What Is a Gap Year?

It seems like all of a sudden, everyone is talking about taking a “gap year.” Popular in the 1960s and 70s, gap years fell out of favor in the decades that followed. That is, until now. So what exactly does it mean to take a gap year, and should you take one?

A gap year is a semester or full year between high school graduation and college enrollment. It is usually dedicated to service or other experiential learning, such as travel. Originally, the gap year was conceived as a way to escape the harsh realities of life after World War II, so it makes sense that after 18 months of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we would find escape appealing.

There are a number of reasons that a gap year might work for you. For one, you can do things that you won’t be able to do later, once you’ve accumulated student loan debt and feel pressure to “get a real job.” You can travel on a shoestring budget, sleeping in hostels and carrying a single backpack with two pairs of underwear and an extra T-shirt. You can connect with people more easily, learning valuable life experience from your encounters with new cultures and languages.

You can build valuable experience working or volunteering in a field that you’re considering. Before you commit time and money to earning a college degree, why not try actually being in your field first? You might find that you are more interested in other things after all. Or maybe you don’t yet know what you want to study in college — a gap year is a great time to explore your options.

Of course, you may just not feel ready to start college right away (or be unsure if you want to go at all). A gap year is a good solution. You can work, save up some money, and continue researching potential careers, lifestyles, and locations.

Regardless of your specific motivations, gap years have additional benefits. Studies show that students who start college later perform better academically. They’re more likely to see college as a time to learn and grow — and less as an opportunity to party. They’re less likely to take on too much student loan debt because being in the workforce and living with a budget have made them more financially informed.

Gap years come with some big caveats, though. It can make it harder to return to full-time studying, and being older than most students can hamper your sense of community. If you choose to do it, you should set goals and deadlines. You should also accept that college will be a different kind of experience than movies often depict. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it helps to know what you’re signing up for.

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