Gap Years: Waste of Time or Learning Opportunity?

Now is a time for reflection and important decision-making for many students of the Saint’s community. In just two months, the annual graduation ceremony marks a major transition for this year’s graduating class. This transition, for the majority of the students, is a prelude to their pursuit of higher education. Yet, many are not planning to set foot on a college campus in the near future as they consider taking “a year off” – otherwise known as a “gap year”.

The topic of gap years is still relatively foreign to North American students. Approximately 5% of high school graduates in North America are participating in a gap year, while the percentage is much higher in Scandinavian countries – more than 50% (American Gap Association). Students are attracted by the prospect of taking a year off to often explore a unique interest, work to fund their education, or to simply step out of the academic treadmill of high school. In this article, we explore the benefits and drawbacks of gap years.

Despite the general public’s ambivalence towards gap years, many renowned universities endorse and encourage students to take a year off. In 2000, Harvard University published the article Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation as part of the school’s effort to educate high school students on the benefits of gap years. The article argues that gap year participants (or “gappers”) are often “rejuvenated” by taking a break from society’s unhealthy craze for student success. As such, they become a better-motivated and curious student when returning back to school, often performing better academically than their counterparts. Institutions such as Princeton University and the University of North Carolina are now offering scholarships for gappers and others such as Tufts University has created their own gap year programs to connect incoming students with university-backed volunteering opportunities overseas (Time).
Many choose to volunteer their time overseas.

“[A gap year] is a wonderful opportunity for some self-reflection, personal growth, experience in specific areas of interest, travel, and to open your eyes,” says Mrs. Sheena Matthews, a current university counselor at St. George’s. “We are in a position of privilege to choose our own path in life… and to automatically go to college is not using it properly – [one] must go to university knowing why [he or she] must go to university”. Matthews recounts the story of a previous St. George’s graduate, whose path in university completely changed after discovering his passion for music while on a gap year.

Delaying university is not a foreign concept for many students across the globe. In Singapore and South Korea, students are required to fulfill one year of military service before entering college. Such a norm does not exist in Canada and students have freedom of choice in their immediate life after graduation.

Cormac Scanlan
Backpacking is a popular choice among gappers.

Yet, the gap year continues to be an anxiety-inducing topic for parents. Without proper planning, students are at risk of spending their year unproductively, which is a reason of regret for some gappers. It may be easy for students to be tempted by the prospect of skipping a year of school simply to have fun, missing the greater aim for growth.

Since Obama’s daughter Malia announced her decision to defer her Harvard admission last May, the gap year has come under scrutiny, being seen by the general public as elitist (The New York Times). The reality is that gap years are not cheap, with travel and program costs sometimes totaling up to $30,000 (Time). Due to the high cost, many families are not able to fund gap year experiences.

“Some students view a gap year as a way to get into a ‘better’ college than those that would have admitted them straight from high school,” states Sally Rubenstone, a Resident Dean on the popular college forum for high school students, College Confidential. “Typically, this is NOT an effective strategy. Most colleges base their decisions primarily on academic factors, so if your year away does not include taking classes then don’t expect it to offer a back-door route to a top-choice college.” Yet, Rubenstone also acknowledges that cases occur where admissions officers are sufficiently impressed by a student’s gap year activities to grant an offer of admission. For students who intend to apply to college during a gap year, the Dean stresses the importance of choosing activities wisely so that colleges see it as worthwhile, such as pursuing a unique passion.

American Gap Association Website
The American Gap Association is a non-profit organization advocating for gap year participation while providing valuable resources for students’ research.

For those who are in the process of planning a gap year, it is prudent to continue applying to universities during senior year. Most institutions grant admission deferrals to students who express interest in participating in a meaningful year off. However, with great freedom comes great responsibility, and students must conduct sufficient research while planning his or her year, being careful not to fall for flashy promotional material from gap year “specialists”. Costs should also be a consideration, especially for families; fortunately, many low-cost opportunities exist from organizations such as AmeriCorps, City Year, or WWOOF that fund room and board for participants (Time).

Ultimately, it is up to the student whether he or she wishes to become a gapper. Taking time off is not for everyone, however, for many, it is a fantastic opportunity for learning. It should be remembered that a year away from school is not a year wasted – it can be a year of growth and reflection.


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