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Why Are Gap Years More Common in Europe than the US?

Before we dive in, you might be wondering: what exactly is a gap year? A gap year is a semester or year "off," traditionally described as a break from academics. While there is no age limit for taking a gap year, it is usually done between the end of high school and the start of college, or after graduating from university before graduate school or starting a career. Typically, students will seek an enriching experience abroad, such as interning, teaching, volunteering, or learning a foreign language. Others may simply travel and see the world. A gap year is considered beneficial for a number of reasons - adding to your résumé, recharging your batteries to avoid academic burnout, personal growth and maturity, and gaining life experience.

If you hadn't heard about a gap year before reading this article don't worry, you're not alone. While gap years are gaining popularity in the US, they are far more common in Europe and Australia. The concept of a gap year originated in the UK in the 1960’s and has long been considered to be a rite of passage. Recent statistics from UCAS show that over 5% of accepted university applicants in the UK deferred admission for one year in 2012. Statistics in the USA pale in comparison, where an estimated 1.2% of first-time college freshmen deferred admission in 2011 to take a gap year, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.

If gap years are so great, why don’t more young Americans take them? While it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact cause, there are a few reasons why gap years are not as common in the US as in Europe and Australia. Even so, Americans are in desperate need of a gap year, so do not let these social norms deter you from an adventure of a lifetime, but instead help you to better understand your fears and worries for taking such a big jump!

Suggested Gap Year Programs

Want to have a year worth bragging about? Don't waste your time abroad (or your potential, for that matter). Travel with purpose, and check out one of these suggested programs for your gap year.

American Work Ethic

For many Americans, it has been ingrained since youth that the general blueprint for life looks something like this: work hard in school to get into a good college, enroll straight into university after high school, and then begin transitioning into a career immediately after graduating (or else pursue a higher degree), and continue working until retirement. Maybe then, there will be time to travel.

Taking a break from the traditional path makes people a little nervous and it’s understandable why there is hesitation. “American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness,” says writer Lilit Marcus. “We’re a country permanently in hyperdrive.”

Deciding to do something different may be met with skeptical looks and the questions, such as “Why are you doing it?” or “How will that help your career?” If it doesn’t directly contribute to your résumé or a long-term career, it isn’t readily perceived as valuable.

Differing Opportunities

Another reason why gap years are not as popular in the US is because they are not as useful. “American high schools and colleges typically offer a wider range of extracurricular activities for their students, including community service trips overseas, study options overseas and educational tours. This provision has allowed for American students to experience much more as part of their education than counterparts in the UK and Europe,” says Tom Grapes of Real Gap Experience. With all that is available to American students that can be worked into regular collegiate life or the university curriculum, it is not as logical to take additional time off for a gap year.

College Pressures

Among parents, there is also hesitation when it comes to allowing children to take a gap year. This is mostly due to the fear that students won’t return to college once they’ve strayed from the academic track. As bachelor's degrees are becoming progressively more necessary to obtain many kinds of jobs, not pursuing higher education seems risky. With constant tuition increases, it seems pointless to many to defer enrolling for a year while the cost of attending university will only continue to rise.

It can be difficult to envision your friends going off to school, attending their first frat party, sledding on cafeteria trays, or ordering late night Jimmy Johns without you to join in on the fun. If you suffer from serious FOMO, this can be the most crippling stumbling block to deciding whether or not to take a break before college. To students who fear this, I challenge you to think more longterm - even if you think you'll be able to travel later, the reality is that its not so easy. Take advantage now!

Differing School Systems

Rising tuition costs isn't the only reason that few American students defer college - many don't even know that this is an option! Many American high schools provide students with counselors and programs to help them research and apply for college. Similarly, much of the American high school experience revolves around AP tests and the SATs, both of which are designed to streamline the college application process.

With so much focus on college preparation during high school, many students feel that continuing on to college is a natural and expected next step. While it's pretty easy to complete applications during high school while still taking a gap year by deferring, few students consider this option. In contrast, Europeans do much more of their university preparation and applications outside of their high school. Because of this, many students use a gap year after high school to both travel and spend time completing tests and applications for university.

Less Traveling

Lastly, Americans simply do not travel internationally as much as Europeans and Australians do. It is estimated that only 36% of Americans had a valid passport in 2012, compared to 71% of the population in the UK (2011), for example. Since the US covers a large geographical area comprised of diverse terrain and cultures, many might not see reason to cross the country borders.

Don't get caught up in the idea that “We’ve got it all here!” Any individual who has spent time in a different country can tell you that our attempts at re-creating beautiful and unique landscapes, cultural norms, or ethnic foods are measly. Go see the real thing for yourself. Orange chicken from Panda Express doesn't stand a chance against a steaming hot plate of sticky rice and chicken from your newfound favorite corner food stand in China.

Nine out of ten students who take a gap year do return to attend college, and they are actually more focused and motivated than their counterparts.

Whatever the reason may be that gap years are not as popular in the US, the important thing is that their popularity is growing. Recent studies are partially responsible for this: nine out of ten students who take a gap year do return to attend college, and are actually more focused and motivated than their counterparts (those who enrolled directly from high school). Prestigious universities have recognized the benefits of a gap year and even offer this option to admitted students, such as Princeton University’s Bridge Year Program. As more universities encourage gap years and as increasing numbers of students are aware of even the possibility of this opportunity, we can hope that eventually the number of American gappers will match those of Europe and Australia.

If you're *still* in need of some convincing, check out this article on why students should take a gap year.

Photo Credits: IES Abroad and Global Volunteer Network.
Jennifer Moy

Bitten by the travel bug in 2009, Jennifer wants to continue traveling the world and hopes to become involved in international education. She spent a semester studying in Barcelona, Spain before backpacking throughout Europe. She maintains her own travel blog while also working with Students Gone Global, a new blogging community where student travelers can share their experiences. Find her on Google+.