The Gap Year

A growing trend among American students

by Elizabeth Olson

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After four years of high school or college, not all students are ready to continue with formal education. For some, a one-year break from academia provides time to learn more about themselves and the world. A gap year provides such an opportunity.

STA travel, a student travel organization, defines the gap year as "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, or a career path." Even though a gap year is often taken between high school and college or undergraduate and graduate school, it can be taken at any point in life as a transition from one major event to another. Instead of rest and relaxation, though, most gap years are packed full of adventure, travel, culture, and education.

Tradition abroad

Although a gap year is a new concept to Americans, it's an established tradition for students in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In the UK and Australia, about 11% of students take a gap year or go "walking about" before enrolling in University.

American universities

A gap year can act as an alternative pathway to college for students who are burned out and drained from high school. Many "gappers" who enroll in college appear to have better focus and overall performance during their undergraduate years than students who followed the traditional education track, leading American colleges to recognize the benefits of veering from the traditional educational track. The College Board reports that three out of every five students at public universities do not graduate with a degree within five years. Princeton University recognizes the benefits of the gap year and created a program called "bridge year" that allows accepted students to complete public service abroad before starting their freshman year.

What do gappers learn?

Students often attain confidence, motivation, and focus during their gap year. "Gappers" have the opportunity to rely on themselves, expand their comfort zone, and establish a wider understanding of themselves and the outside world. Through travel, cultural immersion, working, and volunteering, students acquire skills that allow them to be more self-sufficient, resourceful, and bold. In addition, many students gain an appreciation for hard work and education—all of which contribute to becoming more effective learners.

Destination unknown

Since there is no existing curriculum or pattern to follow during a gap year, students are free to design their own experience and pursue personal interests. Independent or structured travel, working or volunteering abroad, educational programs, and service work, such as City Year or AmeriCorps, are popular gap year activities.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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