Ever since Malia Obama announced she’d take a gap year before starting at Harvard in 2017, people have been fiercely debating gap years. Will taking time off cause you to quit school altogether? Is it just another perk for spoiled rich kids? What position should parents take if their offspring suggests such a plan?
Before answering these questions, it’s important to know that there are different kinds of gap year scenarios. The most common one involves a student who’s already been accepted to a college, then requests permission to take a year off to pursue non-academic interests before enrolling. The student might spend the year traveling, doing an internship, volunteering, working at a job, or some combination of these activities. A growing number of colleges, including Middlebury, Tufts, Reed, MIT, Harvard and all the other Ivy League schools now encourage their admitted freshmen to consider this option.
A different scenario involves the student who’s dissatisfied with the results of his or her college application process and wants to try again. This student usually plans to redesign their college admissions strategy and reapply, while also getting some real world experience that will make them a more appealing candidate. Yet a third scenario is the student who’s decided, for personal reasons, not to apply to college during senior year of high school but to take some time off before even beginning the process.
The many gap year options
No matter which scenario applies to you, there are many different ways you might spend the year. Overseas travel is a popular option. Especially if you stay in one country long enough to learn the language, the experience can enrich your education and deepen your understanding of the world. A number of organizations, such as Global Citizen Year, send high school graduates abroad to apprentice with community-based organizations and live with host families. Or students can opt to organize their own travel abroad plans, which might involve staying in one city and taking foreign language classes or backpacking through a series of youth hostels.
However you do it, unless you get one of those rare scholarships, overseas travel tends to be expensive. A family that’s struggling to cover the costs of four years of college probably can’t fund this kind of experience.
Other gap year plans are more affordable. Some teens opt for internships or volunteer work in community organizations, minimizing their expenses by living at home. Others get paid jobs that provide valuable, real world experience. For example, AmeriCorps’ City Year program pays students stipends to teach in low-income, inner-city schools. There are as many gap year possibilities as there are students willing to imagine them.
Still, many parents, educators and even students, have raised valid questions about a gap year’s value. Will so much time away from school make it hard to return? How will it affect their grades? And does it really make sense to postpone a young person’s college graduation for another year?
“There have been few empirical studies undertaken to examine Gap Year experiences for American students,” acknowledges the website of the American Gap Association, whose purpose is to promote the idea, before adding, “In general, it is believed that taking a gap year is a valuable endeavor.”
The gap year: the pros
There are many reasons why a gap year might be a smart move. Here are three of the most important ones.
Skills for the future: Jeffrey Selingo, author of “There is Life After College,” believes a gap year helps teenagers mature and can provide them with skills they will need after graduation. “If young adults are to succeed eventually in the job market, they need environments where they can explore for a while before they settle,” he argued in The Washington Post.
Many educators counter this by saying that college students can and should gain work-related skills by holding internships or jobs during summer vacations or even while they’re in school. It’s not necessary to wait a year before attending college, simply to get hands-on experience, they say. You can do them both at the same time.
Indeed, today any student who hasn’t held at least a few internships or jobs before college graduation probably will have trouble finding post-collegiate employment. That’s why savvy students plan their extra curricular activities and summers carefully and with an eye to future resumes.
Time to mature: A stronger argument is that students need time to mature after high school. Selingo says that teens who take a year off are able to approach their studies more seriously when they do arrive on campus and that they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as alcohol abuse. He cites a small study of students who took off time before attending Middlebury College and graduated with higher GPAs than they’d had in high school.
That makes intuitive sense, since gap year students arrive on campus a full year older than regular freshmen. Recent research on the teenage brain suggests that the areas necessary for impulse control and long-range planning are the last brain areas to develop and often don’t mature until the late teens or early twenties. It would stand to reason that, on average, 19-year-old college freshmen would be more disciplined students than 18-year-olds.
But the maturity argument raises a question that rightly vexes many parents. If an 18-year-old isn’t mature enough to make wise decisions in college, why would he or she make wise decisions while teaching inner city kids or backpacking across another continent? Aren’t the risks higher during a gap year—especially one involving international travel—than they would be on a college campus?
Recovering from burnout: The third and—I believe—most compelling argument for a gap year is burnout. Today many high school students are so exhausted by the time they’ve completed their senior year and college applications that they may need time simply to unwind, contemplate the future and find some balance.
Adults who dismiss this idea should realize how much more stressful the high school experience has become since they completed 12th grade. This is especially true for high-achieving students at selective high schools. But even teens at standard high schools are often pushed into multiple AP classes and round after round of exams, followed by high-powered extracurricular activities, not to mention the increasingly high-stakes college application process. It’s no wonder many seniors feel frazzled, on-edge and simply not ready to start school in September. It’s not the result of being spoiled—quite the opposite.
Everyone needs some time to chill out, lie in the grass and watch the clouds float overhead. Our brains require time to unclench, in order to think creatively. People who push themselves to achieve 24/7 aren’t likely to do their best work. They also risk collapse at one point or another. That’s why sometimes a student who wants to take a break after high school may be the smartest student of all.
The gap year: the cons
Despite the advantages of a gap year, some parents and educators believe there are disadvantages too. Research suggests some of these concerns may be misplaced.
While some parents worry that a year away from school might cause a teen to skip college altogether, the little research that exists doesn’t back this up. A 2005 study by Karl Heigler and Rae Nelson found that 90% of gap year students began college within a year of completing their gap experience. Nor is there evidence that taking a gap year makes students lazy. It may inspire them to work harder. The GPAs of those Middlebury students who took gap years actually improved. There are other questions that haven’t been researched—except for anecdotally—but are worth considering.
Social concerns: Some students might see some social fallout from a gap year. That’s because it may be hard for traveling students to form good relationships with others their own age, as they move from place to place. Conversely, teens that do a year in their home community may suddenly feel left behind, as they watch their former classmates go off to schools in other places. Either way, loneliness could be an issue.
Taking a gap year could also interfere with a student’s ability to bond with peers, once enrolled at college. So far, none of these aspects of the gap year experience have been much studied. But it makes sense to consider them when weighing the pros and cons.
Factoring in the bottom line: For many, the biggest drawback to a gap year plan is the cost. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a job that pays a living wage, the gap year creates yet another financial challenge for your family, which may be struggling to pay for college. In essence, families who budgeted to support a child for four years after high school may be faced with an unplanned for fifth year. Some gap year organizations, such as Global Citizen Year, offer scholarships to low-income students, but the number of spaces in such programs is small.
Which brings us back to Malia Obama’s gap year and you. It makes perfect sense for Malia to take a break before starting Harvard. No doubt she’ll spend most of her time doing something productive—maybe traveling overseas to help refugees, or tutoring children in her adoptive hometown, Washington, D.C. Whatever Malia ends up doing, she probably won’t collect a paycheck. She doesn’t need one. But many American teenagers do.
If you’re thinking about a gap year, investigate the costs as well as the benefits and discuss them with your parents. Research your plan carefully and make sure it’s suited to your interests and needs. Take your time before you make your move.