The recent White House announcement about Malia Obama’s decision to take a year off before her freshman year at Harvard’s class of 2021 led to lots of lively discussion about the merits of a gap year.
Many parents are skeptical about the value of a gap year and tend to dismiss it as a concept invented by slackers for slackers.
A strong case for a gap year
But there is a very strong and sound case to be made for a gap year given a crisis affecting university educated students- 20 per cent unemployment rate and suicide being the second most leading cause for death among college students. Mental illness rates brought on by stress and depression are soaring on campuses across North America. Pressure to succeed and the legacy of crushing student debt can be overwhelming for some.
A large number of high school graduates are really not sure about what they want to do. Some clearly need more time to understand their own strengths and passions. Well-meaning but pushy parents often step in and pressure them into streams that will lead to promising careers but it may not be what they want, so they end up fumbling through college, experimenting with drugs in order to alleviate the pressure and invariably depression sets in. Many also end up dropping out.
According to the CIRP Freshman Survey the annual survey of students starting college, first-year college students have high levels of stress and consequently suffer high rates of mental illness.
Students need time and space to think
A gap year may not work for everyone, but clearly, high school students should not be made to feel guilty for wanting that time off. A gap year could change or even save their lives. It is in this time and space, students under pressure can explore what interests them. By volunteering and interning, students can actually discover what the real world is like and their place in it. It gives them a perspective that cannot be got from a text book neither can it happen in a classroom.
Robert Clagett, who served as a senior admissions officer at Harvard and the former dean of admissions at Middlebury College, found that those who took a year off before starting college have GPAs that, on a 4.0 scale, are 0.15 to 0.2 higher than otherwise would be expected.
According to Ethan Knight, founder of the American Gap Association, who incidentally spent a gap year traveling and experiencing India, Nepal and Tibet back in 1996, students on returning to the campus after a year off tend to be more motivated and engaged in the classroom, because they have a taste of what the world will be like after they graduate.
They are far from apprehensive and better prepared and if they’ve traveled and had many experiences in the real world, they are better positioned to succeed.
In a rapidly changing workplace, students aren’t necessarily assured of finding work in their field in the country they were born. Working for a multinational corporation could mean spending five years in Brazil or India or China and having prior exposure through travel or volunteering in other countries could equip students to make themselves more of an asset to corporations than someone with the same skillset but an insular mindset.
Universities are pushing for it
This is why universities are now promoting student exchanges. Corporations tend to favor job applicants who’ve spent time studying, volunteering or even working in other countries.
Harvard University has for a long time encouraged its students to take a gap year. Princeton and the University of North Carolina, are among a slew of American universities actually offering scholarships and fellowships to incoming freshmen who take a gap year. Tufts University launched its 1+4 bridge program, which offer gap-year opportunities for national and international service regardless of a student’s ability to pay.
In any case the recession and poor employment prospects today means young people can spend months and even a couple of years to find themselves a good job. Thousands of well-educated graduates across the continent come out of college only to find limited job prospects.
Those who’ve taken a gap year and done some pretty incredible stuff like volunteering, teaching or traveling through Asia for example tend to stand out because travel does broaden one’s mind and expands one’s horizons. Gap students whether you’d like to believe it or not, tend to stand out from among a sea of job applicants. They just end up being more interesting because besides that degree, they have a perspective and have experienced the world rather than merely got that off the web.