In May, the White House announced that Malia Obama would be enrolling at Harvard, but only after she took a “gap year.” The announcement came as a surprise to many since gap years aren’t part of the typical path for most students in the United States.
However, gap years are much more common in other countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, and they may be on the verge of going mainstream in the U.S. After all, they’ve got the official White House stamp of approval now.
The idea is simple: take a year away from the academic grind to find yourself. Travel, work, volunteer. Learn more about what matters to you and about what the “real world” is like. Then when you show up to college a year later, you’ll have more purpose and you’ll be more motivated, more mature and more resourceful – or so the theory goes.
It sounds like a win-win-win: get some time off school, grow as a person, and maybe even earn some money if you spend your gap year working. But, as you might’ve guessed, there are some major pros and cons to weigh. Here’s what you should know about this growing trend, plus some advantages and disadvantages of gap years to keep in mind.
How Popular Are Gap Years, Anyway?
How many students take gap years varies a lot on a country-by-country basis. In the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia, for example, taking time before college to travel or gain life experience in some other way is fairly common.
In the United States, gap years are less standard, but it does look like they’re growing in popularity – and not just because First Daughters are now getting on the gap year bandwagon. Google Trends shows that interest in the search term “gap year” has increased steadily over time, with a sharp spike each April as students mull over their post-high-school plans.
According to the American Gap Association, the number of students attending gap year fairs ballooned by 294 percent from 2010 to 2014. While we don’t know exactly how many students are taking gap years every year, it does seem like a safe bet that the numbers going up.
And with the president’s daughter bringing gap years into the spotlight, that trend looks set to continue.
The Advantages of Gap Years
You’ve already heard some of the big selling points of gap years: go on an adventure. Learn more about yourself. Get real-world experience.
What you might not have heard is that some researchers have actually done surveys and crunched the numbers to see whether gap years are really all they’re talked up to be.
And it turns out there might be something to the whole “you’ll be more mature after a gap year, so you’ll do better in college” argument. For example, one study of Australian students found that those who took a gap year did in fact get higher grades that those who went straight to college. The effect was especially dramatic for students who were in the lower half of their classes, suggesting that students who struggle in school are the most likely to see their grades rise as a result of a year off between high school and college.
There’s reason to believe students in the United States benefit from gap years as much as students in Australia. In a 2011 column for the New York Times, former Middlebury College admissions dean Robert Clagett pointed out that when they surveyed the data at Middlebury, it emerged that gap year students graduated with significantly undergraduate higher GPAs overall, even when their high school GPAs were equivalent to those of non-gap-year students.
There’s even some indication that the benefits of gap years can persist beyond college. In a study of 280 students presented in The Gap-Year Advantage, Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson found that gap-year students appear to end up with high job satisfaction. Analyzing the data, Haigler and Nelson found that this increased job satisfaction seems to be related to a less self-centered approach to work.
So all in all, the data suggests some real possible upsides to taking a year off before college. At the very least, we know that you probably don’t need to worry about time away from school hurting your undergrad GPA.
That said, the results of this research aren’t definitive proof that gap years turn people into better students. It could be that students who take gap years are already different in some way that predisposes them to doing better in college.
Overall, though, there’s definitely reason to be optimistic that a gap year could work in your favor in college and beyond.
In fact, there are so many potential advantages to gap years that some schools have taken to actively encouraging students to defer enrollment for a year. Harvard, for example, has a Should I Take Time Off? web page that lays down their view of the pluses of gap years in stark terms with a section called “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.” University of North Carolina even goes so far as to provide Global Gap Year Fellowships to some incoming students.
The upshot, then, is that there may be real advantages to doing a gap year, and students and parents aren’t the only ones taking note. Schools are becoming increasingly interested in the idea of deferring enrollment for a year, another sign that this trend is picking up steam in the United States.
The Risks of Gap Years
While there are many possible boons to gap years, there are also some potential downsides to keep in mind.
The most obvious is financial. Students taking gap years tend to have higher family incomes. Although many students work during their gap years, some experiences like traveling and participating in certain gap-year programs remain off-limits to low-income students.
Moreover, some education researchers believe taking time off between high school and college isn’t the way to go for students who are at risk for not attending college at all. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the longer students delay their college studies, the less likely they are to enroll in college.
On the other hand, gap year advocates argue that low-income students stand to benefit from gap years too and that the advantages of gap years as far as maturity, motivation, sense of purpose and so on actually make it more likely that these students will attend and complete college.
More studies will have to be done before it’s possible to say with much confidence that the data supports one of these takes over the other, but one thing we do know is that gap years are becoming more accessible to people from all backgrounds now that schools like University of North Carolina are coming round to the benefits of offering scholarships to fund time away from school.
What Do You Do During a Gap Year?
Gap years are defined by what you don’t do (school), but what are you supposed to use the time for instead?
The short answer is “whatever you want,” although binge watching Netflix for 365 straight days might not lead to as much personal growth as some of the other options.
A traditional gap year activity is traveling. This can be a great way to gain perspective and put yourself in new situations. In New Zealand, it’s common for people to do an Overseas Experience or “OE.”
However, traveling is also one of the more expensive gap-year activities, and there are good alternatives. Working any job has many of the same maturity-building benefits as an extended trip.
Volunteering is another common use of a gap-year. AmeriCorps, which coordinates and supports tens of thousands of volunteers in the United States every year, is a popular option.
Finally, mixing and matching these different activities can be a good way to go. For many, a practical plan is to start the year by working, then later doing a little traveling.
It’s not clear how Malia Obama is spending her year, but she has plenty of good options to choose from. In a sense, how you spend a gap year might be less important than just taking the year to begin with. After so much time in the classroom, the point is that getting into a different space and expanding your horizons will make you better prepared for college and beyond. There are as many ways to do this as there are ways to not be in school.
So if you’re feeling adrift, burned out or curious about the “real world” as your high-school career draws to a close, a gap year is one possibility to consider looking into. If it’s right for Malia Obama, it just might be right for you too.
By Niels V.