The Benefits of Taking A Gap Year

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Global Citizen Year Alum Ismahan Ismail Hersi (India ‘16) with her students at a primary school in India.
This post was written by Zack Schroeder. Zach is a rising sophomore at Head Royce School in Oakland, California. He wrote his major freshman English research paper on the topic of gap years. Zack became interested in this subject because his parents have shared many articles about gap years with him. His extensive research highlighted the benefits of taking a gap year, and inspired him to share the topic with classmates and friends. He plans to take his own gap year after graduating in 2020.

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You could be anyone. You could be the star quarterback of the football team, a student with perfect AP scores, or a more quiet, less socially and academically gifted student. No matter who you are, there are innumerable reasons for you to take a gap year. Whether the purpose of the year is travel, work, community service, or even just a break from academics, gap years are an opportunity for you to take a step back from school to better yourself in preparation for both college and post-college experiences.

Gap years are on the rise recently. They have long been an option for high school students, but particularly since Malia Obama announced her decision to take a gap year before starting at Harvard University, the industry has skyrocketed. Many teens are realizing that they do not like the idea of going straight from high school to college with little break in between. They would rather take a step back from intense academics, and participate in a program with a gap year organization.

While skeptics may question the wisdom of taking a year “off,” studies show that most students who pursue gap years treat them as a year “on”. A recent survey by the American Gap Association (AGA) revealed that 92% of gap year participants wished to gain new experiences, 85% wished to explore new cultures, 81% wanted a break from academics, 48% wished to do volunteer work, 44% wished to explore possible career paths, and 41% wanted to learn a language. So, while taking a break is part of the equation, most students want to learn and grow during their gap years.

Students considering gap years may wonder: is a gap year worth it? The AGA survey shows that gap year participants had very positive experiences. They consistently praised their gap years, saying that the gap year experience: “allowed me time for personal reflection”(98% of students), “increased my maturity”(97% of students), and “increased my self confidence”(96% of students).

These benefits have not gone unnoticed by colleges. Harvard has encouraged gap years for over thirty years, and other Ivy League schools are now asking students, just after they are accepted, whether they want to defer and take a gap year. A small group of colleges, including Tufts, University of North Carolina, and Princeton have even started their own gap year programs, which they offer to admitted students. With the popularity of gap years growing rapidly, there is a chance that gap years will become the social norm or even a requirement for some colleges.

Even if students are not going to a college that recommends gap years, taking one can affect what they want to study. A student may think he wants to be an engineer, but then he takes a gap year and realizes he wants to pursue African Studies. In fact, a recent study shows that 60% of gap year participants said their experience influenced their choice of college major.

Perhaps the most powerful reasons to take a gap year, for those who hear about them, are the stories from those who have returned. One gap year participant (who now works to help make gap years accessible for all students at Global Citizen Year) says the first thing you should do when you get accepted to college is defer. and describes some of her experiences, including coaching soccer in Costa Rica, working on a farm on the Ecuadorian coast, backpacking through the Himalayas in India, teaching English and living in an orphanage in Ethiopia, and teaching English in central Uganda. While not all gap year takers have the energy for this student’s packed schedule, her stories are compelling reasons to take a gap year.

Ultimately, gap years are a fantastic opportunity for students of all calibers. Taking a gap year is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Later in adulthood, you cannot spontaneously go on a year-long adventure, so what better time to do this than when your brain is youthful, malleable, and untethered? So, I suggest that all of you high school students--whether you are the captain of the football team, the valedictorian, or a less involved student--ask yourself, “Will I continue my academic career as it is, or will I take a step back to get ahead?”

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