Most Americans Don't Take a Gap Year... Why Not?
To gap year, or not to gap year? That is not necessarily the question, because most college-bound Americans don’t ask it. The majority of college-age U.S. students with the means go straight to undergraduate studies without even thinking about it (resulting in a 30% dropout rate in freshman year), while students from other countries defer their enrollment to go on round-the-world backpack trips, work as gap students at private academies, save money, volunteer in a developing country, do a semester at sea, become camp counselors, compete in the Quidditch World Cup, or create startups.
More universities and employers are seeing the value in students taking time out of the education hamster wheel. The hiring manager at Google, Lazlo Bock, thinks most 18-22-year-olds "don't put enough thought into why they're going [to college], and what they want to get out of it." He also says that "Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job," which would explain why Google is increasingly ready to hire people with no college degrees, looking instead for people with ideas and experience. POINT TO GAP YEARS.
So, are we giving you a free pass to spend a year building a cat castle out of toilet rolls, to later reap the rewards at college? Read on...
College! The Escape Hatch for High School!
In my senior year of high school, I was so done with the whole high school thing. I thought everything about it was a joke—my classmates, the teachers, the clubs, the cliques, the classes, the hallways, the school colors (blue and white, not even that bad)—I was over all of it and wanted out badly. Luckily, I managed to study hard enough and my family had the resources to send me to college. College was my way out. I’ll meet cooler people who hated high school too! I thought. I’ll be saved, and be appreciated for who I really am! Finally!
My step dad asked me a couple times, “Why don’t you take a gap year?” Wait a year before I start college? Sit around on my hands while so many other 17- and 18-year-olds went off to the amazing world of higher education? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m a go-getter, I said to myself. I shoot first, ask questions later, know what I mean? (Note: I totally am not like that.)
Like most Americans, I went straight to college. And yeah, it was fun. I learned a lot, and met a lot of cool people who, it turns out, had a great time in high school (still so weird to me). I had a lot of fun—probably a little too much fun. At some point you party so much it’s not partying anymore, it’s your baseline. Instead of working on something cool, you’re planning how you and your friends can celebrate Arbor Day in a way that’s different from celebrating Flag Day.
The thing is, Getting An Education and Going Wild Miami-Style aren't things that have to happen together. People who take gap years get to feel out the wider world without worrying about handing in that anthro paper, and get more of a perspective on The Real World.
Sophomore on the Inside, Freshman on the Outside
When you come into college a year older, you can relate more to the sophomores and the juniors because you’re older, and you know they’re not as terrifyingly experienced as some freshmen think. You might also find you have more of a clue about what you want to get out of college—a year out of school forces you to take a step back and think about how you might want to lay out your next few moves.
When you roll straight into college after grade 12, you take for granted a lot that college has to offer—you’ll probably have access to dark rooms, art rooms, computers, camera equipment, radio stations, editing rooms, which are literally priceless, if you're a creative type. Coming into college with the perspective of someone who ate most of their meals out of a single, plastic Cap'n Crunch-brand cereal bowl for the entire previous year, you're more likely to look at ways to take advantage of the ginormous sum of money you're spending on college.
You're also more likely to be financially prepared for college life—unless your parents have a tidy sum stashed away for your college fees, the workload and stipulation at some colleges that students cannot have a job mean that you will fare better on the far side of graduation if you're not drowning in debt. (Harry Potter was so lucky to get free tuition, yo.)
If Not College, What?
If you do take a gap year, you have to make something out of it. Maybe you’re interested in tai chi and can devote a whole 12 months of your life to martial arts. Maybe you want to go to England and become a marmalade expert. Maybe you want to get a job, live at home, and save a ton of money to lessen your loan burden (ugh, not sexy).
Maybe you see a year off as an opportunity to volunteer abroad, or travel—and I don't think travel has to be "overseas"/a visit to the bright sands of Ibiza to be worthwhile. Maybe you should become a river rafting instructor, meet new people from other parts of the country, and learn how to live in the outdoors. Maybe you're destined to become the best bass guitarist this side of the Mississippi by practicing 12 hours a day, and not hanging out with any of your friends, because screw them they left you to go to college anyway!
There’s no wrong answer. Sometimes when you finish high school, college just seems like the next step. For most people it is. But it’s just a step, it’s not the step. There are no rules on how to get older, which is the most horrifying fact there is, but is also the biggest relief in the world.
Did you take a gap year, or have you considered it?