The Gap Year: How Taking A “Break” Can Lead To Success

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With Malia Obama deciding to take a year off before attending Harvard, it’s possible that the “gap year” will become even more popular.

And it’s pretty popular already. Tovia Smith of NPR reported that the number of kids choosing to take a gap year has been rising rapidly over the past decade, with roughly 40,000 college bound seniors opting to take a year off before attending college. In fact, Harvard has seen a 33% increase in the number of students taking a gap year, MIT saw their number of deferments double between 2009 and 2010, and many colleges and universities are starting to advertise this option on their websites.

Moreover, there is some evidence that suggests that a gap year might actually be beneficial to students, helping them to succeed academically and find meaningful, fulfilling work post-graduation. So, does that mean your soon-to-be-graduating senior should sit back, relax and take a year to catch up on Game of Thrones? Um, no. (Sorry, kids.) Benefiting from a gap year actually requires some planning, so we did some research to find out what makes for a good gap year and why one could help college bound students in the long run.

What is a gap year?

A gap year is time spent away from formal, classroom education that can be used to travel, intern, work or volunteer. Often taken between high school and the first year of college, a gap year can provide students with an incredible opportunity to gain real-world experience, increase their confidence, and hone career goals.

The best gap years are not only productive, but also transformative. Jeffrey Selingo, award winning columnist and author of There is Life After College, emphasized in a recent interview for NPR, that a gap year should not mean simply working at odd jobs after graduation for a few years and trying to “find oneself.” This can actually have the opposite effect of a gap year, increasing a student’s chances of getting lower grades and ultimately dropping out. Instead, a gap year needs to be a transformative learning experience. This could include pursuing meaningful work that is of great interest to the student, volunteering for a cause that the student is passionate about, or traveling to somewhere that will enhance global perspective and international experience.

What are the benefits?

There are numerous benefits to taking a gap year, including increased maturity and even improved academic performance. Traveling, working or participating in full-time service allows students to gain perspective and put theory learned in the classroom into practice, perhaps for the first time. A gap year can also address “burnout” and help students approach their college education with more focus.

While most of the gap-year benefits are anecdotal and qualitative at this point, there is some evidence that students who take a gap year will actually perform better academically than those who dive straight into college life. Universities have reported that these students are more engaged on campus, have greater clarity in their career ambitions, and are more likely to graduate on time with a higher GPA. Moreover, not only do gap year students outperform their non-gap year counterparts in terms of grades, they also outperform themselves, based on their high school credentials. At Middlebury College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students who took gap years reportedly had a GPA that was 0.1 to 0.4 points higher than what was predicted. Research has also suggested that students who take gap years approach coursework more seriously and are less likely to participate in risky behaviors, like binge drinking.

Taking a gap year sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure I feel comfortable with my 18 year old running off to a foreign country alone. Are there university-sponsored gap years?

There are! With so much research supporting the benefits of gap years, many schools are embracing the idea. So much so that they actually have designed their own programs, many of which offer financial aid.

Princeton’s Bridge Year program offers a select number of incoming freshman the opportunity to participate in a nine-month tuition-free community service initiative. Students can choose from five international locations, Brazil, Bolivia, China, India and Senegal, where they can study a foreign language and gain international perspective and intercultural skills.

Tuft’s 1+4, another bridge-year program, is a full-time service learning program with national and international locations that gives students the opportunity to grow. This program offers a variety of types of service projects to choose from, with some students teaching english abroad and others participating in sustainability projects. Students participating in this program receive need-based support, with the highest-need fellows receiving full funding.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a Global Gap Year Fellowship is the only university sponsored program that allows students to entirely design their own gap year experience. After submitting an application that describes their proposed international year of service, selected students will be provided with up to $7,500 and mentors to help them plan their trip, as well as engage the skills and experiences gained when they return to campus. With only seven spots available, this program is highly competitive, and students must apply Early Action to participate.

Need more gap year ideas?

There are also independent organizations that offer gap year experiences. The American Gap Association, a nonprofit that researches the benefits of gap years, also offers a list of accredited gap year programs, rigorously vetted to ensure that each program offers a quality experience.

So, before deciding whether or not a gap year is right for your child, explore your options. Above all, a gap year should be a safe and transformative experience that helps your child develop independence and life skills to bring with them to their university experience.

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