How Many Americans Take A Gap Year?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spend any time on the road and you’re more likely than not going to run into a young Australian or a Brit in the midst of a gap year. For many Americans, the gap year itself is a foreign concept (my guess is most Americans don’t even know what it means), but for those who just graduated high school in many parts of the world, the gap year — that 6 to 12 months off before entering college, usually traveling the world, oftentimes volunteering along the way — is a right of passage. Heck, even Prince Harry did it (he spent time working in Australia and volunteering in Africa). In America, according to the most recent statistics on the subject, only about 7.6% of graduates delayed their entrance to school by one year, and only 29% of those took that year to travel (instead of working at home).

For most Americans, college comes right after high school, and any long-term travel is put off until after graduation — a bad idea according to recent studies. The Journal of Educational Psychology recently published a study revealing that students that took part in a gap year “reported significantly higher motivation in college—in the form of “adaptive behavior” such as planning, task management, and persistence—than did students who did not take a gap year.” My guess is that they also have much more interesting stories to tell around the dinner table in the dining hall.

The low number of “gappers” in America may finally be changing. Time noted how several prestigious schools, including Harvard and MIT, have seen the number of students deferring entrance by one year increase dramatically (Harvard by 33% in the last decade; MIT by 100% in the last year alone). In the same article, Time asked a former Gapper — who was forced to take a year off after missing an application deadline — what she took away from her year off volunteering in India, studying Spanish in Guatemala, and working in Guatemala: “I gained confidence and independence . . . It was the best experience of my life.”

I couldn’t agree more. I took off a year after high school myself, and though I (inexplicably, now that I look back upon it) didn’t spend this year traveling — choosing to work and earn money instead — I know that it helped me down the road in school and in work in ways that could never be measured quantitatively. Seeing my fellow freshmen during my first year in college, I knew that that one year off already put me heads and shoulder above many of them in terms of motivation and maturity. Had I spent that year on the road, who knows how much more I would’ve learned about myself and the world around me? And besides, how many other times in your life will you have the time, the lack of debt (usually in the student loan form), and the freedom to take such a year? Americans may be behind other countries in this respect, but my guess is that that’s not going to last.

  • Tony

    College is far more expensive in the US than other developed countries.
    They were rioting, okay maybe not quite rioting, in London over plans that would leave them in less debt than Americans.

    Facing the prospect of a big bill for school, why would Americans travel internationally and incur even more debt before even starting school?

    It might work if your dad is the bank president, but not for everyone.

  • Molly Sterns

    Hi Matt,

    You're absolutely right that Americans are vastly under-represented in the gap year department, and that many don't even have a sense of what it is or why it's a good idea. I took a gap year, too, and found myself alone among my classmates in doing so. Even now, I've met very few people who've even thought of it.

    What's interesting, though, is how the idea does seem to be gaining traction–as you point out in the cases of Harvard and MIT. Princeton is following suit with a bridge year option, and other colleges will likely do the same.

    As the momentum gathers, I wanted to draw your attention to the organization I work for, Global Citizen Year, which is working to make the gap year a common step in the education trajectory for students from all backgrounds. Now recruiting for its third class, this is an initiative which seeks to do far more than just offer another option to students already looking; its goal is to transform the whole transition to college as a time when students take a year in the world to gain global perspectives and skills through a year of direct immersion in the developing world. Kind of like the Peace Corps, but four years earlier, giving students a chance to apply what they learn to their college as well as professional careers. As you point out, taking this time "off" actually makes you more prepared for college than your peers who don't, and you do indeed pick up some incredible stories along the way.

    If you're interested in talking more you can email me at In the meantime thanks for the post and I look forward to reading more!


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