Not everyone goes straight from high school to college. Not everyone goes through four years of college without taking a break, and certainly not everyone graduates in four years.
The "traditional" model of going straight from high school to college, and then graduating in four years is often ingrained as the “right” way to do things. It’s what we see in the movies and what is recommended as the best way to move forward from student to a “real” adult. It’s what I did, so in some respects I’m not the best authority on the subject of gap years, although I advocate travel as a positive disruptive force in general, and as a learning/self-development tool more generally.
The first time I heard of people doing gap years was the summer after my freshman year, when I spent a month in Guatemala studying Spanish. I met tons of people, from young travelers to retirees looking to learn new skills and have adventures. But something that took me completely by surprise was meeting large groups of young Danish people on their gap year. Apparently, most Danes (and many other Europeans) take a year between high school and college. After graduation they work for a few months, travel until they run out of money, and then return home to start university.
This blew my mind. And it made me realize how culturally limited my idea of college life was, and what a “normal person” did for their education. For these young people, travel was part of understanding the world, and would lead to better experiences in college once they got there.
Since that time, I’ve heard other stories and other reasons for taking a gap year before starting college. A common one is the expense of college, and that living at home and saving money for a year can make a huge difference in financial resources. Likewise, a common reason is that you don’t feel ready to choose a major and start on the path of “the rest of your life.”
There are, in fact, a host of reasons I can imagine to put off college for a year or so:
- Get practical experience
- Save money
- Gain language proficiency
- Decide on a major or area of interest
It seems to me that a gap year, if taken seriously and strategically, could lead to a much better college experience in both intangible and practical ways. The time might leave you feeling more adventurous, confident, and prepared, while also providing a way to stand out from your peers in college. When applying for scholarships, internships, or jobs, this gap year could be an important part of an overall narrative that adds depth and difference to your resume and skills.
All this being said, I think the fear of “getting stuck” in the gap year is something to pay attention to. If you spend too much time away from classroom life it can be difficult to get back to the grind of coursework and studying. Likewise, if the gap year isn’t handled strategically, it can detract from your narrative and your goals. This can be a bit tricky, especially if you’ve chosen a gap year to help figure out what those goals might be. Here are some thoughts on making the most of the time, and not getting stuck in the gap:
- Even if you’re taking a gap year, apply to your top colleges anyway. You can always defer for a year, and spend your gap year with the knowledge that you have a plan.
- Work toward at least one skill set or one success story. Maybe this means a job. Maybe it’s a language. Maybe it’s a creative writing project. Maybe it’s volunteering or an internship. But make a goal: start something, pursue it, finish it.
- Have a reason for your travel, or find one once you get there. Maybe you go to Costa Rica because it’s beautiful, but stay because you encounter a unique culture or an innovative environmental program. Do something active with your travel—you’ll enjoy it more and it will mean more later.
- Take some classes. Do it through your local community college or some accredited online system. A gap year doesn’t have to mean a year without study of any kind.
- Pay attention to what you learn, be it on the job, through travel, or by absorbing the ‘real world.’
Develop your narrative. The experiences and skills of a gap year could make an enormous difference in how you approach college, and how you are perceived by potential future employers or by what you have to offer in class discussions.
Here’s a thought that applies broadly to all of us who are finding non-traditional paths through life:
You cannot “waste time.” There are the experiences you will have and those you will not. There is no “deadline” in critical life achievements. You choose what your story holds.
This philosophy is enormously freeing to me. You will not "miss out" if you choose a gap year over the traditional straight from high school to college track. You will not be "behind" your peers if you're one year older when you graduate--you will instead have a different story of your adventures, education and experience during the previous years. That's a good thing! I highly recommend letting go of any ideas of what you will have/be by the time you're ____ years old. Set goals, not restrictions. If your life offers you bold options, don't quibble because you set "diploma by 22" in stone.
I can’t say in retrospect that I wish I had taken a gap year. I came into my own during my freshman year of college and developed strong friendships in my freshman dorms that were critical to my experiences at school. I also was a bit timid in the face of international travel, until I took the big leap to go to Guatemala after my freshman year. I don’t know what would have changed for me if I had taken that plunge a year earlier. Despite these personal reflections, I do think a gap year could serve as an excellent option for high school students—both those who know for sure that they want to pursue a highly academic track and desire the real-world context; and those who might benefit from a year to clear their heads and settle into self-driven study as independent adults.
There are many resources out there to help plan and pull off a gap year. I will say that I have never paid an outside service to arrange my travel, but have instead gone straight to the local school/organization/host community to arrange things for myself. However, that again comes from the safety and confidence of my experience and language ability. Depending on where a gap year might take place (abroad or at home) it might make sense to find an accredited program to help you make it happen.
A final note: when I was a senior in high school I read Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman. I highly recommend this resource to anyone interested in serious and long-term travel, particularly those who aspire to travel alone.
For now, happy travels! I’ll be revisiting this subject in the future with people’s personal experiences or other advice for travel.
Do you have a gap year story to share? Did you skip it, and wish you’d taken the plunge? Do you have advice for students trying to make this decision? Are you a high schooler pondering all this yourself? Let me know!