Gap Year

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

In the past decade, there has been a global rise in interest for gap years. Even though this trend is widely popular in Europe, it's still not quite as common here in the United States. Why is this? There are a few factors at play.

Samantha P. on a boat in Thailand with other gap year students

If you haven't heard about a gap year before reading this article, don't worry, you're not alone.

A gap year is a semester or year "off," traditionally described as a break from academics or work. However, while gap years are slowly gaining popularity in the US, they are far more common in Europe and Australia. But why?

Well, we have to take a look at history!

The concept of a gap year originated in the UK in the 1960s and has long been considered a rite of passage. There is no age limit for taking a gap year, but it's usually done between the end of high school and the start of college, or after graduating from a 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. There are many different reasons to consider a gap year. It allows you an opportunity to grow your résumé, recharge your batteries to avoid academic burnout, and ultimately, gain more life experience outside the walls of work or a classroom.

But 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.

However, Americans can definitely benefit from a gap year, so do not let these social norms deter you from an adventure of a lifetime!

1. Gap years originate from British traditions

Brett Stievater on a cliffside in Spain wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap with his arms opened wide smiling
Brett Stievater, Spanish Gap Year alum

Recent statistics from UCAS show that over 5.07% of accepted university applicants in the UK deferred admission for one year in 2021.

Statistics in the USA pale in comparison, where an estimated 3% of first-time US college freshmen deferred admission in 2021 to take a gap year, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The British gap year is a longstanding tradition that dates back to the 13th century when students would take time off from their studies to learn about the world and improve their writing abilities by keeping journals. The idea was for students to gain an understanding of everyday life in order to become better writers.

Students would leave their universities for up to six months at a time and travel through Europe or even farther away before returning home. This tradition carried on all the way through World War II, when many young men took part in it so they could prepare themselves for military service when they returned home. Europeans are more likely to take gap years than Americans because of this difference in tradition.

2. American work ethic and view of career breaks

Maurice Sanders at the summit of a hike in Maine
Good Life Gap Term in Maine, Maurice Sanders alum

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 questions, such as “Why are you doing it?” or “How will that help your career?” It isn't readily perceived as valuable if it doesn’t directly contribute to your résumé or a long-term career.

Another difference between these two continents is how much emphasis people place on success through hard work rather than luck or connections when trying to get ahead professionally. While Americans may view taking time off between high school and college as irresponsible behavior (and thus look down upon those who do so).

Europeans generally support such choices even at older ages because they believe they will help prepare young people better for life after graduation--without sacrificing any opportunities later down the line!

To European countries and Australia the gap year is a time of transition, exploration, and self-discovery. Many students use this period to immerse themselves in new cultures, embark on new adventures and take on enriching projects that broaden their horizons before they start working or going to college.

3. Differing opportunities for students

Victoria with a group of Gap Year students on a snowy mountain in Patagonia
Victoria, ARCC-Patagonia and Cuba alum

Another reason why gap years are not as popular in the US is that they are not seen as a common "next step".

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 actually 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.

4. College and career 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 can seem 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 long-term - even if you think you'll be able to travel later, the reality is that it's not so easy.

Take advantage now!

5. Differing school systems

Leora Soibelman with two other Spanish Gap Year alumni jumping in the air
Leora Soibelman, Spanish Gap Year alum

Rising tuition costs aren't the only reason that few American students defer college - many don't even know 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.

Additionally, in the US, universities are very rigid in their scheduling. Students must be enrolled every semester and have to maintain a high GPA or risk losing their financial aid funding. European universities have more flexible schedules, however, so students can take time off if they need it and still return to school on time. This is especially important if you’re planning on studying abroad during college – taking part in your education abroad isn’t always possible if your university has strict requirements for attendance and grades!

European universities, in comparison, tend to be more open-minded when it comes down to what students want out of their education: while many American colleges are focused solely on academics (and preparing future employees), European schools focus more on providing an enriching experience that helps students grow both personally and professionally after graduation.

More recently, although still quite a ways behind European universities, American universities are also starting to see the benefits of gap years. “I definitely believe that growth, maturity, focus, curiosity, and other qualities can be enhanced by taking a gap year,” says Bob Clagett, former Senior Admissions Officer at Harvard Collage, “and evidence of those qualities can help strengthen an applicant's application.”

Read more: What It's Really Like to Study Abroad in the UK

6. Americans typically travel less

According to The Washington Post, Americans simply do not travel internationally as much as Europeans and Australians do.

It is estimated that 70% of Americans plan to travel internationally in 2022, compared to the 77% of Europeans who are eager to travel in 2022. Since the US covers a large geographical area of diverse terrain and cultures, many might not see a reason to cross the country's borders.

But don't get caught up in saying, “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.

Europe has a lot of things going for it when it comes to gap year travel: the continent is small and easy to travel around, only about half the size of Africa and one-fifth the size of Asia. Its countries are closer together than those in America, and European countries are more connected to one another than the United States.

This means that you can travel from country to country without having to fly through expensive or time-consuming layovers. It also means that all of these countries have been connected for many years and have become highly interdependent on each other economically through trade relationships.

In fact, Europe may be one of the most interconnected regions in the world—and this is why many people from these countries choose to take a gap year. Traveling is easier in Europe.

7. More accessibility & travel initiatives in the EU

Mika Leith in a group with other Irish Gap Year alumni with a mountain in the background
Mika Leith, Irish Gap Year, European Explorer Program alum

Many European countries have programs in place to support the idea of student mobility. In the European Union, there is a growing movement toward greater student interchangeability and mobility across borders.

The EU initiative for student mobility, known as the Erasmus+ program, has been implemented since 1987, with the goal of fostering interconnectivity between countries and cultures through educational exchanges. As part of this initiative, many European universities offer exchange programs that allow students from different countries to study abroad for a semester or full year.

The Erasmus+ program was created with an aim of increasing opportunities for international exchange programs by providing funding through scholarships. These scholarships encourage students from lower-income countries to participate in exchanges across Europe and provide them with financial support at every stage of their journey — from travel costs to living expenses as well as health insurance coverage during their stay abroad.

Closing the gap on gap years

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: up to 40% of students nationwide are seriously considering taking a gap year.

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 the possibility of this opportunity, we can hope that eventually, the number of American gappers will match those of Europe and Australia.

Interested in taking a gap year? Start by exploring some of these gap year resources: