A gap year, according to the U.K. Department for Education and Skills, is, “a period from 3 to 24 months during which an individual takes time out from a formal work or education trajectory.” The term is more commonly used to describe the one year period taken in between high school and college to pursue other interests. While this concept is not particularly popular in American culture, an average of 5.4 percent of university applicants in the U.K. defer their acceptance by a year and Australia has seen numbers as high as 25 percent. That being said, I think a gap year is just as important a decision to contemplate as your major, location and affordability when applying to college. Yet, I find that this isn't a topic most students consider when applying, and my question is why?
During my search into the mystery behind a gap year, I found that many students either didn't know what a gap year was, didn't understand the need for it or had negative reactions towards it. Some responses I received ranged from, “Why would you increase the amount of time needed to get your degree?” to “Gap years are for people who didn't get into college.” Essentially, there is a negative stigma that surrounds taking a gap year and, as a result, many students and counselors alike have dismissed the idea. I think this largely has to do with the culture in America as a whole.
As a student who has experienced European, American and African schooling systems, I personally find that American students are rushed through the system of kindergarten to 12th grade. Oftentimes the focus is moving from one stage to the other in an attempt to graduate by the age of 18, regardless of whether the student is ready. As a result, students rush through education, seeing it as just a means to an end, a pipeline that feeds into a career and eventually into the grave. While that sounds morbid, I think it accurately portrays the zombie-like precision with which students go through school. I can honestly say that my goal in taking numerous advanced placement and honors classes wasn't for the joy of learning, but to check boxes on an application that I hoped would get me into the college of my choice.
In comparison to America, Florin Najera-Uresti, a freshman at Brown University, said that "The pace of life [in Europe] is a lot slower than in the states, where we carry a very much 'play hard, work hard' kind of environment and very rarely take breaks or even take life in." Now this isn't an article on education reform (that's for another day), but I think that it gives insight into the hurried and oftentimes chaotic process that leaves students with a one-track mind focused on the future and never the present. Couple this with the fact that only 5 percent of colleges in the U.S. have a deferral policy for prospective students and you generally have a feeling of dismay towards the concept.
After finding out about this pause in the sequence of education, I wondered if it truly was worth it to take a year off. To determine the benefits of taking a gap year, I reached out to my friends both here in the United States and abroad. A common theme I found was the aspect of fulfillment. Many of my friends had opted to take a form of a community service year through organizations like GlobalCitizen, and as a result were stationed globally taking on projects to build and resuscitate communities around the world. However, even those who chose to stay at home found jobs or internships. Keefa Lovelace, a prospective student at Drexel University said, "It's kind of satisfying to create your own narrative that isn't forced upon you in the form of a 9 to 3 schedule.”
Olivia Nyman, a Wisconsin native, agrees. “I've even learned a bunch of new life skills, like budgeting, cooking and hand-washing clothes. These are such simple things that, for whatever reason, so many high schoolers are never taught.”
A gap year provides a form of real-world experience that allows many students to learn not only about the world but about themselves in an environment outside the classroom. Whether they chose to rough it out in the Himalayas or in the concrete jungle, they are acquiring real world survival skills such as connections and practical knowledge.
Another benefit I found was economic in nature. Many students aspire for their dream schools, but don't necessarily have the financial means to attend them. To do so, students take up jobs during their gap years to raise money towards schooling costs such as dorm-living, book costs and meal plans. Not only does it take the financial burden off their parents’ shoulders, it gives them an addition to their résumé.
"I know for a fact that starting school in August would have kept me from 400 hours of work experience easily," Nicholas Nguyen, future Rhodes College student, said. Anyone who has tried to find a job during or after college knows experience speaks volumes. In this case, having a few notches in your belt proves to be a positive.
Lastly, many have cited a form of revitalization after taking a gap year. The stresses of high school, coupled with academic burnout can leave many students in no rush to continue schooling.
“After spending ridiculous amounts of time juggling my classes, clubs, sports, community service, family time and sometimes sleep, the thought of going back to school so soon is... depressing,” Lovelace said.
Having a break before jumping back into the thick of things especially for students who experienced a particularly stress-inducing high school career makes them less hesitant and more prepared for oncoming obstacles.
"What I've gotten out of it is a renewed sense of purpose in my education, and a much-needed reset for my mental health," Nyman said.
Despite assumptions, 90 percent of students who defer do go back to school the following year and report feeling better-adjusted for the workload.
After examining the possible benefits of a gap year, I think that students should at least consider it as an option rather than rushing through to the next stage in their education. It is important to push past the negative associations that come with holding on your education, in lieu of a system that allows students to learn at their own pace. The concept of a gap year is not for everyone, but I think it could have an overall positive effect here in America and work at loosening the rigid and fast-paced structure established as the norm for education. If you would like to learn more benefits of taking a gap year, visit the American Gap Association.
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