Gap Year: Yes or No?

Taking a “gap year” (a year off between high school and college–or anytime along your college path) has been seen as unconventional, non-conforming and even controversial. However, this past year, due in large part to COVID-19, students deferred college admission at three times the usual rate! A recent study by College Reaction and Axios reported that 22% of college students (across all four years) say they are NOT planning to enroll in college this coming fall. With so many colleges doing a hybrid form of learning, many learners feel they’re not getting the full educational experience they’re paying for.

A gap year can have many purposes: working to save money, trying new experiences such as an internship, volunteer work, or for the less academically ambitious, the chance to ski, surf or sleep! Traditionally, an often-cited purpose of the gap year has been seeing the world. Students on a gap year have typically traveled abroad through various organizations and programs designed with precisely this type of experience in mind. Other students have taken the less structured “backpack around Europe” approach. But with so many travel restrictions, opportunities to work and play abroad have been temporarily minimized.

With these realities in mind, how should you evaluate whether or not to take an intentional gap year? The following list is in no way exhaustive, but might get you thinking about the pros and cons of this important decision.

Drawbacks:

  • You may feel left behind. While you sit on the sidelines, your peers will be moving forward with their education. If you’re not fully prepared for how to combat this reality, it could be a difficult, isolating time.
  • It may be expensive. Depending on what you plan to do with your time, it could end up costing you a lot of money. This is not necessarily a bad thing (college is expensive as well) as long as you have adequately accounted for these costs and know how you’ll pay for your desired experiences.
  • You may lose momentum. Unless you are determined to return to school, it’s easy to let your educational aspirations decrease over time. Some students get distracted by work or starting a family and fail to return to college. Studies are not conclusive about this but one study showed a 30% decline in enrollment once students take a year off, and this statistic increases quite dramatically the longer you fail to return to college.

Benefits:

  • You may learn about yourself. Taking time off to pursue other passions can be a great opportunity. Though the sudden independence may be a steep learning curve, it can also cause personal growth. If you’re not decided on a college major or career goal, this may be a chance to figure yourself out.
  • It may be a much-needed break from the classroom. Sometimes you need a chance to rest and refuel before tackling higher education. Several studies have shown that students in the U.S. who have taken a gap year end up graduating with a higher college GPA than their peers.
  • You may learn about and impact your world. At a time in life when you are generally driven to change the world, this may be the perfect chance to seize opportunity. Life tends to get more complicated as you go, so it makes sense to take risks and experience adventure before you get tied down by more responsibilities. If you are purposeful with your time, it may be a season of great life-learning and impact.

Whether or not a “gap year” is wise really depends on YOU. Experts advise that if you do decide to take a year off along the way, it’s important to clearly define WHY. Students who come away from the experience better are the ones who went into it: 1) motivated to keep learning 2) with a clear plan and 3) with a great attitude. If you can’t check these three boxes, then a gap year might not be the best idea for you.

Part of planning ahead means checking with your college of choice about their deferral policies so you know what you’ll do when your gap year is over. Will your college allow for a deferred enrollment? Will any scholarships you’ve earned be retained? And if so, for how long? These are important questions to ask ahead of time.

Portrait of a happy african american man traveling with bag and headphones

In his book, “Choosing College” writer Michael B. Horn suggests that you see your gap year “not as a year off, but as a year on purpose.” He has coined the wonderful term “discovery year” and suggests going into it in hopes of answering the question: “how can I best contribute to the world?” With an attitude like that, you’re sure to emerge a better person on the other side!