11/23/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gap Years: Are They Effective for Students?


In Europe, it's been a longstanding tradition for high school students to embark on a "gap year" of traveling and volunteering before entering their post-secondary studies. This trend is now becoming more popular amongst American students who want to explore their interests through real world experiences.

The American Gap Association, an organization that accredits gap year programs, discovered in its research that enrollment in these programs climbed 27 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Several educators believe that high school students should take a mental break from academic life. Some universities are even encouraging this practice by offering students scholarships and fellowships.

Princeton's Bridge Year Program offers a few newly admitted undergraduates a nine-month, tuition-free opportunity to defer their enrollment for a year. While engaging in community service in another country, students gain an international perspective and intercultural skills.

The Global Gap Year Fellowship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was funded by an anonymous donation of $1.5 million to support gap years for students who could not afford the expense. Now, qualified students can receive $7,500 toward a service-oriented gap year abroad.

Self-awareness and academic burnout are the two common reasons students desire a gap year. Students are yearning for experiential learning that gives them a chance to actually practice multiple crafts. With the pressure of choosing the "right" major, students want to explore the real-life work before committing to a four-year journey.

Zack Sills, who completed a gap year, stated, "I learned just as much in my nineteenth year than I probably learned in my last two years of high school. When I was in Canada, I was the only American at the ranch. There were Canadians, Germans, and Australians, so it really made me appreciate other cultures. I learned a lot in Canada; the type of work I did made me come outside of my comfort zone."

Several programs tout the benefits students receive from gap years. Research shows that "gappers" outperform their peers. A 2011 study at Middlebury College found that students who experience a gap year consistently maintain higher GPAs than those who didn't. Moreover, gap year students reported being 75% more likely to be "happy" or "extremely satisfied" with their careers after college.

In order to prepare for a gap year, experts recommend that students talk to their parents and college counselors. Students should be ready to map out a strategic plan for their gap year with goals and action steps.

Students must know why they want to pursue a gap year. What do they want out of the entire experience? The mere idea of just traveling around the world may wear off after the first month. So, students should focus on a career goal or life direction. Then, they can coordinate the logistics, program structure, financial assistance, and safety precautions with their parents and university.

Overall, the effectiveness of a gap year varies from person to person. However, with a little research and first-hand knowledge from other gappers, students can make a decision that's right for them.

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