Gap Years: a Bad Reputation but a Good Experience


Aug 31, 2016

Photo: zipline peru

Tis the season for high school graduations! Many members of the class of 2016 are most likely swarming Target and Bed Bath & Beyond to buy all the essentials for their first semester of college just three short months away. However, more and more students are deferring their college acceptance letters and taking a gap year. 

The American Gap Association defines a gap year as “an experiential semester or year ‘on,’ typically taken between high school and college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.” They also concluded on the growing popularity of gap years that, “We don’t know exactly how many US students take a Gap Year each year, but amongst our sources we are able to say that interest and enrollment is growing substantively.”

What do students do on gap years?

Students taking gap years have a multitude of options on how to spend their time. However, one gap year option seems to be a top choice among students: travel. The American Gap Association conducted a survey in 2015 and reported that 85% of students who took a gap year wanted to travel and experience other cultures.

At eighteen years old, some students do not feel ready to study abroad, so they utilize their gap year differently. 

Many gap year students find work ranging from experiential internships or jobs to make extra cash for the future. Some gap year students have a passion to give back and find themselves devoting their time to volunteering. Other gap year students use this year to test their talents—for example, trying professional golf for a year or auditioning for Broadway musicals! 

Who takes a gap year?

Caitlin Lauback, current Research Technician at UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, took a gap year between high school and college and studied abroad at Colégio Santa Úrsula in Ribeirão Preto, São Paolo, Brazil. There, she lived with three different host families over the course of the year. 

Reflecting on her senior year of high school, she shared, “While my peers were busy searching for colleges, I was simply not interested in the process. I went into school one day, and there was a table advertising a foreign exchange program. It struck me as this ‘that’s what I want to do’ moment, so I walked up and signed up to be an exchange student.” 

Lauback is just one example of why taking a gap year is the right option for some students. She even recalls, “By the time I did start college I was more focused that I would have been, had I rushed forward with school.” 

While gap years are only recently becoming popular in America, they are actually already the norm in many European countries. For example, the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research, and Education in Oslo, Norway reports that over 50 percent of students take a gap year between high school and college (American Gap Association). 

Even Prince William took a gap year between studying at Eton College and the University of Saint Andrews. According to his official website, the Duke of Cambridge trained with the Welsh Guards in Belize, worked on a dairy farm in the United Kingdom, visited several African countries, and taught English in southern Chile.

While Prince William is praised for his work abroad, American society generally expects students to attend college immediately after graduating high school. Defying this standard is often treated with contempt because students who take gap years are viewed as underachievers when in fact the opposite is true!

Although society continues to perpetuate the stereotype that gap years are for lost souls or those who are below average in academic success, students of all levels of academic achievement are taking gap years. CIEE, the Council on International Educational Exchange, reports that “In the last decade, Harvard College has seen a 33% jump in the number of their incoming students taking gap years. Similarly, MIT saw their number of deferments double from 2009 to 2010.”

Should women be taking gap years?

One of these Harvard College incoming students, deferring to take a gap year, is President Obama’s own daughter! Although Malia Obama’s situation is slightly different because not everyone is waiting for Dad to leave the White House, she is still following the footsteps of many students, particularly women, hoping to gain new experiences from a year abroad before college.

Gregory Malveaux, professor and author, specifically addresses women studying abroad on gap years in his article, “Women Using the ‘Gap Year’ to Close the Gender Gap.” He states, “Sixty-five percent of all American post-secondary students abroad during the 2012-2013 academic year were female. They are aptly using this year abroad to gain skills and knowledge prior to entering American higher education and the workforce.”

Malveaux further concludes that the knowledge, skills, and exposure gained from studying abroad is actually helping women close the wage gap, as they are using this time abroad to learn and excel themselves in what are stereotypically deemed male dominating fields of study. He says, “The reality is that women are ‘leading’ the new evolution in study abroad, pushing for more high-impact programs for career growth and marketability.”

Contrary to popular belief, gap years are not just for liberal arts students looking for language immersion either! According to The Journal Science, “National statistics show that half of medical school-minded students are taking at least one Gap Year…the percentage is even higher – 60% – for undergrads at high-powered research institutions such as Johns Hopkins heading for medical schools nationwide.”

What are the pros and cons of the gap year?

Regardless of gender and college major, gap years are proven to have consistently positive effects. The American Gap Association reports that 98% of students believed their gap year helped them develop as a person. 84% of students believed their gap year helped them acquire skills to be successful in their careers. Finally, 83% of students believed their gap year instilled an appreciation for and belief in the importance of human rights.

Lauback notes, “Living in Brazil was by far the most influential experience that shaped who I am as a person. It is challenging to specify why or how I was influenced, as it was the experience as a whole; it was the total immersion in a culture unlike my own and everything played its part: the people, the food, the music, and the futebol.” 

If gap years are so great, then why aren’t more students taking them? Admittedly, downsides of taking a gap year exist. One reason why students do not take a gap year is that gap years are not the standard in America. Many high school graduates automatically have college on their minds simply because American society is structured this way. 

However, some students do wish to take a gap year but cannot due to costs. Expenses add up whether a student is travelling abroad or volunteering, leaving many students to forgo taking a gap year. For those who do consider studying abroad on a gap year and have the funds to do so, the advantages can be wide-reaching.

More specifically, academic benefits of taking a gap year include learning to work in groups, prevents academic burnout, lights passion for learning, provides clarity about college majors and careers, offers field experience, supplies exposure to a different culture, and gives students an edge in the job market (American Gap Association).

Connecting her time abroad to her academic success, Lauback says, “I was able to approach and analyze new topics from multiple perspectives, which I believe led to a greater understanding of the subject material in my classes. An individual who is culturally diverse stops being limited by an, arguably more common, linear way of processing information and can look at things in a multi-dimensional way.” 

Studying abroad on a gap year does not only cultivate academic growth but also personal growth. Some personal benefits of studying abroad on a gap year are developing a cross-cultural understanding, learning creative problem solving, increasing personal development, and understanding what it means to be a global citizen (American Gap Association).

Lauback shares about her personal growth, “I grew as an individual as I learned to trust in myself, to be adventurous, and, most importantly, to accept and love those who are different. I felt this when I was at first welcomed and then forever accepted into my Brazilian families, whom I continue to be in touch with today, receiving the endearing name of their ‘filha Americana,’ or American daughter.”

From the statistics to the first-hand account of Caitlin Lauback, gap years are extremely valuable, so why are they underrated in society? Of course some gap year students do not use their time wisely, upholding the bad reputation of gap years. However, finding a study abroad program is a definite way to ensure a gap year well spent.

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