In the United States, we are often afraid that if a student takes a gap year then that individual may not go on to college afterwards.
Since college is viewed as the one sure route to having a rewarding career, taking a gap year therefore seems dangerous.
But in fact, the gap year is simply that– a gap.
It is a space in time when the student can be outside of the classroom and think about what they want to do.
It doesn’t mean that the student won’t go on to college afterwards.
In fact, gap year students may be significantly more prepared to face the pressures of university studies than other students.
There is an excellent quote that I have seen floating around the internet lately:
First I was dying to finish high school and start college. And then I was dying to finish college and start working. And then I was dying to marry and have children. And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school so I could return to work. And then I was dying to retire.
And now I am dying… And suddenly I realize I forgot to live.
As an individual is rushed through the different stages of education (and, indeed, life), it is often easy to become more focused on getting to the next stage than anything else. In the process, we risk forgetting to relax and enjoy ourselves. Even worse, we might end up throwing ourselves into lives and careers that don’t truly suit us.
The gap year allows students to reflect on life so that they can make good decisions for their futures.
By the end of their gap years, students are more mentally and emotionally prepared for college; they will get more out of the experience and ultimately be happier people (we hope).
Of course, the way you spend your gap year matters. Two of the most common ways to spend a gap year are working and traveling.
A gap year to work
Many students decide to spend a gap year working. Of course, it is easy to dismiss the importance of a low-paid job at Wal*Mart or a gig hosting at a local restaurant. However, even the most mundane jobs can teach us important life skills.
They can also teach us the importance of making sure the gap year only lasts a year.
Seriously though, working teaches responsibility and helps us to understand how education actually fits into the larger scheme of… well… having a job. It can also be a good way to learn the value of money early on– both by saving it to pay for college and by realizing how hard you have to work for it without a degree.
A gap year to travel
Traveling for a year before college is becoming more and more popular. If you spend a year traveling the world or studying abroad, you’ll gain skills in languages, communications, and cultural sensitivity.
You may also further develop your interests in studying whatever it is you end up majoring in during college. If you travel, politics, economics and are issues that you are likely to come across.
Traveling before colleges helps to contextualize you education.
Taking ECON101 can seem pretty abstract. But if you’ve seen poverty and learned about how other countries govern (whether well or poorly), you’ll walk into the classroom already bursting with questions for the teacher.
In my own gap year experience, I spent ten months in Bolivia on a Rotary International Youth Exchange before starting at The University of Texas at Dallas. When I got back, the only thing I knew is that I wanted to better understand the US role in the war on drugs and the arguments behind land reform. As for my colleagues? Land reform was just some abstract concept.
The gap year may not be right for everyone.
Some students are ready for college. They know it. Their parents know it. And they have absolutely zero interest in spending time doing something else. That’s awesome.
However, if you know a student who is thinking of taking a gap year, encourage it!
We all deserve a time for reflection and the benefits of taking a gap year can be innumerable.