College Gap Year: Boon to Learning or Black Hole?

Posted By Amy Rebecca on August 22, 2016 at 9:51 am
College Gap Year: Boon to Learning or Black Hole?

While many students gear up for a challenging fall semester, others have decided on a different path. Taking a year off, either before starting college or during your college career, is known as taking a gap year. While many use this time for discovering new interests and cultivating career relationships, others become distracted and begin to sway from the path of higher education. Experts say students, before committing to a gap year, should consider the effects on their personal and academic growth.

Using a gap year for a purpose

Students choose to take a gap year for a multitude of reasons. Many see it as a way to avoid academic burnout; others are curious as to what the real world has to offer outside.

Students should begin by asking why they feel the need to take time off. What is their purpose for taking a gap year? If the purpose behind the decision is of value, then the gap year can be very rewarding. “A gap year is your chance to choose learning that is meaningful,” explains Robin Pendoley from Thinking Beyond Borders. “It’s an opportunity to engage with real issues and real people in the real world. It’s a moment to gain experience with your interests and passions without the pressure to perform in the classroom.”

While college can certainly help students find rewarding careers, it is not the only place to foster meaningful experiences. Sometimes it’s OK for students to just take time to discover the world and learn more about themselves, as long as they do not use this time for wasteful activities.

One great way for students to use this time wisely is to explore future career options. Many high school graduates have not yet discovered what they have a passion for, and entering into college without at least a glimmer of a career plan can be a very costly endeavor. Aaron Michel, CEO of PathSource explains that “A gap year can allow young adults to take a break from studying and explore their career options. They can spend some time working in an industry they’re interested in to decide if it’s really a good fit for them. Once they’re more confident about their career path, they can go back to school to finish the education and training they’ll need in the future.” A gap year can provide a great opportunity to seek internship opportunities, which allow students to see if they will enjoy a career option before committing themselves to a field of study.

Explore the world and learn other secrets

Another great way to use a gap year wisely is to study abroad or enter into a student exchange program. It’s important for students to understand the world around them so that they can make informed life decisions. Many universities believe that gap years are going to become more and more popular. Kate Morris, Butler University provost and vice president for academic affairs, entered an exchange student program after high school. She spent a year in Wolfsburg, Austria: “Given the intensity of the situation I was in—far away from home, immersed in a culture and language I didn’t know—I matured a lot, and quickly. The fact that I survived and thrived in that situation gave me tremendous confidence that I could get myself through anything that life might throw my way.”

College can often be an overwhelming experience for those who have never spent time away from their homes and families. Morris’ experience not only gave her confidence in herself, but a better understanding of the world at large. While she does warn that her time abroad set her apart from her peers, she considers her experience positive overall, and she was able to include her time abroad on her professional resume through graduate school and beyond.

Risks of taking a gap year

When a gap year is not used wisely, it can have extremely adverse effects on a student’s life. Mike Moradian, executive director of, explains that risks begin to develop if the student’s gap year is unstructured. “It’s easy for many people to fall out of the academic routine. That structure in school is essential to guiding students and keeping them on track, but when you fall out of that lifestyle, you may start wasting time,” he says. “Along with your drive, you may also lose certain resources. Scholarships may be forfeited. Your peer support system may have moved on, which can be disheartening. Guidance counselors and career advisers that you had in high school and would have in college are not readily available. In short, gap years aren’t meant for the unmotivated and those who lack self-leadership.”

How often does it go badly? That’s difficult to measure, of course, particularly for students who decide during the year away not to pursue college. The American Gap Association insists it isn’t a problem: “90 percent of students who took a gap year returned to college within a year.”

Amy Rebecca
Amy Rebecca is a writer and educator currently residing in Charlotte, NC. She received her MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry from Antioch University Los Angeles and her bachelor’s degree in English from Muskingum University.

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