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.

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