So, you’re thinking about taking a gap year? You’re not alone. Many colleges and universities are starting to advertise this option on their websites – even Malia Obama took one!
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 a 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 their 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 an 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 of Taking a Gap Year?
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.
What to do during a Gap Year
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 freshmen 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 perspectives and intercultural skills.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a Global Gap Year Fellowship, 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, what happens after my Gap Year?
Whether your year was filled with travel, volunteer work, career exploration or maybe just a much-needed break before diving into four years of grueling college academics, it’s now time to switch gears and get ready to begin the next four years of education. Whatever your reason for taking some time before matriculating, it’s important to take a breath and take stock before beginning your first semester!
Reflect and Reset
First things first, it’s important to take some time to process your gap year. Whatever you did with it, this was probably a fairly remarkable period of growth in your life, and you would be surprised at how quickly you lose sight of the important takeaways from the past year. Whether you traveled the world, did some incredible work, or simply stayed home and cherished time for yourself and time with family, you owe it to yourself to do some self-reflection before you jump back into school.
It’s up to you how you do this: maybe you do some journaling, share stories and pictures with friends and family, or just take a few moments each day to meditate on your experiences. If you’re tech-savvy, maybe you make a video or put together an artsy slideshow commemorating how you spent your year.
With the reflection taken care of, let’s talk about resetting. Maybe you’re getting over some serious jet lag, or you’ve just been keeping a “looser” schedule, but either way, it will serve you well to readjust to a sleeping and eating schedule that will fit with your classes, or at least make you feel capable of being productive. Say goodbye to days of sleeping until noon. While your college schedule won’t be as rigid as your high school’s 8 am daily start schedule, you will need to be able to manage your time, and good time management usually starts with a regular wake-up call at a reasonable hour. Getting on track with some good habits before the semester starts will save you some stress as you adjust to college life and college academics.
Get your Ducks in a Row
Alright, now that you’re feeling mentally prepared to start your college career, let’s talk about some of the more practical considerations. You’ll need to make sure you have everything you need to start right, which will, of course, include your classic back-to-school shopping list—notebooks, pens, pencils, paper, paperclips, etc., etc.—but you’ll also need some heavier duty gear.
You will be required to have a computer, tablet, or some other electronic device capable of completing your written and online assignments. Every college campus will have a computer lab available for students to use, but we highly recommend bringing your own device. Computer labs on campus are often crowded—especially around exam time—and you don’t want to find yourself without access to a device the day before a big assignment is due! If you already have a device that’s great, but double check that it can handle the paces you’ll be putting it through—if you plan to take Intro to graphic design, for example, can your current laptop handle the software you’ll be required to use? Remember, it’s much easier to purchase any newly needed technology before the semester begins than halfway through the term! Most companies, including Apple, offer special discounts for students, which can go a long way when you’re looking at a price tag of over $1,000.
Beyond the basics you’ll need to complete your assignments, don’t forget about creature comforts. While most if not all dorm rooms will come equipped with the bare essentials—a bed, a desk and chair, a wardrobe—it will be up to you to fill your space with the things that will make you feel at home. What do you need to create a productive, comfortable space where you can both work and relax? Some essentials might include a couple of sets of sheets, a cozy quilt or duvet, a closet organizer, a laundry basket, and some basic cooking implements, such as a kettle to boil water for that late-night ramen. Ask mom and dad—they’ll probably be able to advise you in this department. Preparing to return to academics after a gap year can feel intimidating, and starting this next phase of your life will undoubtedly be daunting. Just remember, you took that year off to gain a better understanding of who you are as a person, and we’re sure it paid off. The increased maturity and development that you bring into the classroom will be appreciated by both your professors and your fellow students. You are ready!