The benefits of taking a gap year


By MICHELLE KIMCENTO WRITER

There is a common misconception in our society that faster is better. For this reason, elementary and middle school students skip grade levels, high school students take the most AP classes to opt out of college courses, and college students take the most amount of credits possible, all in an effort to “get ahead.” This is why most Americans don’t consider taking a gap year before college or starting their career, preconceiving the idea that a year or two off will leave them behind everyone else.

Some people think that colleges will view taking a gap year as a sign of laziness. But this is not generally the case. In fact, the Harvard admissions site states that “Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.” Some schools, including Tufts University, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina, are actually paying students to take a year to travel abroad before beginning their education there.

This does not mean that simply taking a year off to do absolutely nothing will be beneficial. What you do with your gap year will be the subject of judgment. You can volunteer, get an internship, start a blog, make a documentary—there are endless possibilities. A gap year shows independence, responsibility, and can provide many opportunities to add to your resume.

Some parents are skeptical about allowing their son or daughter to defer school for fear that they will end up not wanting to go back. The book Gap Year, American Style says “…students reported their top-two reasons for taking a gap year were burnout and wanting to ‘find out more about themselves.’ Moreover, nine out of 10 students returned to college within a year, and 60 percent reported the time off had either inspired or confirmed their choice of career or academic major.”

By my senior year of high school, I was burned out. I had gotten accepted to a college that I really wanted to go to, but I also wasn’t sure if I was ready. I was seventeen with no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so my parents suggested taking time off from school and go abroad. Through the International Volunteer Headquarters, I spent my year teaching English to the hill tribes, monks, and orphans in Thailand and mentoring underprivileged children with special needs in Kenya. On the weekends, I explored around the country with the other volunteers. Then I spent my last month backpacking around six different countries in Europe. There were times when I would rethink my decision of taking a year off, especially whenever I checked Facebook updates and see all the fun my friends were having in college. But then I’d remember that I was riding ostriches and elephants, eating authentic Pad Thai and escargot, and zip lining through jungles.

Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. My year was funded all with my high school senior year minimum wage savings. Some of the nicest youth hostels I stayed at, with pools, breakfast, computers, free Wi-Fi, and lots of solo travelers, cost about three U.S. dollars a night. The best way to try authentic native food is at the small local restaurants and street vendors anyway so there is no need to break the bank for a good meal. Fees for many volunteer organizations are very cheap, especially for the developing countries.

A lot of people are afraid to do something different, but gap years are actually extremely common for most Europeans and Australians. I was the only person in my high school class who was not going straight into college, so originally many of my peers were confused about my college deferral. But throughout the year, many younger students from my school messaged me for more information about what I was doing and ended up deferring their acceptances the next year. A lot of my friends told me they wished they had taken a year off as well because the high school to college transition was a lot harder than they thought.

I did not come back knowing exactly what I wanted to do in life, nor did I become a minimalist. Instead, I came back with connections from all over the world, a bit of maturity, priceless experiences, and a much better understanding of myself. I learned how to budget money, adjust to uncomfortable situations (like dirty clothes, cold showers, no privacy), and realize how much more there is out in the world, without the burden of maintaining good grades in school.

Whether you are finishing high school, in the middle of college, applying to graduate schools, or about to start a career, consider taking some time off first and go abroad. Many Americans grow up thinking they need to finish their education, get a good job, start a family, and then possibly travel after retiring. But why wait until then? Old age is not guaranteed and it is only human nature to take time to recharge.


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