Taking a “gap year” before college may be out of the ordinary in the United States, but it is fairly common in other areas of the world. In fact, gap years in many European countries to travel or work are somewhat customary, mostly because there are fewer societal pressures to head off to university directly after high school.
Does it have to be so weird to take a gap year in the U.S.? Personally, I don’t think it should be, and I believe many high school students could benefit from a “year off” higher education before they decide on a degree program.
That time doesn’t have to be spent doing nothing, nor does it always lead to a lack of motivation. If anything, gap years give high school students some time to decide how they want their lives to be, and to mature a little before they invest in something as important — and expensive — as a college degree.
There are additional reasons gap years can pay off, although many of the benefits of taking a gap year depend on the student themselves. I reached out to a range of higher education experts to find out why and when they think gap years are important, and here’s what they said.
More Time To Mature
First off, each of the experts I spoke to agreed that students can become much more “grown up” by age 19 or 20 than they were when they left high school at age 18.
Benjamin Caldarelli of Benjamin College Consulting says that students become much more emotionally mature over this timeline as well, and this can make them more focused and prepared to succeed academically.
The college consultant adds that a well-planned gap year can give students “an opportunity to arrive on campus with a greater perspective, heightened self-awareness and a clear intention of what they want out of their college experience.”
Not only that, but many of the highest performing students could benefit from choosing how they want to spend their time and what they want to learn when there is no grade to earn or award to win.
Dr. Elmar Mammadov, who consulted undergraduate students at various educational institutions, including the University of Maryland – Baltimore as a postdoctoral fellow, says the number one struggle he saw in freshmen undergraduate students entering college life was feeling uncertain about their major. During his advising sessions, he said he heard many students say they applied and enrolled in college because they felt pressure from family and peers to “take the next step” in their education, even though they didn’t feel ready for it.
During a gap year, however, students have the opportunity to “step back from the traditional academic environment and engage in activities that truly interest them,” he said.
“They can pursue internships, volunteer work, travel, or even take up new hobbies,” noted Mammadov. “This period of exploration allows them to discover their passions, strengths, and weaknesses, which in turn provides a clearer sense of direction when they eventually enter college.”
Not only that, but Mammadov says he has seen students use a gap year to engage in internships or volunteer work that helped them find out their intended college major was a poor fit for the lifestyle they wanted to live.
“This self-discovery can be a game-changer, as it saves them from wasting time and money pursuing a major that doesn’t align with their true interests and aspirations,” he said.
Career strategist Carli Fink, who currently works at the University of British Columbia, also says there are financial benefits that can come with taking a year off school that matter since college is so expensive.
Fink points out that working during a gap year can make it possible for a student to save money, and applying (or re-applying) to college with that work experience could make an applicant more competitive for some scholarships.
High school graduates may even wind up working for an employer that offers tuition assistance benefits that can apply if they work part-time while attending college.
Michael Lux of The Student Loan Sherpa adds that college isn’t for everyone either, and that taking a gap year may help some students realize this fact before they borrow endless sums of money for a few years of school.
“Repaying student loan debt is really hard,” said Lux. “Repaying the debt without the benefit of a degree is a nightmare.”
Finally, it’s important to remember there are few phases of life where it’s possible to take a year off to “find yourself.” Once you have kids and a mortgage, or even once you begin working in a traditional career field, taking off even a few months at a time can become an impossible feat.
With that in mind, students who have the chance to spend this time learning about themselves and how they want their future to be would be wise to at least consider the prospect of taking a gap year. The chance to take time off with an extended vacation or sabbatical may not come again.
According to Mammadov, taking advantage of this one-time opportunity allows students to enter college with a renewed sense of purpose and motivation.
“Instead of feeling burnt out or simply going through the motions, students who have had time to explore their interests are more likely to approach their studies with enthusiasm,” he said.
Potential Downsides of Taking a Gap Year
All this being said, experts we spoke to did point out some potential disadvantages of taking a gap year. These cons are worth considering.
Potential To Waste Time
While some students will put their gap year to good use, others may find themselves “stuck” where they are. College professor Dr. Ronnie Gladden says that four seasons will fly by quickly.
“If there is nothing to show for the lapse of time, that can be quite discouraging,” he said.
Dr. Gladden points out that, due to the potential for lost time, gap years work best when they are structured and planned out upfront.
“The idea is to have a proactive, constructive alternative to try out as opposed to just immediately enrolling into higher education as a rite of passage.”
Disconnect From Other Students
Dr. Robert D. Kohen of Kohen Educational Services adds that students may be a year older than their classmates upon enrolling in college, which can lead to a total disconnect in a social sense.
For example, students with plans to stay on-campus will find themselves surrounded by students a year younger — and much less experienced — than they are.
Educational consultant Kate Lewis of College Search Guide adds that taking a year off can also leave students with feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) as they watch their peers engage in a traditional college trajectory.
Ultimately, this means taking a gap year can be painful for some students, even if they ultimately benefit from the experience.
Last but not least, Lux points out that taking a year off college to save for higher education may not pay off since the costs of tuition and fees (along with room and board) always increase from one year to the next.
“Additionally, the one year you work now means you are one year delayed from entering the workforce with your degree,” he said.
Since you’ll likely earn more with a degree than you will during a gap year, the financial difference can be significant.
The Bottom Line
Taking a gap year between high school and college isn’t for everyone, just as some students don’t even need to go to college at all. Either way, now is the perfect time to consider whether spending a year traveling or working might leave you or your high school senior in a better position to succeed later in life.
You may only get the chance to take a gap year this one time, so don’t squander it unless you’re absolutely certain you’re ready to head to college right away.