There are certain stereotypes that accompany the phrase “gap year”; in the minds of most, these words conjure up images of backpacking across Europe, Australian sabbaticals, and similarly exotic endeavours. Movies and TV shows have perpetuated the idea of gap years as one last carefree romp before the stress and intensity of college sets in. But these stereotypes are not necessarily an accurate reflection of what most gap years consist of. In this blog post, we’ll paint an honest picture of gap years and all the advantages and disadvantages they bring. With our guide, you can make an educated decision on whether to postpone heading off to college for a year or two.
What is a Gap Year?
Most students start college the fall after they graduate high school. However, some choose to take a gap year, meaning they wait a year and start college the following fall. There are myriad reasons one might take a gap year: finances, travel, family concerns, personal health, and many more. Taking a gap year doesn’t rob you of any rights or privileges you may have enjoyed had you started college directly after high school; essentially, the only thing that changes is your year of graduation.
The Benefits of Taking a Gap Year
There are myriad reasons to postpone starting college directly after high school.
- Financial reasons often compel students to take a gap year. If you anticipate a change in your family’s financial situation that would significantly increase your financial aid award, or take your extra year to work and save money, it can go a long way in making your education more affordable. Some students even take a gap year because they’ve been offered a unique employment opportunity that they won’t be able to accept later in their educational career.
- Health. Another reason to take an extra year between high school and college is your or a family member’s health. If you have chronic health concerns, taking a gap year can allow you to learn how to best manage your illness or recover without the stress of moving and classes. If a family member is ill, taking the year off to spend time with or serve as an aid to them is also a common decision.
- Personal Circumstances. There are also many personal reasons that one might choose to take a gap year separate from immediate, necessary concerns like finances or illness. Many students do choose to travel in the year before they start school, as once they’ve started studying, their summers are likely to be filled with work or internships. This travel isn’t always purely recreational, either; students can apply for grants to conduct research at home or abroad.
- Pursuing Interests. Gap years can also be a great time to devote yourself to volunteering, finally finish your list of books to read, or thoroughly reflect upon your personal and career goals. Usually, students have very little free time in high school to pursue pursuits other than academics or their extracurriculars, and those who take a gap year have a chance to explore their interests to a degree that wouldn’t be possible while in high school and probably wouldn’t be possible in college, either. For those who are unsure about their major or career path, gap years afford an excellent opportunity to carefully consider and create an academic and professional plan.
- Burnout/Buffer Year. Some students choose to take a gap year even if they don’t fall into any of the above categories; the period between high school and college marks a major transition and a huge increase in responsibility, and there are students that just prefer to enjoy another year of freedom. Most, if not all colleges will allow you to postpone your first semester by one or sometimes two years if you choose without having to worry about reapplying. Many high school students, especially those who are ultra-competitive, feel burnt-out after high school. Four years of rigorous studies, sports teams, academic competitions, and college applications take a toll, and some can seriously benefit from taking a year to decompress. If you feel you’d benefit from another year or two to mature, learn, and explore without the pressure of a competitive university environment, you might benefit from taking a gap year.
The Disadvantages of Taking a Gap Year
Despite the many advantages that a gap year can bring, there are also several significant disadvantages. Many students who take a gap year struggle with the feeling that they’re being “left behind” as many of their friends go off to start school. This feeling can persist until graduation, when all their former classmates graduate but these students still have another year in school. Unless you feel very confident and secure in your decision to take a year off from school, you may experience some degree of alienation from your high school classmates.
Furthermore, waiting an extra year before starting school means that unless you were already among the youngest in your class, you will be a year or two older than most of the students in your grade and your classes, at least your first year. This can further exacerbate feelings of alienation, as your peers are largely of a different age group. However, many students who take a gap year feel that any sense of detachment from their classmates they may experience would be outweighed by the benefits of taking a year off. In addition, being 19 in a group full of 18 year olds isn’t necessarily a big deal; differences are more pronounced for students who have taken several years off.
While many students take gap years for financial reasons, there are also financial arguments against taking a gap year. The cost of college tuition is increasing at an astronomical rate; the University of California system, for example, has laid forth a plan for 5% increases in tuition each year. If you’re attending a school that is offering you no or little financial aid, you may end up paying more, as the longer you wait, the higher tuition grows.
Finally, many students who take a gap year, especially those postponing matriculation at top schools, have been go-getters their whole lives. After four years of high school that probably included countless AP classes, participation on several athletic and academic teams, and hours upon hours of community service, the idea of taking an entire year off (especially if they don’t have any concrete plans for travel, work, or studying) can be unchallenging to a frustrating degree. If you’re the sort of student that performs best with a jam-packed schedule, taking a gap year may not be the best choice.
Though taking a gap year can be frustrating for students who would rather start school immediately but can’t due to personal circumstances, it’s important to remember that taking a gap year has a negligible effect on your life as a student once you start school. Other than the difference in age, you’ll face all the challenges and enjoy all the privileges that other freshmen do, and if you’ve used your time off productively, prospective employers are unlikely to mind. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to take a gap year should be made on a case-by-case basis. Students who consider taking a year off should carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each decision, and consider not only the immediate, but long-term consequences of the decision. Though there is pressure for students to attend college directly after high school, it’s most important that students carefully weigh their options to make an informed decision that’s best for them.