What is a Gap Year?
Back in the 1980s, parents’ worst nightmare was that their flaky Gen-X teens would defer entry into college, stating that they first needed to “find themselves.” After a year of goat herding in the Himalayas, being one with nature, and going on nightly vision quests, the best some parents could hope for is that their sons and daughters would eventually return, ready to hit the books, embrace Alex P. Keatonesque values, and eventually end up as Wall Street wolves.
While absurd, this introduction offers a kernel of truth. In the absence of proper nomenclature, a desire to step off the conveyor belt of formal education was not always encouraged in American culture. Rest assured, in modern times, the “gap year” is officially a real thing. Even though only 2-3% of soon-to-be college students presently partake, the practice is greatly increasing in popularity. No longer solely the domain of the wealthy, a growing number of middle class students are also taking a year off to foray into the “real” world, often emerging with a new sense of perspective, purpose, and direction.
What is a gap year?
Taken either right after high school or at some point between years of college (often junior and senior), a gap year is a structured break from formal academics that affords young people a chance to travel, volunteer, intern, study abroad, or further explore a personal area of interest. Common gap year activities include volunteering with an organization like Americorps, teaching English in a foreign country, or learning about global issues firsthand with a group like Thinking Beyond Borders, just to name a few.
What are the potential benefits?
Gap year participants self-report that the top two reasons they indulged were to 1) learn more about themselves and 2) avoid burnout following a grueling and competitive high school experience.
A gap year can provide an unparalleled opportunity for major/career exploration. Many students report an increased sense of purpose upon starting or returning to college following a year away. For example, your architecture major may take on new meaning after spending a year building homes with Habitat for Humanity. A soon-to-be pre-med major may be energized into a new career passion after seeing lacking hospital conditions overseas. A future social worker might discover a newfound fervor for working with disadvantaged adolescents. The possibilities for meaningful vocational discovery are endless.
Research on gap years
There are a sufficient number of studies that can enlighten us on the effect of gap years.
To assuage parental fears that this “gap” will turn into the Great Rift Valley, one recent study found that over 90% of participating students return to college within 12 months. When these young folks do return, they arrive more academically motivated than their peers. Research has shown that gap year participants earn higher grades than those who matriculate immediately after high school. In fact, two studies, one at UNC and one at Middlebury College, both revealed a statistically significant GPA advantage in favor of ex-gappers.
A gap year can also have lasting positive effects beyond college. The first longitudinal study of individuals who took a gap year revealed that they ended up, on average, more satisfied in their early careers than those who did not.
Colleges that encourage gap years
Taking a year off prior to college for self-exploration has long been a common practice in other cultures. In Scandinavian countries, over 50% of students elect to do this. As more and more American students indulge in this practice, many elite colleges and universities have taken steps to accommodate.
Duke has taken gap year encouragement a step further by creating a formalized Gap Year Program that includes financial support from the university. Princeton has launched an even more formalized Novogratz Bridge Year Program. Other schools that offer assistance with gap year planning for admitted students include:
Why not to take a gap year
We don’t recommend taking a gap year solely for the purpose of trying to get into a “better” college. Academic performance is still your passport to an elite school. In fact, if this is your aim, consider completing your freshman year at a school that will accept you. Rack up a killer transcript and then apply as a transfer at Elite U. the following year.
A gap year doesn’t have to be fancy
You may also choose something less exotic and more affordable. Many gap year programs are international, but domestic opportunities, while sounding less glamorous, can be every bit as valuable. Colleges aren’t interested in the fact that the Brazilian orphanage where you volunteered had a majestic view of the Amazon River basin. It’s about the work, the dedication, the experience, and the opportunity to grow as a human being. Volunteering at a group home in the Bronx will be every bit as enlightening and meaningful even if scenic Amazonian waterfalls are replaced by bridges and billboards.
If you prefer to explore more structured opportunities, use the resources below to begin your search for a good-fit program:
- The American Gap Association’s complete list of Official Gap Year Colleges.
- Click here for a list of scholarships and financial aid opportunities to fund your structured Gap Year experience.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).