10 Good Reasons to Take a Gap Year Before College

Insider Guides
by Tim Patterson Jul 6, 2009

Photo by Brieze Levy

“Gap Year: A period of time taken by a student to travel or work, often after high school or before starting graduate school, as a break from formal education.” – dictionary.com

Many competitive colleges and universities encourage applicants to pursue a gap year option after graduating from high school.

The colleges believe that students who come to higher education with an extra year of life experience bring valuable perspective to the classroom.

“Taking a gap year in China was the best decision I ever made,” says Courtney Zenner, 26, who spent a year exploring China with the organization School Year Abroad.

“My experience in China exposed me to possibilities I never knew existed, taught me to think independently and allowed me to see the world.”

Photo by Kristin Brudevold

Courtney went on to graduate from Barnard College with a degree in Asian Studies and now leads semester programs in China and India.

Real world life experience gives gap year students a greater sense of personal direction and specific academic goals.

“I didn’t take a gap year, and I wish I had,” said Jessica Newman, 27, who is now an academic dean at South High-School in Denver, Colorado.

“Nobody knows exactly what they want to do when they’re eighteen years old. It’s smart to take time to figure out who you are before you rush into what you’re going to be.”

Gap years are popular with European and Australian students, but remain relatively rare in the Americas. However, in recent years more and more American students are preparing for college by taking a gap year.

Here are 10 good reasons for you to go for a gap year.

1. Learn About the World

Although gap years don’t have to involve foreign travel, most gap year students seize the opportunity to travel abroad.

Young people are able to figure out who they are and what inspires them.

This firsthand experience of unfamiliar cultures offers profound lessons, especially for curious and motivated young people.

After all, engaged travel is one of the best forms of genuine education.

2. Learn About Yourself

For students who grew up in a structured environment with clearly defined social, athletic and academic goals, gap years offer valuable personal freedom.

Young people are able to figure out who they are and what inspires them. During the gap year, they begin to emerge as self-actualized adults.

3. Have Fun

You only live once. A gap year bursting with travel, adventure, exploration and self-discovery can be a life-changing and intensely memorable experience.

4. Overcome Challenges

Make no mistake – a gap year isn’t time to slack off or take a vacation.

Gap year students usually work, volunteer or undertake self-directed service projects.

For many students, especially those from sheltered backgrounds, the gap year is a time to learn how to get along in the real world. This process isn’t always easy, but it is an essential part of growing up.

Photo by Adam Brooks

5. Save Money

There’s a common perception that gap years are only for wealthy students.

However, taking a gap year can actually save you money in the long run. Gap year students often work part-time as they travel, or volunteer for organizations that cover their expenses.

At the other end of the spectrum, structured gap year programs often offer college credit and cost less than college tuition.

The kicker is that by taking a gap year, students are much more likely to know what they want to study in college. Clear academic and career goals keep students from aimlessly drifting through 4 years of college and 3 years of graduate school at upwards of $40,000 per year.

6. Improve Your College Admission Chances

Imagine an admissions officer trying to decide between two applicants.

Both applicants boast impressive grades, scored high on the SATs, are highly recommended by their teachers and played varsity field hockey.

However, one applicant has volunteered for 8 months in East Africa, speaks some Swahili and is passionate about public health issues in developing countries.

Who do you think the admissions officer would choose?

7. Avoid the Social Pitfalls of College

Students who arrive at college with a full year of life experience under their belts are less likely to engage in risky behavior than students for whom college is their first intoxicating dose of freedom from parental supervision.

On this note, gap year students often become effective role models for their college classmates.

Photo by Camille Albouy

8. Find Your Academic Niche

College can be an opportunity to explore a wide range of academic disciplines, but students will get a lot more out of their education if they have at least a general idea of what they want to study, and what career their expensive education will prepare them for.

9. Learn A Foreign Language

Proficiency in a foreign language is an invaluable skill for young people in today’s interconnected world.

Living, working and traveling overseas is the best way to learn a foreign language, which means that gap year students who supplement their high-school Spanish with travel in Bolivia have a serious advantage over their peers.

10. Get Some Serious Perspective

Education, at its core, is about accumulating intimate knowledge of the world through a wide range of life experiences.

Nicholas Kristof
, a Rhodes scholar, Pulitzer Prize winning author and star columnist for the New York Times has this to say about gap years:

The bottom line is that you’ll almost certainly learn more from a gap year than you will in any single year in college.

Community Connection

I personally recommend the gap year programs offered by Where There Be Dragons, an educational youth travel organization that specializes in cultural immersion in developing countries.

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