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Are Students Who Take Gap Years More Successful?

Benefits of a gap year

Are students who take a gap year more successful in college than students who don't? Those of us at Go Overseas certainly think so. This is an extremely important time in a young person’s life and a chance to change their perspective, as well as actually direct positive change through their gap year activities.

We believe this because many of us took a gap year, and we’re better for it. We’re the booster club for gap years. The problem is that while we know from experience that taking a gap year has made us more successful, it’s harder to prove it with data.

Taking that crucial time off can help give them the direction they need to confidently choose a major, and ultimately, a career they're passionate about.

Taking a gap year is becoming more and more popular among American students who are learning what British folks have known for generations: taking some time off during your most intense student years can be extremely beneficial. As taking a gap year becomes more common, education experts are studying it more closely, looking at if and how a gap year makes a student more successful in their lives, studies, and careers.

The challenge in asking this question now is that we don’t have decades and decades of data. We’re trying to piece together what we do have, along with anecdotal information to paint a picture of how taking a gap year influences a student throughout their lives.

Expert Opinions Unveil Benefits for Students

Gap year abroad

A quick Google search of the term "gap year" will pull up articles from the leading media outlets extolling the benefits of taking a gap year (ad). Big names such as Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Huffington Post all agree that taking a gap year isn't just a growing en vogue, it's proving to have highly beneficial results for students who take a gap year before college. But how exactly?

1. They're More Certain of Their Major

Joe O’Shea, director of Florida State University's Office of Undergraduate Research and author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs argues in his article, “It's interesting that spending time in developing communities can help young people appreciate ways of living that we need more of -- such as a more active and intimate sense of community.

"Going overseas also helps to cultivate a type of independence and self-confidence that staying close to home in a familiar environment probably does not. Furthermore, taking the traditional kind of gap year after high school helps students to take full advantage of their time in college.

"One telling observation is that many students who take gap years end up changing their intended major after returning. During college, their gap year experiences enrich their courses, strengthen co-curricular endeavors, and animate undergraduate research and creative projects.”

Regardless of if students spend time in developing countries or not, taking that crucial time off can help give them the direction they need to confidently choose a major, and ultimately, a career they're passionate about.

2. It Keeps Students from Feeling Burnt Out

Time's article, Why your High School Senior Should Take a Gap Year argues that taking a gap year is both becoming more popular and widely accepted. For students who work extremely hard during high school, taking a gap year can help them feel excited to be back in the classroom when they do start college.

The article explains, “Robert Clagett, who served as a senior admissions officer at Harvard and is also the former dean of admissions at Middlebury College, has found that those who delay a year before starting college have GPAs that, on a 4.0 scale, are 0.15 to 0.2 higher than otherwise would be expected."

Rather than loosing motivation or study-skills, students were coming back to college refreshed and rejuvenated -- and excelling as a result.

Colleges and Universities are definitely seeing the impact of more students choosing to do a gap year -- and they are increasingly supportive of it.

In Robert Clagett’s post for The New York Times, he writes of the increasing acceptance of students taking gap years in higher education and how it is beneficial.

One of the comments, posted by JenofNJ, agrees: “When I was teaching at a large university, it was obvious that the students who took some time off after high school were far more motivated and passionate about learning than the ones who had merely continued on the conveyor belt from high school to college. The students who had a gap in their education were much more focused, and had a greater sense of what kind of career they wanted.”

3. Universities Recognize the Benefits

Colleges and Universities are definitely seeing the impact of more students choosing to do a gap year -- and they are increasingly supportive of it. There's even a movement among colleges and universities to make taking a gap year more accessible.

Tufts University, the University of North Carolina, and Princeton University have all established their own service-based gap year programs or fellowships for accepted students. The University of North Carolina’s program, a Global Gap Year Fellowship, for example, promises “a year of public service, a lifetime of global citizenship”.

One of the greatest aspects of these programs is that they are offered to students, regardless of ability to pay. Alan Solomont, dean of Tuft’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, explains, “we aren’t creating demand -- we’re responding to appetite.” Solomont believes, “the idea behind the program is to give incoming students a transformational experience that will inform the next four years of their education.”

Princeton University’s Bridge Year Program explains that they benefits are really two-fold: “The knowledge, understanding, and skills gained through the Bridge Year serve not only to enhance a student’s undergraduate experience at Princeton, but also contribute to the overall strength of the University’s educational community.”

Ultimately, these universities recognize that their students will be better as a result of their gap year and want to create an environment where they feel like it's OK to take that year off and explore -- without feeling like they'll be behind, or not accepted back.

Student Stories Back Up Expert Opinions

Taking a gap year

According to that same Time article mentioned earlier, 23-year-old Corinne Monaco took a gap year after feeling burnt out from her rigorous high school education. When she finally did begin college after her gap year experience, she was feeling refreshed and ready to hit the books.

After graduating from Pitzer College with a dual degree in art and environmental analysis, she feels that “taking a gap year was the best decision [she] ever made.” Yes, it may have delayed her college start date a little, but she was more focused and got more out of her experience than she would have otherwise.

I'm Not That Person Anymore

Kenneth Hubbell, a sophomore at Princeton University, was interviewed by Forbes magazine and mentioned similar themes. After going to Urubamba Peru through Princeton's Bridge Year Program, Hubbell says his experience "helped validate my desire to study chemical engineering, and it reminded me that as a chemical engineer I have tools to work on important projects. I was the type of person who would’ve been happy holing up in a lab, studying some obscure form of chemistry for my entire life, and I don’t think I’m that person anymore.”

The American Gap Association has a collection of anonymous testimonials extolling the benefits of taking a gap year and how it made him or her a better person, better student, and led to greater success.

My friends who haven't taken a gap year look around and see only college, classes, internships, resumes... I look around and see the entire world waiting for me.

One writes, "My gap year has really made me realize how much more there is to learn about how the world works by interacting with it and seeing processes in action, rather than merely reading about them remotely. I learned... about complicated systems, considered them from varied perspectives, and questioned assumptions I didn’t even realize I had.

"It’s made me aware of how much learning happens through experiential means, and I am determined to make the most of all the different avenues for learning here at college. It’s also made me even more astutely aware of what a privilege it is for me to get to go to college like this, and have the luxury of study. I’m motivated to get as much as I can out of my classes and my time here, so I can be better prepared to share it with more people in the world who haven’t had the same opportunities I have."

Everybody Should Take a Gap Year

Another writes, “It was an awakening. I am thankful every day that I took a gap year. I was ready for college; I could have gone straight from high school and I would have done just fine. But my life has been so enriched by the experience, and so many doors are opened everywhere I go simply by the change in perspective my gap year has given me.

"My friends who haven’t taken a gap year look around and see only college, classes, internships, resumes… I look around and see the entire world waiting for me. Everybody should take a gap year."

The Data Agrees

Gap year statistics

The American Gap Association has collected the existing data on gap year students and compiled it. There they have two graphs demonstrating the improved GPA’s from students who have taken gap years. The study (referred to above) was designed by Bob Clagett and tracked “the academic rating of an incoming student including everything of an academic nature that is received in the application process (grades, rigor of high school program, scores, teacher and counselor recommendations, even ‘fire in the belly’ as demonstrated in the applicant's essays).

When Clagett controlled for the academic rating and looked at the actual academic performance of students who took a Gap Year compared to their predicted performance based on their academic rating, students who took a Gap Year almost always over performed academically in college, usually to a statistically significant degree. Most importantly, the positive effect of taking a Gap Year was demonstrated to endure over all four years.”

Looking at the Data

Further studies from around the world are reporting similar findings. Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, authors of The Gap Year Advantage, conducted an independent survey study of over 300 gap year students. They found that for the majority of students, the gap year had an impact on their choice of academic major and later their career. Haigler and Nelson also found that former gap year students reported being overwhelmingly satisfied with their jobs. Many found that this was due to a “less-selfish approach to working with people.”

Gap year students who have gained valuable skills and perspectives go on to be successful, responsible citizens of the world.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph recently reported on a new study of more than 900 first-year university students that “revealed not only did taking a year off have a positive effect on students' motivation, it also translated to a real boost in performance in the first semesters at university.

Lead author Professor Andrew Martin said while a gap year was not necessarily a good thing for every student, research had shown reliable advantage in results for those who had taken the break.”

What Students Gain

Numerous studies and informal polls have shown that gap year students do well because they gain valuable skills in their experiences abroad. From their ability to navigate challenging experiences to cross-cultural communication, gap year students are equipped not just with renewed curiosity and academic vigor, but with an adaptability that serves them well in the adjustment to college life.

As Joe O’Shea argues, “Taking a gap year speeds our development... Trying to occupy another's way of life in a different culture -- living with a new family, speaking the language, integrating into a community, perhaps working with local youth, for instance - these are valuable experiences that help young people understand themselves, develop empathy and virtue, and expand their capacity to see the world from others' perspectives.”

Summary of The Benefits

While the experts are still collecting data and analyzing the results, we can put together what we already know.

  • Gap years, while not for everyone, can be an excellent experience for students who are feeling burned out, overwhelmed, and lacking direction.
  • They're also a good fit for those looking for adventure, for a chance to try out their potential academic major or career choice, or an opportunity for some real introspection -- to learn about one’s self.
  • Students who take gap years overwhelmingly report positive, life-changing experiences.
  • Gap years that are structured and thoughtful can lead to much greater focus and diligence in college or university.
  • Students also find that they adapt to college life better since they have developed ‘soft skills’ that help in communication, teamwork, and adaptability.

Not to mention, universities are seeing the advantages of having their students take gap years, both for the individual success of the students and for their broader academic communities. The trend is now for colleges and universities to make it easier for students to take advantage of gap years or even offer their own gap years. This could hugely impact the amount of students taking gap years and the overall social acceptability of taking time off before college.

Gap year students who have gained valuable skills and perspectives go on to be successful, responsible citizens of the world. As Joe O’Shea eloquently argues, "we need our students to be smart, critical and innovative thinkers but also people of character who use their talents to help others. Gap years help young adults understand themselves, their relationships, and the world around them, which deepens capacities and perspectives crucial for effective citizenship.”

Photo Credits: Courtney Dorazio, Martha Landry, Jessie Beck, and Caitlin Lucas.
Kate Evans

Kate Evans is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa. Published internationally, travel is her favorite pastime and writing subject. Follow her on Google+ or on Kate Evan's website.