Dear Malia: It’s great that you’re going to Harvard but hearty congratulations on a more important long-term choice: your decision to take a gap year.
While Harvard encourages freshmen to take a year off after high school, it’s not easy for most seniors to buck the typical American pattern of going straight to college. Gaps may be popular in the United Kingdom and other places but here in the United States we have yet to make it realistic for the vast majority of students. Your decision encourages us to talk about how to make this available to every high school senior who needs a break from the stressful, four-year college application marathon or needs to develop the life skills to do well once they get into a school.
Whether you participate in a structured gap year programs or plot your own course, a gap is a change of pace, a time to discover different talents, take structured risks and experience life outside the four walls of a classroom. It’s not a year “off,” it’s a year “on,” but on a different channel.
And new gap research shows that it’s going to make you more successful in college and beyond.
The National Gap Year Alumni Survey was conducted by the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University and targeted 1,000 gap-year students and alumni ages 18 to 60. It was sponsored by the American Gap Association, a nonprofit that accredits and sets standards for gap programs.
[Thinking of a gap year? Attend a gap year fair!]
Data from the Temple survey shows that students who take a gap year have a median time-to-graduation rate of 3.75 years - music to the ears of parents worried about graduation rates and how they affect tuition costs.
And GPAs? Over 80 percent of respondents reported a GPA of 3.0 or higher when they returned to school and 42 percent said it was at least 3.7.
Here are some other important findings:
Gap year programs foster “soft skills.” More than 90 percent of respondents in the Temple survey said their time away from a traditional classroom increased confidence, boosted maturity, developed communication skills or increased their interest in the wider world.
Gap year opportunities can be flexible. While the majority of respondents spent time overseas, 14 percent spent their gaps in the United States. And a gap can be a year or a semester. It can include a job or internship, community service or travel – it just depends on time, goals and budget constraints.
Gap programs can be affordable. On average, 45 percent of respondents said they did not even get financial help from their parents to pay for a gap. More gap programs are offering scholarships and some work programs provide room and board. Also, you may be able to use funds from your 529 savings account to pay for a specific gap program.
Gap year experience benefits extend beyond college. Among respondents in the Temple survey,, 89 percent reported participating in a community service activity within the last month. And, they were twice as likely as the U.S. population at large to have voted in a national election.
And earlier research at Sydney University shows that gap years boost motivation once kids get to college (and even in their careers).
We know that gaps foster the grit, resilience and independence that students are going to need for college. Our goal should be to work with colleges, gap programs and financial aid institutions to allow students of all income levels to take this time without risk to college funding. Your decision, Malia, should encourage this discussion.
So congratulations on choosing the less-traveled road. A gap is an exciting adventure that will pay off in so many ways. Enjoy your year “on” and then head to Harvard ready to take on the world.
[Looking for more info from the TeenLife Experts? Why A Gap Year is Important Before College.]