In my previous posts, I have been mentioning the disappointment many students experience because of virtual or hybrid learning that (among other things) we owe to the pandemic. After all the campus tours, choosing the location, comparing Greek life and student clubs, you finally make your decision. You are hyped and giddy about being accepted… aaand you are stuck at your old desk in your old room in your same old house with all your "college experience" shrunken to a 14-inch screen and a ton of paper writing. That's somewhat anticlimactic, to say the least – and to add insult to injury, it didn't even reduce the cost of tuition.
However, this can be a blessing in disguise because you know what? You don't have to take that. If you are unhappy with your college experience under quarantine restrictions, you can wait it out. How? By taking a gap year!
What's a Gap Year?
A gap year is a time taken off formal education. Typically, it's a year-long break between graduating high school and starting college. However, it can also be a semester off during your program.
In the post-COVID world, taking a gap year exploded in popularity. Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, says that GYA's official website searches have increased almost by five during the pandemic (2,300 per month compared to 500).
Normally, USA students would rarely step down from the smooth formal education pipeline. Quite unlike their European counterparts, I must say, for whom taking a break to learn through experience and make up their minds about the future is a good and tried practice encouraged by society.
It is still a novelty idea, but at least it is no longer seen as eccentricity reserved for affluent students who spend on traveling and "searching for their true self" more than they would on tuition. Structured gap year programs are available, and there are non-profits consulting students on making the most of this time: from getting a job and saving money to backpacking and exploring. With over 400,000 young people expected to take a gap year in 2021, it's high time we speak about it.
Why Take a Gap Year?
Depending on your school's mode of operation in the upcoming semester, you may want to reconsider and postpone starting college. If you aren't thrilled with the prospect of virtual learning, or you feel that 12 years of education are beginning to take their toll, a gap year might be the solution you are groping for. The pros of it are endless.
1. Avoid academic burnout
The stress of high school, achievement race, obsessing over your GPA, high stakes of the application season – it all adds up. Taking time to rest and enter college refreshed and eager to learn instead of exhausted and burned out will make you a world of good.
The opponents of the gap year idea often argue that taking a break may cause you to lose your academic momentum. It will also delay your entry into the workforce and lose you a year's worth of salary. However, this contradicts all data we have!
First of all, students who take a gap year are more likely to graduate in four years, compared to six years of the national average. Second, some students take a gap year to work and save money or gain experience during internships to augment their employability upon graduation. Hence, the salary argument goes out the window.
As for the academic momentum, students who take the gap year on average have a higher GPA. Moreover, they have greater ownership of their education: transfer less, navigate academic life more responsibly, and report that their gap year helped them choose the right major.
2. Live independently
A gap year is your chance to enter college as a more mature and apt person. Traveling and volunteering in other countries contributes to your global awareness. An insider look into economic challenges and social issues other nations might be facing gives you a valuable perspective on your own country and global affairs.
Moreover, even structured gap year activities are usually less organized. You will have to take responsibility for your daily life, acquiring some valuable skills along the way. Figuring out the trip itinerary, planning meals, budgeting, learning your way around the new city, making appointments with a doctor, going out of your comfort zone to teach others – all this builds your maturity and independence.
3. Boost your resume
There is a wide choice of activities that look good on your resume. Work experience in your intended field, learning hard or soft skills during an internship, studying a second language, leadership and managing an independent project, volunteering, journalism, or creative pursuits like music and arts.
If unpaid internships or language courses are a luxury you cannot afford, spending your gap year having a job and saving up will still have a twofold benefit. Moreover, self-directed learning through passion projects usually doesn't cost much.
4. Identify your core values
Taking some time off to gain clarity on your priorities can be a life-changing decision. Before planning your career and committing to a major, define your areas of academic curiosity and social interest. Try out different projects, gain hands-on experience, and explore the possibilities. This will cultivate a better understanding of who you are and what your purpose in life is.
Why Not Take a Gap Year?
That is going to be rather short. There are only three cases when taking a gap year is not a good option:
- When a college you were admitted to doesn't allow deferring, and you don't want to lose the place
- When you depend on scholarships and grants that were given to you under the condition of continuous studies and they might not be available next year
- When you have no idea how to spend this time, and you risk wasting a year "just thinking about it"
- It is also important to remember that gap year during COVID offers limited opportunities. International travel, participating in mass events, or internship in the office might no longer be on the table. Assess your options and available resources before you make a decision on deferring.
So, if all the stars are aligned in your favor, your reach school has admitted you and offered you a scholarship, maybe risking it to take a year off is not a good idea. However, if your school has an established (or newly introduced) deferral policy that lists your gap year plans as legitimate – why not apply for it?
All experts agree on one thing. You should know what you want from your gap year. Either structured or self-designed, your experience should be driven by clearly defined goals: work experience, learning, community service, etc. "Know what is your 'why?' and what you hope to get out of this," encourages gap year advisor Marion Taylor. "Make your gap year intentional."