Mind the gap: why you should seriously think about taking a gap year

The first time I heard the phrase “gap year” was in 1996. I was studying at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England, and every British kid I met had a story to tell about what he or she did during the year before college (or university, as they call it). I was equally bewildered and intrigued by the idea. The academic fast-track I had been on as a high schooler demanded that I continue to race, push, and strive….without taking a breath or a break. This meant going to college right after graduation.

It would have been a great benefit to me to let the information I had amassed in high school settle and synthesize. How would my experience at Notre Dame have been improved by a year of pleasure-reading, volunteering, self-finding, or just plain old paid work? I believe I would have been more curious and confident and less academically burned out.

So I’m obviously biased, but I love gap years and think they are a wise choice for many students. I cheered when I read that Malia Obama is taking one. Her decision is getting a lot of attention in the media, and some of the reactions have surprised me. First, the New York Times claimed that gap years are part of an “expensive” trend. True, there are organizations that specialize in pricey gap year programs, but if done right, a gap year might actually help you save money in the end. How?


First, you won’t waste money.

I often see people head off to the most selective school on their list, only to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the academics or the super-competitive culture. They spend a semester or year at the reach/ “dream” school, only to transfer to a less selective private school or state school that’s slower-paced and closer to home. Meanwhile, a huge amount of money has been spent for the handful of months at the reach school, with no diploma to show for the investment. You could spend $50K on an “invisible” freshman year at a fancy school, or you could spend a gap year becoming more mature and capable of handling the college workload.


Second, you could actually make money.

I argue that expensive “pre-packaged” gap year programs aren’t the way to go. You can build your own gap year tailored to your specific interests in your own town (or perhaps your grandma’s town, or the town of a family friend). You won’t pay for accommodations, and you could bring in a little cash by blending an element of paid work into your unique gap year plan.

Many of the British kids I met in the late 90s had spent at least some part of their gap year working a regular retail job. Again, I admit bias here, but I strongly believe there is much to be gained by an “un-glamorous” work experience. It can be tough to fit paid work into a busy high school schedule, but the gap year allows time for it. Whether it’s eight  hours a week at the local Tim Hortons or a few shifts at Wegmans, you’ll meet people with different worldviews, deal with all kinds of customers, and learn to multitask like a boss. These aren’t random skills. They will come in handy the following year when meeting your roommate and managing life on a new campus. And as bonus, you’ll have some extra cash in the bank.


Third, you’ll learn about yourself.

Invariably, my students say their most meaningful experiences happen outside the classroom. Nearly all of my favorite college essays are about events that led to a deeper understanding of the self and the world – and these events typically happen during, volunteer work, internships, paid jobs, or non-academic life experiences. A gap year creates space for more of these events.

These events can happen right in your own community. Again, you don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars for concierge-planned gap year. By crafting your own gap year, you can find the service experiences that are right for you. Here in Buffalo, I’ve had students work on political campaigns, do internships at the many refugee-resettlement agencies, and volunteer-teach at after-school programs. Some of my Buffalo-based students have helped run service trips or campus ministry excursions for their alma mater high school. Not all experiences have to be service-based: I’ve had students do internships at insurance companies and banks during a gap year. The bottom line is that you can uniquely combine and tailor experiences – do some paid work, do some volunteer work….and spend some time just being. You’ll go into your freshman year of college emotionally stronger. After all, there’s no lesson in a textbook to teach you about you. You’ve got to figure that one out on your own…but a gap year can help you do it. 

Of course, a gap year is not for everyone. But if you think it might be for you, contact me. We can build a plan for a life-changing, perspective-broadening, pre-college experience. 

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