Mind the Gap (Year)

Consider two students: 

Anna: A senior in high school, Anna is passionate about organic food and healthy living. In a high school elective class, she wrote a promising business plan that combined those two passions. In the summer after high school, she will intern at an organic health food store. Instead of going to college, she wonders if she should apply for more internships — to learn the ropes of starting a business while making important networking contacts. Her parents wonder: can Anna start a business while simultaneously paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans? Should she put a promising career path on hold for four years?

Zeb: Also a senior in high school, Zeb doesn’t know what he wants to do. He’s grown up in a middle class family and college is a rite of passage. And so he dutifully applied. But he has no specific academic goals or career passions. As he looks through the course catalogue he notices that his first semester classes will be entirely general education requirements — freshman math, freshman writing, freshman science, freshman history. He’s already bored. At least there will be parties and plenty of time to hang out with new friends.

Should everyone go straight from high school to college? 

We routinely frame the debate about whether students should go to college as a purely monetary consideration: a choice between a lifetime of financial struggle and the (presumed) certainty of a well-paying job. We never talk about whether teenagers should delay school, gaining some life experience and perspective before hunkering down for years of study. We ignore the fact that not every high school senior is ready for college or knows what he or she will study once there. We also ignore statistics that quantify the cost of this lack of passion: 30% of all college graduates leave without a degree (or the financial benefits of one). Instead, we expect teenagers to spend thousands of dollars taking courses that (might) help them ‘find their passions.’

Instead, we should encourage many students to take a year off before college. My fictional examples of Anna and Zeb above are two types of students who would strongly benefit from waiting to attend college.

In Europe and Australia, many students take off the year before college. They use the time to travel. (It’s the modern day descendent of the medieval pilgrimage and the Grand Tour.) Many of those who take a gap year come from wealthy families who pay for it. But not all do. Those who don’t work for a few months, then take the next six to nine off and travel the world on a budget. Then they come home and start university.

A working gap year

In America, a gap year is usually treated as a chance to gain specific experience that will motivate students to find a career or further their experience if they already have one in mind.

Even colleges often encourage their incoming freshman to consider a brief hiatus. Harvard reports that nearly a third of their incoming class takes a gap year. Greg Buckles, the Dean of Admissions at Middlebury, writes that gap years help us remember the true purpose of education: “to discover what it is we truly care about and want to pursue further, and thereby come as close as possible to realizing our own potential.” He also notes that students who have taken a gap year before coming to Middlebury routinely earn higher grades and participate in campus life more fully than those who came straight from high school.

This makes sense — a gap year motivates teenagers to learn with a goal in mind, one that doesn’t just lead to a career path, but to a meaningful career path. By taking a gap year, teenagers gain a new perspective: they see how their education prepares them for a future career and other interests, they interact with people outside their normal social circle, and they learn to budget and manage their money.

And for parents worried that delaying school for one year will lead to never going back to school, it rarely does. Ironically, taking time off from school makes one more likely to complete school in the first place.

Many students who take gap years come from wealthy backgrounds and attend expensive schools. That doesn’t mean that a gap year must be expensive. Programs run the gamut in terms of price. Some programs cost about what the first year of college costs, but others cost a fraction of that and could be affordable to any teenager who has a typical summer job. Many volunteer programs charge a small program fee, but provide room and board, further reducing costs. Some programs, like AmeriCorps provide stipends and completion grants to use at accredited colleges.

What might a teenager do on a gap year? 

  • Volunteer in a school or clinic in a foreign country, building language skills, empathy, and diverse work experience.
  • Live at home and work or volunteer with an internship in a potential career.
  • Take an intensive foreign language course or study marine biology on a ship.
  • Work locally for AmeriCorps (which also offers a scholarship to an accredited university)
  • Work for a few months and then take a train trip across Asia
  • Teach English abroad (if you earn TEFL certification before you go, many countries do not require a college degree)
  • Tutor and mentor low-income students through City Year
  • Work in wildlife conservation in Africa or South America
  • and more…

Now consider an alternative future for our two high school seniors, one in which each took time off immediately following high school: 

Anna: After her summer internship, Anna worked at an organic farm, which provided room and board. After doing this for the fall season, she applied to AmeriCorps and was placed in a job developing school gardens and healthy eating plans for local schools. She worked at this job for two years, developing contacts in her field, leadership skills, and other skills. After two years, she was ready to take the next step: she used the education credit she earned as part of her AmeriCorps grant and enrolled part-time in a local community college, taking mostly business classes. She used the rest of her day to immerse herself in the local business community, building contacts, and landing a part-time job that let her apply the academic skills she was learning in her evening classes. Soon she was ready to launch her own business.

Zeb: When Zeb received his admissions packet, he was surprised to see information (and even encouragement from the school’s Dean of Admissions) about deferring your enrollment and taking a year off before starting school. He’d always enjoyed sports and was shocked to learn that there were volunteer opportunities teaching soccer to underprivileged kids in South America. Since he wasn’t excited about school, he decided to apply. While teaching soccer, he realized that he enjoyed helping players avoid injuries. Zeb also, for the first time ever, saw the point of learning a foreign language, and he worked hard to develop near fluency in Spanish. He also discovered a love for Argentinian crime fiction. After a year, he was eager to attend school. He majored in Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy and minored in Spanish; he even wrote a few papers on South American popular fiction. After graduation, he joined a physical therapy company that specialized in treating recreational sports injuries. In his free time, he taught soccer to recent immigrants and started a Spanish-language book club at a local coffee shop.

Resources if You’d Like to Know more

  • The Gap Year Advantage — a complete guide to the various options available to American teenagers. Written by two parents whose son felt unmoored after high school. Working with a gap year consultant, he planned an ambitious year of world travel, volunteering across the world, practicing his language skills, and developing a new perspective on what he wanted to do with his life.
  • Many Ivy league and top US colleges encourage their students to take a gap year.  Middlebury has collected a fabulous resource list if you’re interested in learning more about a gap year.

Image credit: flickr/Alexander Baxevanis 

Chelsea Avirett

About Chelsea Avirett

Chelsea is the founder of Spyglass Tutoring, a Humanities enrichment tutoring service located in Rockland, ME. She has taught English literature to middle school and college students and is also certified (in the state of Georgia) to teach gifted education. She also holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband moved to Midcoast Maine in 2013 and love the excitement and vibrancy of the area’s creative economy.