It’s that time of year again. College decisions have just been released, and decision day is right around the corner for next year’s incoming undergraduates. Many colleges are revving up with tours and accepted student visits — Brown’s program, A Day on College Hill, is quickly approaching — trying to woo accepted students into enrolling in the fall. But is going to college right after high school always the right choice for everyone?
Today, widespread social pressure to immediately go to college in conjunction with increasingly high expectations in a fast-moving world often causes students to completely overlook the possibility of taking a gap year. After all, if everyone you know is going to college in the fall, it seems silly to stay back a year, doesn’t it? And after going to school for 12 years, it doesn’t feel natural to spend a year doing something that isn’t academic.
But while this may be true, it’s not a good enough reason to condemn gap years. There’s always a widespread fear of falling behind everyone else on the socially perpetuated “race to the finish line,” whether that be toward graduate school, medical school or a lucrative career. Despite common misconceptions, a gap year does not impede the success of academic pursuits — in fact, it probably enhances it.
Studies from the United States and Australia show that students who take a gap year are generally better prepared for and perform better in college than those who do not. Rather than pulling students back, a gap year pushes them ahead by preparing them for independence, new responsibilities and environmental changes — all things that first-year students often struggle with the most. Gap year experiences can lessen the blow when it comes to adjusting to college and being thrown into a brand new environment, making it easier to focus on academics and activities rather than acclimation blunders.
If you’re not convinced of the inherent value in taking a year off to explore interests, then consider its financial impact on future academic choices. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 80 percent of college students end up changing their majors at least once. This isn’t surprising, considering the basic mandatory high school curriculum leaves students with a poor understanding of the vast academic possibilities that await them in college. Many students find themselves listing one major on their college applications, but switching to another after taking college classes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but depending on the school, it can be costly to make up credits after switching too late in the game. At Boston College, for example, you would have to complete an extra year were you to switch to the nursing school from another department. Taking a gap year to figure things out initially can help prevent stress and save money later on.
But many people argue that the gap year itself can take a toll on students’ bank accounts. That’s a myth. While gap years are often associated with the rich and privileged who boast of stories about sailing through Thailand or eating crepes in Paris for a year, the truth is that there are many opportunities to take a financially accessible gap year. There are formal gap year programs that are rather pricey, usually costing between $10,000 and $20,000, but there are also ample opportunities to volunteer and receive free housing or even get paid for your gap year. The federally funded AmeriCorp, for example, offers 75,000 Americans an opportunity to volunteer each year with local and national nonprofit groups. In exchange for a 10-month commitment, each student receives $4,725 for college — and some colleges and universities will even match that award. Other gap year alternatives, which vary in price, include working in a field of interest, completing civil service, pursuing athletics, partaking in language immersion, seeking out adventure travel and doing just about anything else you can think of.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for taking a gap year is that it offers a unique opportunity that will likely never reappear. After graduating from college, it’s possible to take some time off, but it will be more stressful with loans and other obligations. For prospective students thinking about the next step in their lives: Don’t rule out anything, including a gap year.
Samantha Savello ’18 wishes she had taken a gap year and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.