6 Reasons You Should Take A Gap Year Between High School & College 

by Mary Ellen Dingley

Gap years are a spectacular way to explore and learn about life between high school and college. Many countries even encourage gap years, and there are tons of benefits to taking them, despite all the assumptions that society often forces upon those that decide to "take a year off". The White House recently announced that President Obama's daughter, Malia, will be taking a gap year before attending Harvard in 2017, so if the president of the United States' daughter is doing it, why shouldn't you?

To some people, gap years are synonymous with trust-fund kids lolling around on a beach, but they can be so much more! A gap year is not necessarily a “break” or a time off. It’s a time on, just on in a different way.

There is a lot that can be done with a gap year - volunteer, work, intern, travel, independent study, or all of them combined. You could take a gap year immersed in one community, or hop around the world. Choose a year long program, or create your own by mixing and matching opportunities. Read on for a few reasons to help make the case for your very own gap year!

1. Explore the world of possibilities.

We don’t know what we don’t know, as the saying goes. No matter how smart we are, we can only be as informed as the information available to us. Going abroad is a spectacular way to figure out what we don’t know, to expand our library of information.

There are so many life paths to follow, and so many careers and academic majors that you might have never considered. There are career fields out there that high school doesn’t even touch on, international development, anthropology, dramaturge, snake milker (that one sounds dangerous...). Spending time abroad can teach you about these careers and academic majors that are outside the rote replies of doctor/lawyer/teacher. Or, to be a bit more millennial, social media manager/app developer/instagram model (which are legitimate jobs). 

Exploring expands options and passions! Without a gap year, how will you know whether or not you love being a festival volunteer around the world? How will you know if you love Brazilian street food, or prefer Thai? What if you are really good at bachata or teaching art, but you’ve just never tried? Take that year and try out new things!

A young female overlooking a sea of clouds

2. Once you do go to college, you’ll be more prepared.

Studies have shown that those who take a gap year perform better in college and are more satisfied with their careers after college.That sounds like a win-win! Even the admissions officers at the famously competitive Harvard agree, encouraging students, like Malia Obama, to take a gap year because they understand the breadth of benefits it will provide for incoming students. A gap year can decrease burnout and increase GPA and campus involvement.

As university prices in many places skyrocket, no one wants to endanger a pricey investment by sending a tired, already-over-it first year off to college.

With a gap year under your belt, you’ll arrive on campus ready to join student clubs, ace your exams, and make new friends with all of your hilarious stories about missing your bus in Bangkok or the time you became a little too close and personal with neighborhood monkeys. You’ll be the life of the party, a campus leader, and graduate Summa Cum Laude. Look at you go!

3. Get to know yourself.

This could be the first time away from the family nest, and without the stress and structure of college, it’s the perfect time to get to know yourself more. What do you believe? Not what your community believes, but you? What does a happy life look like to you? What are your passions? What do you secretly hate, but pretended to like because everyone else did? Maybe you pretended to like punk rock just because that cool guy in your math class did, but secretly you always hated it; time to let that go! (Now can you understand why someone, who has been in the public eye for nearly a decade, like Malia Obama would decide to take a gap year?!).

A gap year is the time to ask yourself those questions. While you’re getting to know the world better, get to know who you are outside of you home space. Being out of your comfort zone lets you test your limits in ways that home never can, and can reveal hidden strengths. Are you someone who pick up languages quickly? Do you rise to the occasion when the group is lost in a foreign city? Are you actually really, really good at bachata? How will you know if you don’t go try? Pack your dancing shoes and get out there!

A girl walking on a railway

4. A gap year spent volunteering = an engaged global citizen.

In our quickly globalizing world, where production lines mean that what we buy can affect communities across the world and the internet age has us more connected than ever, we must all learn to become global citizens.

Learning to become an active and responsible global citizen is part of living in this new world, and the skills and understanding we gain can help our home community as well!

Whether you do it in your home country or abroad, service is a vehicle for getting to know your place in the world.  There are a lot of problems, inequality, hunger, poverty, and pollution, which we can help fix. What problems would you want to help tackle? What skills could you learn to do it? Maybe volunteering would fire you up with a passion for public health and you’ll go pre-med in college. Maybe you’ll realize that what you actually love is one-on-one mentoring, and you’ll return home to join a mentoring organization to work with local kids.

Many organizations are working to make a year of service a cultural norm, rather than something odd or surprising, and many people are realizing that volunteering for long term can be good for their careers, their communities, and their lives. You can even find accredited gap year programs that are designed to masterfully help students exceed their potential while traveling. Make sure you research volunteer opportunities thoroughly and dive in!

5. You’ll become more flexible.

A gap year can challenge you in an entirely new way, rather than the academic or extracurricular challenges you found in high school, a gap year could mean cross cultural and language challenges. Maybe you’ll be challenged to help save lions or patch a roof in a construction project; it will definitely a bit different from your calculus homework!

All those new challenges help make you more flexible. It’s been shown that students who take gap years are more prepared for transitions, a useful skill in a world where people change jobs and location often. Being adaptable and flexible is handy in any career! Yes, even if you pour cement or study ancient history or whatever, don’t be smart.

Bagan, Burma

6.  Recharge your brain and heart.

Many students experience burnout, and get to college exhausted from a senior year spent cramming in standardized testing, college visits and applications, extracurriculars, prom, late nights wondering why they decided to grow up…that level of stress is no fun. Taking time to refresh and recharge before making the big life change of going to college is healthy.

A gap year will teach you and stretch you and challenge you, but in entirely different ways than your physics class. Give your poor brain a break from cramming, your body a break from the desk, and your emotions a break from the highs and lows of the high school scene. Exercise them in other ways! Being your best self doesn’t have to mean following some straight and narrow path of traditional hard work.

A meandering path to success isn’t only just as plausible, it also has a lot better views.

Take some time to research gap year options, chat with people who have taken a gap year, and mull it over. Consider why the President of the United States would allow his daughter to take a gap year (it must be for good reasons afterall). And if you end up deciding a gap year is exactly what you need, print this article and present it to your parents along with a powerpoint presentation (oh yea, and all the articles on Malia Obama's gap year you can find). I’m sure you’ll get an A+ for effort and convince your parents to let you embark on the best year of your life!