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Countdown to college: The advantages of taking a gap year

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

Taking a year off after high school, or a “gap year,” has become an increasingly popular and accepted decision here in the United States. In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, gap year experiences have long been considered one of many traditional options.

I was unsuccessful in my efforts to convince my own children of the benefits of a taking a gap year. I wanted them to “want” to go to college for the right reasons, rather than just following everyone else in lock-step. Some parents are afraid that if their child doesn’t head off to college immediately after high school, they may never go. They fear their child will lose momentum and won’t find a satisfying career.

Research on gap year experiences has shown that not to be true. A recent study found that more than 90 percent of gap year students do, in fact, head to college within 12 months. Other research has repeatedly demonstrated that “gappers” earn higher grades in college than their traditional counterparts. Gap students are often quick to say that they grew up a lot during their gap year and that they headed off to college a year later feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, more mature and more intellectually curious.

According to the American Gap Association, “students who take a gap year and go on to college are 75 percent more likely to describe being happy or extremely satisfied with their careers after they complete their universities studies.”

Gappers enter college life ready to study. They’ve outgrown many of the freshman antics that can prove so damaging to a student’s GPA. Colleges and universities have come to appreciate the contributions that gap year students bring to the campus, and many are now encouraging students to take a year off.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (www.unc.edu) has been a pioneer in the supporting students interested in taking a gap year with its Global Gap Year Fellowship, which allows students the opportunity to plan their own gap year experience. Princeton (www.princeton.edu) has created the tuition-free Bridge Year Program where selected students participate in a nine-month service program at one of five international sites. Tufts University (www.tufts.edu) recently designed the 1+4 Bridge Year Service Learning Program, where students complete a year of service before they enter the classroom.

What do students do on a gap year?


When I’m working with a student who is considering taking a gap year, I suggest they think about creating a patchwork quilt of different life experiences. Some of these might include travel, foreign language immersion, internships/job shadowing, gainful employment and community service. Often there is a combination of international travel with community service or a career focus. Students and families can provide as much structure as they want; basically, there are no rules to follow. If a student has a defined career interest in something like medicine or architecture, there are plenty of opportunities to gain exposure and experience both domestically and internationally.

Gap Year Resources





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