed in a college setting. It also may make it difficult to end up going to college (eg. if they start working they may never stop),” wrote another.
The “it depends category” saw both pros and cons when it came to a full year to oneself between high school and college. “My biggest fear if my child took a gap year would be that they wouldn’t return to school at all,” wrote one parent. They continued with, “However, I can see how they could provide a wonderful opportunity to take a break for those who need it, refresh, travel, learn something new outside of the classroom, and think carefully about next steps before rushing into anything, especially for those unsure of their future path.”
A very interesting response comes from an English parent (a country where gap years are the norm). In full, “I’m English and know so many people have gone on a gap year (maybe two) and although I didn’t get them before being a parent, now being a parent, I realize now that you are still children until at least 21. You have to live before you settle down – there is so much pressure on you high schoolers and it shouldn’t have to be a race to the finishing post – getting into the best colleges, suddenly having to be adults (you’ve not even lived yet) – you don’t need to be burned out. Go on a gap year! Have fun. Be safe. Just make sure you call your mom/mum!”
As it’s a recent development in American society, there’s not much hard information on how a gap year could impact a student, be it positively or negatively. However, the meager data that does exist seems to back up both schools of thought. (It is important to note that much of the public data available is from pro-gap year organizations. This article attempted to source data from non-biased sources).
A report published in Developmental Psychology in 2015 details the known benefits of a gap year. Students who take a gap year have greater attainment when it comes to university commencement and graduation. They also have “clarification and commitment to educational and career goals,” and “confidence in future prospects — including life satisfaction, satisfaction with future prospects, and satisfaction with career prospects specifically.”
Another report, published by the Center For The Study Of Living Standards, details the potential drawbacks of gap years. The report discusses a study that found that delayers in Britain earned 8.9 per cent less per hour at age 30 than those who had entered post-secondary education directly. The report also echoed another parent worry, that delaying education for a year could be detrimental academically, granted that the student even returns to their schooling. “My fear is that after a gap year, the student may not be as motivated to return to school, and their study habits may be impacted,” said one parent in the survey conducted by James LePage.
The CSLS report addressed this topic as well, discussing a study conducted in 2005. “[The study] found that in the United States those who delay by a year are 64 per cent less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than those who enroll immediately after graduating high school, and that the effect was more detrimental for youth in the lowest socioeconomic quartile and youth with low test scores.” However, even this report, which was focused on the drawbacks of a gap year acknowledged that “it depends on the student”.
While the US Department of Education currently has no statistics on gap years, the Associated Press reports that 30,000 to 40,000 students take a 1-year gap between college and high school each year, and the year 2015 showed a 22 percent increase in students taking gap years over the previous year.
Harvard, Princeton and several other well known schools publicly endorse a gap year. Princeton offers the Novogratz Bridge Year Program, which is a structured, university sponsored gap year. Several other esteemed institutions such as Tufts, UNC, American University and the University of Richmond also encourage gap years to select students. In some cases, these schools may even pay for the year.
While one can find evidence both for and against gap years, the answer still remains the parent favorite: it depends. When considering a gap year, parents and students should consider the pros and cons, and understand if taking a year off will help or hurt them. If a student needs time between college and high school to understand what they want to do in the future, than they should take it if given the opportunity. However, if the time off could lead to less success in the future, like sticking with a low paying job and not attending college, than a gap year may not be the best option.
Having an open dialogue between multiple parties will lead to the highest chance of a successful gap year. Colleges that promote gap years recommend that students and parents should write down what the goal of the gap year is, be it cultural immersion, industry experience, ect… A structured gap year, where all parties understand the “why” is more likely to be a success. Some colleges allow students to be admitted and defer for a year, while others offer specific gap year programs.
Should you take a gap year? It depends. Figure out what’s best for your personal situation, understand the pros and cons, and most importantly, enjoy whatever route you take.