From elementary school to college, the path of education is a long one – and sometimes you just need a break.
More students are choosing to take a breath of fresh air from the exhausting journey that is education in the form of a gap year. The gap “year,” whether that be taking the entire year off or perhaps a quarter or semester, is a viable and door-opening route for many young adults who feel unfulfilled by the monotonous path of traditional education.
While a gap year has no set definition, researchers believe it is an intentional and deliberate period to rest and rejuvenate or to expand one’s comfort zone by traveling or volunteering.
Research by Gallup has found the nonstop race from elementary to grad school doesn’t foster the qualities necessary for the current workforce, such as problem solving, collaboration and thinking, that a gap year could introduce.
According to admissions counselors and leaders in the Gap Year Association, a rewarding gap year shouldn’t mean an extended vacation, but must be purposeful, often with a focus on activities that strengthen one’s character as a future candidate for admissions.
Ethan Knight, the founder of the Gap Year Association, said in an interview with Forbes that the time taken off for a gap period must come with an intention to answer questions about oneself and life.
It’s important to note that, while colleges do take applications after a gap year, deferral of admission is a common option for students who want to know where they’re headed at the end of their hiatus.
In fact, many top universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tufts University, and Harvard University encourage the practice – Harvard’s acceptance letter even suggests students take time off before enrolling. This allows the gap year to be a time of true exploration, without the burden of having to apply or reapply to college.
These benefits of gap years can be expansive, ranging from internal growth and personal adventure to resume uniqueness and a developed skillset.
For high school graduates, the gap year can prevent school burnout and provide applicants with life experience and maturity that can strengthen their college applications. Schools report that gap year students had consistently higher GPAs, retention and graduation rates, and involvement on campus lasting all four years.
The transformative nature of the year proves beneficial and attractive to college admissions. Ninety-six percent of gap year participants reported an increase in self-confidence and nearly 75% said it increased their readiness for college.
Fred Hargadon, former dean of admissions at Princeton University, publicly praised students who make this choice, saying that “one’s college education is greatly enhanced by the maturity, experience, and perspective a student can bring post gap year.”
When I graduated high school in 2017, I initially deferred my enrollment to UNC Chapel Hill to travel, work and live independently of my parents. I felt extremely burnt out from high school, and I craved an education outside the traditional classroom.
I got just that – a one-on-one experience with the adult world, as I made new friendships, learned to live and cook on my own and discovered meaningful volunteer work in a new place.
While Chapel Hill encouraged my one year deferral to immerse myself in other pursuits, I ultimately found myself at UCLA, thanks to the deeper clarity of choice, perspective and life experience I got from my gap year.
Students fresh out of undergraduate school can have a similar experience at a different stage of life with their own education hiatus. While they, too, can immerse themselves in cultural experiences or a service program, adults can also find work that may save money for graduate school or provide insight into different career paths during this time.
Some employers, as a benefit to employment, will even pay for an employee’s master’s degree.
Renee White Eyes, a doctoral student in social research methodology at UCLA says her 10-year hiatus between her master’s program and her PhD program provided her with not only vision for her career and area of study for her future, but with formative travel and work skills.
“I have always thought about getting a PhD but didn’t think I was smart enough or disciplined enough to do it,” White Eyes said. “It’s not until I had 10 years of work experience and spent time in the field that I found that passion. This was invaluable to my program today.”
On the other hand, the time off also means extending the length of postgraduate education into one’s early 30s, which can often present financial setbacks or issues with starting a family or career.
There are also arguments that those who undertake a gap year following their undergraduate education won’t return to graduate school.
Like those gapping between high school and college, students can find themselves feeling somewhat left behind, confronted with unexpected costs, feelings of isolation from the social world of college or a loss of momentum to go to college.
White Eyes acknowledged that it was a struggle to return to school. However, by honoring her gap years and reflecting on what her passion, particularly in research, was, she came back to higher education with a burning passion and a sharper focus in her area of study.
Attention was brought to gap years when Malia Obama took a gap year in 2016, deferring her enrollment to Harvard. This attention was a mix of both positive and negative reactions, teeming with criticism that gap years are a privilege.
This conclusion isn’t absurd. About 61% of gap year students come from an annual family income of over $100,000, and about 84% of these students are white.
However, gap years don’t have to be exclusively for the wealthy. Students from different backgrounds can use this alternative path to gain clarity about and access to higher education via a year off or other options like community college.
There are programs such as AmeriCorps, City Year and Global Citizen Year which charge up to no program fees and offer scholarships to recruit individuals from underrepresented communities. Programs like these address the problem of cost and diversity, while providing students with travel opportunities, living quarters and global volunteer experience.
After decades of homework, testing and rigorous admissions processes, we all deserve a break. Whatever form that break embodies – whether in the form of a gap period or something less drastic – is up to the individual and how they choose to spend their time with purpose and intention.