Why Do Students Take a Gap Year? To Be Productive.
By Namita Mehta
Gap years are becoming more common, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around what they are and if and how they’re beneficial. So, let’s clear that up.
What is a gap year? It’s when students opt for taking a year off after high school, before starting college. While some parents might view this idea with distrust and confusion, we have found that students who use this year productively are uniquely well prepared for college.
But what does it mean to use a gap year productively? A productive gap year leaves students more prepared, emotionally and mentally, for living and studying independently in a way that they can communicate and a university can recognize.
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It’s important to note that it’s possible (and even common) to pursue more than one of these paths to a productive gap year at a time; most of the examples of real-life students combine two or even three. All this means is that students may get even more out of their gap year experience. Below, we take a look at how a gap year can make students successful in different ways.
Why do students take a gap year?
To step outside their comfort zone.
Students in high school are used to a certain structure and routine, which is overseen by parents, caregivers and schools. Attending college is, in a sense, stepping out of a comfort zone, as they become the ones to make decisions. A gap year can allow students practice at taking initiative and responsibility for exploring their own interests and care. One of the best and most common ways to do this is through travel.
One of my colleagues, Aisha Oravec, travelled to Japan and the US during her gap year, exploring her interests in writing and teaching before starting university. She credits the experience with making her confident that she could survive as an adult and support herself. While Aisha travelled internationally, domestic travel can also have the same effect. The benefit comes from the student exploring interests and navigating a new, different and possibly challenging place by him or herself.
To replan or better prepare for college.
Students often take a gap year if they do not get into or cannot afford the colleges they aspire to attend the first time around. They then use this year to improve on the aspects of their application that were particularly weak, whether that means retaking exams or widening their extra-curricular activities.
In 2015-2016, Utsav Gupta found he could not afford any of the universities he was accepted to. He decided to wait a year and re-apply with a better ACT score and improved extra-curricular activities, in order to be more competitive for financial assistance. He split his year across two internships and founded a youth organization to facilitate peace through cultural festivals across South Asia. His experiences, which he calls a year in the “university of life” helped him achieve a full scholarship when applying to college after a gap year. He’s now attending Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in the US.
Similarly, Neil Thomas took a gap year after a low score on the JEE Mains in 2015. During that year, he did two engineering internships in very different fields, experiences he compared in his accepted application to Virginia Polytechnic, in the US.
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To recover from burnout.
It isn’t easy managing the pressure of high school boards in India, a rigorous 12th grade curriculum, extra-curricular activities and other commitments. Sometimes, the desire to take a break before embarking on the next phase of education might be enough of a reason to take a gap year.
While Neil took a gap year after his original plan of engineering school in India didn’t pan out, he found other benefits, too. He resumed playing the piano, which he was forced to quit in the 8th grade due to the academic burden in his school, and studied Spanish and German, which he said was so refreshing after years of just number crunching and preparing for the JEE examinations.
Aisha too realized that taking a year off from further studies made her feel mentally rested and ready to take the leap into academics wholeheartedly. She felt she had real-world context to bring to the classroom, which could give another dimension to her learning, and knew better what she wanted out of her education.
To pursue a passion/pick up a skill.
In high school, most students don’t have time to pursue their passion, they are too busy with other commitments. Students have used gap years to explore their interests and develop life skills – some students have done this by perfecting a prototype of a solar lamp, working on a microfinance project, or travelling around Rajasthan to learn about the Buddhist culture there.
One of the students I worked with last year, Aditya Khant, was invited for the Intel ISEF Fair after winning the grand award in the national round among 100 teams. He was so passionate about his robotics that he deferred his IB exams, which clashed with the competition (and attendance at Harvey Mudd College, where he had been accepted) in order to pursue his passion project to completion.
To earn money.
Attending university can often be a huge financial burden on a student’s family. Students’ might decide to take a gap year to earn some money to help fund their education. Working might include something as simple as waiting tables or baby-sitting, but sometimes it can be more structured if you have specific interests or skills. A talented magician might take a gap year and perform at more parties to earn the money she requires.
An acquaintance who held an offer to study French at Oxford deferred in order to take a gap year working as an au pair in France, an experience that helped prepare her for higher studies and allowed her to raise money for her living costs as a student.
Is a gap year a good idea for your student? It depends on your child and your family. But if your student chooses to take one, it’s important to know that a gap year is only as productive as they are able to communicate. If a student feels they have achieved something and matured, and are able to convey that clearly, then universities will value the time off as much as the student has.