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March 6, 2019Culture, Research

Exploring the Growing Trend of Taking a Gap Year before College

When chosen wisely, a gap year can meet a student exactly where they are and provide what they need to thrive in college.
Exploring the Growing Trend of Taking a Gap Year before College
Image: Lisa Heegaard

Each year, between 80 and 110 future Harvard students choose to take a gap year. They’re encouraged to pursue this option straight from the Admissions office. Why would one of the most prestigious schools in the country encourage high school grads to wait to go to college?

Harvard isn’t the only school encouraging its applicants to consider this option. Wheaton College was just ranked as being one of the friendliest higher education institutes for gap year students.

The growing trend in higher education is to put matriculation off for 4-12 months. This “gap” in the educational treadmill is called a gap year. It can be taken at any time during college, but students typically use the break between their senior year of high school and their freshman year of college.

There is no one best way to do a gap year—the possibilities are endless. When used well, a gap year allows a student to broaden their worldview while deepening their faith. Students have the space to learn new skills – both “hard” skills like language acquisition and “soft” skills like conflict resolution (needed today more than ever, I’d say.)

Gap years are growing in popularity for good reason. When chosen wisely, a gap year can meet a student exactly where they are and provide what they need to thrive in college. Charlie Goeke, Director of the Vanguard Gap Year of Wheaton College, says this:

We have every kind of student at Vanguard. By design, the program meets each where they stand. We introduce both to an academic environment outside of textbooks and tests – a space that encourages outdoor adventure, Christ-centered community, and inquiry-led learning.

The truth is, taking a gap year doesn’t reflect on a person’s intelligence (if it did, then consider that the U.K. and Australia—both countries which are way ahead of the U.S. in the gap year trend—must have something wrong). Isolation doesn’t have to be a factor either, especially not with all of the gap year programs there are to choose from. According to the Gap Year Association, 91 percent of gappers continue on to college. Gap years may save students time in the long run by helping to prevent burnout and by giving them some space to decide what they truly want to study.

Preventing burnout is one of the most compelling reasons for taking a gap year. Let’s revisit Harvard’s take. An article posted on their Admissions page claims that today’s high school students (especially the type who want to make it to Harvard!) are spread far too thin. For many, their options realistically are “time out or burn out.” There have been few broad studies on gap years, but anecdotal evidence and, for many, personal experience indicate that this is so true.

Perhaps surprisingly, many students have qualms about taking time away from school. They may feel behind their peers. They may fear that they’ll lose the resolve to actually go to college when the time comes, or worry about becoming isolated as their friends go off to school. A drawback, especially for parents, is the “extra cost” of a year that – for some gap years – doesn’t move the needle on earning college credit. Look at it this way: if your student approaches college with a passion and a purpose, the risk of an extra year dramatically decreases. There are programs, like Vanguard, that offer up to a semester of transferrable college credit.

Ultimately, gap years aren’t just about taking a break from education, but about developing the “life smarts” that got the short end of the stick in high school.

And what about for Christians? Not only does a gap year mean taking time off from the breakneck pace of academics and developing “life smarts,” it can also mean an opportunity for strengthening faith, building habits of spiritual discipline, and preparing wisely for adulthood. There are lots of reputable, faith-based programs available. Something to consider.

Sarah Davis is the HoneyRock Marketing Specialist at Wheaton College.

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Exploring the Growing Trend of Taking a Gap Year before College