Tradition says you’re supposed to rush off to college right after high school graduation while your brain is still fresh. But more and more students now are taking a year off after high school graduation to explore other options, such as work, travel or study abroad. Prince William did it. Harvard even recommends it. Do you need a gap year?
What’s in a gap?
For many students, 12 years of school is quite stressful. Add four years of college on top of that, and it’s easy to see how quickly a student can get burnt out.
Emily Rivers, a 19-year-old freshman at Texas Southern University in Houston, says that with volleyball, student council and constant pressure to maintain straight A’s, she definitely needed a break before college. “There’s no way I would’ve kept up with my studies straight out of high school. I was exhausted. Taking time off was right for me,”she says.
Taking a gap year doesn’t mean you should just chill on your dad’s sofa and watch reruns all day. Get up and do something. Here are a few options to consider.
• Study abroad. Looking to get cultural or to impress future employers? Try studying in China or teaching English in the Himalayas. Year after year, students choose to delay college entrance to spend time studying abroad instead. Sarah Connelly, a junior at California State University-Fresno, says, “In high school, I thought I’d major in music. But after teaching in Argentina, I realized my dream career is teaching. Needless to say, my major is education.”
• Travel. Doesn’t matter if you go to Alabama, hike the Appalachians or roam Greece—just be sure to get out and explore. Richard Foley, an 18-year-old New Yorker who’s on his gap year, says, “Starting college right after high school wasn’t me. I wanted to be free and travel before hitting the books again.” Foley and three of his friends who are also “taking off” have been to Hawaii, Alaska and are on their way to Asia. On his year off, Foley says he’s learned things he never would’ve learned in a classroom. After his gap year, he plans to attend Lehman College in Bronx, N.Y.
Work. Having a little cash is always a good thing. So why not earn some money during your break? That’s what Jason Lewis did. “I didn’t want to have to quit school because of finances, so I took off a year and got a job.” Not only did Lewis work to save money, he also worked toward his future. “I worked at a crisis intervention center,” says the psychology major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “The experience will look good on my resumé.”
Find yourself. Who says you have to do something college-related? Take gymnastics lessons, learn to ski— heck, even go bungee jumping. Taking time off before going to college is all about learning more about yourself and your interests. Who knows—maybe that wacky thing you try will be the path to your career!
Benefits of the gap
Did you know that, on average, college students change their majors as many as three times? If you’re unsure about what you want to do, a break from school can give you time to discover yourself and find out what interests you.
For Monica Wilson, a sophomore at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., the greatest advantage of her time off was building self-esteem. “I didn’t know anyone, so I was willing to try things I would’ve been afraid to do at home. Because I wasn’t afraid of failing, I learned a lot of good things about myself,” she says.
Others say growth and maturity are the big plusses. Tony Hardwicke, a junior at Grambling State University in Grambling, La., who took a gap year three years ago, says, “When I returned to school, I felt much older than my peers. While they were partying and having a good time, I was more interested in my studies. It’s like taking that year off made me want to learn more.”
Is a gap year for you?
Even though everyone should consider taking a break after high school, there are a few signs that you’re a prime candidate for a gap year. If any of the following sound like you, maybe you should look into taking a year off.
• You don’t know what you want to do in life.
• You think you may have financial problems once you start college.
• You feel burnt out.
• You’re not sure you really want to go to a particular college or if you should go to college at all.
Ultimately, the decision is up to you. But it’s definitely an option worth considering. This may be summed up best in the remarks of Harvard’s dean of admissions: “The testimony from people who have done this [taking a year off] is extraordinary. It permeates the entire way they think about using university.”
Finding gap year info
If you’re considering or planning a gap year, the admissions counselor at the college you hope to attend can help you with information on deferring entrance. Here are a few other things you can check out.
• www.takingoff.net – A service for students who are taking time off from the traditional classroom to pursue experiential learning.
• www.gapwork.com – Gapwork gives information on jobs abroad, gap years, summer work, UK gap years and overseas voluntary work.
• Books – Taking Time Off, 2nd Ed. by Ron Lieber & Colin Hall (Princeton Review, 2003).
Lonely Planet Gap Year Book by Charlotte Hindle, et al (Lonely Planet, 2003).
Taking a Gap Year, 3rd Ed. by Susan Griffith (Globe Pequot Press, 2003).
There are many misconceptions about gap years and the students who take them.
Misconception: The gapper will never return to school.
Reality: After completing a gap year, most students have a clearer vision of what career path they want to follow. Some students will choose not to attend college, which may be the best decision for them.
Misconception: You’ll forget how to study.
Reality: Being away from school for just one year will not cause you to forget how to study. Taking time off can lead to more focus and a renewed interest in learning.
Misconception: A gap year is just a way to avoid real life.
Reality: Actually, the opposite is true. Gappers usually travel without their parents, volunteer or work to support themselves. So not only are gappers exploring themselves and the world, they’re gaining life skills as well.