Should You Take a Gap Year In College Or Work?

The New York Times mentions that “there is growing evidence that as more students discover that postponing their freshman year of college is an option, many take the opportunity.” Although a year-long excursion may seem like an expensive endeavor, there are various options for how to spend this time away from school. Programs, such as Lead for America, which trains and places students in two-year paid fellowships with government organizations, non-profits, and community foundations are competitive and popular, yet stable and effective. 

Creating passion projects is also another way to spend your gap year. Focusing your attention on entrepreneurial ideas or artistic goals can enhance a young person’s sense of self and provide them with accomplishments that will help propel them into the next phases of their life. Lastly, thinking about your gap year as your entire future rather than a separate piece of your story can help ignite a more fulfilling way of living no matter what you are doing.

In this vlog, Dave discusses the advantages and disadvantages of taking a gap year before college or graduate school:

This post was written by Dr. Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero, PhD and Rachel Simmons (freelance writer) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

Who takes a gap year? 

Traditionally, the idea of a gap year is taking time off from school in between high school and college, or a year off within college, or even a year between undergraduate and graduate studies to foster greater self-awareness, pursue possible career endeavors, and experience various cultures. It can take some fortitude to get started with the next phase of your academic career if you are feeling burned out from high school or college. In this blog post Dave discusses how to muster the motivation to continue or begin your academic career. 

Of course, there may be practical reasons to take a break between college and graduate school, and sometimes the break becomes longer than a year. In fact most people take more than a year off between college and graduate school to gain work experience, travel, try different careers and jobs. As the years between college and graduate school grow, people will also be more likely to get married and start a family. It can be very wise to wait until the kids are at least in preschool to start your graduate career. 

Although it can be tougher to get back into the academic game after you’ve had kids, it can be even tougher to do so if you are a single parent. As a parent you have to juggle your career, if you’re the sole breadwinner, with school and being a parent. These students are an absolute inspiration because they make it all work and manage to be fantastic, responsible students. Here is a blog post Stephanie wrote about being a student and a single parent, if you are interested in this topic.

How common is it to take a gap year?

Gap years or bridge years are more common and culturally acceptable for students in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe, and Australia than they are in the United States; however, they are increasing in popularity and viewed with a more positive outlook in the U.S. This is “[e]videnced by a booming industry of gap year programs, the prolific publication of resource guides, and the inception of the Gap Year Association, an accreditation and standards-setting organization for gap years that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.”

Public universities in Europe are tuition-free, (unlike the United States) making it more financially possible for European students to perform volunteer projects over their gap year. As American students, institutions, and families become more used to and open to the gap year idea, we should make an effort to learn how other cultures go about making this experience fulfilling for young people and even older adults. 

How do I finance a gap year?

If you are right out of high school chances are any job you get will not pay a whole lot, so you most likely will have to live at home while you work. If you are doing a gap year between college and graduate school you will have a lot more work options and you will earn a lot more. Beyond working there are opportunities to receive stipends and grants to do a gap year program or a travel program. 

The intention of a gap year is to grow, mature, and level up to become more prepared emotionally and intellectually for future career and academic goals. Programs such as Fulbright, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps are intended to strengthen and develop a student’s skills and knowledge in a different setting than college while making it financially feasible for a student to participate due to the grant funding as a part of these programs. Students generally take advantage of one of these types of programs during a gap year due to the financial support. 

Competitive in nature, these programs are not abreeze to get through nor do they make for a relaxing time off. Most people who take gap years are not in it for leisure, rather they see a passion or need and want to invest their time and energy to see it through or make a difference. Finances will be tight, even with the financial support many of these programs provide, but with some careful planning, and thinking about how to ultimately finance your return to school, you can make it work. 

What about traveling during a gap year? 

Many young students would like the opportunity to travel and live abroad to completely  immerse themselves  in a foreign culture and seize the opportunity to become bilingual. Many choose to volunteer their time to learn about different cultures and ways of life while making a difference in society. 

Agricultural farming, teaching English as a second language, and building wells and libraries in foreign countries are often the types of volunteer projects available to those on a gap year. Students who choose to attend an international university or spend a semester or year studying abroad can combine this idea of cultural exchange while keeping up with their academics. 

Universities, such as Princeton, offer programs that encourage international travel and service as an option prior to beginning college. “The Novogratz Bridge Year Program allows incoming students to begin their Princeton experience engaged in nine months of tuition-free, University-sponsored service at one of five international locations. Bridge Year participants study the local language, live with carefully selected homestay families, and take part in a variety of cultural enrichment activities, while learning from host communities through their volunteer work.”

What about taking a gap year while in college or graduate school? 

Exams, classes, and assignments can often pile up and feel overwhelming at times. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break from all the school stress and focus on doing something you enjoy? Another way to think about a gap year is using the time as a sabbatical year, in which a passion project is generated and completed during the year. 

Artists, musicians, and writers can create novels, blogs, albums, paintings, etc. and entrepreneurs can start businesses of their own during the time off from school. Many students make the decision to take a break from school to explore different hobbies that may expand into a lucrative career or develop into a life-long passion. Passion projects can also be a lot of work but at least it is on your own schedule. 

Check out this video on taking sabbaticals:

The idea of taking a gap year as discovering yourself

The idea of a gap year for some may seem like an interruption in the normal stages of life; but life is not a set schedule, it is a constant flow of experiences and ideas. Dave with the R3ciprocity team encourages us to “think of your life as a flow of experiences, where you are becoming a better person.” 

All experiences are interactive; a gap year can enhance your studies and vice versa. We don’t necessarily have to learn, grow, or achieve our goals in a set order. Taking a gap year can help you be more focused on what you choose to do as a student during college or graduate school. For example, choose the majors in college that bring out your passion and make you want to learn more and more about the subject every day.

Dave also suggested that we don’t compartmentalize passions versus being a student. Incorporate both. He asks, what if it were more common to practice your favorite hobbies within every year, even those when you are still in school or working? Your life in its entirety should be fulfilling, fun, interesting, and relaxing. Why choose to compartmentalize your life and limit yourself to just one or so years of freedom when your whole life can incorporate growth, passion, and fulfillment.

How a gap year can be a mental health boost

Finally, another reason to take a gap year is to take a break from the unrelenting stress of being a student in a highly competitive high school or college. It can be very difficult to go through four years of intense secondary schooling then continue the same pace as you move right into college. More and more high school students are becoming seriously burned out from the rigors of academically intense high school curricula, and their mental health is suffering.

 If this is you, put your health first. There is no downside to taking a gap year when it is meant in part to help you regain your equilibrium and take care of your health. Use this year to learn new self care techniques that you never tried before, such as yoga or meditation. With these relaxation tools you will be a more focused, healthy, and productive college or graduate student. 

Drawbacks to taking a gap year

Of course there are drawbacks to anything, so taking a gap year should be considered carefully. Some of the drawbacks include financing a gap year, especially if you are right out of high school. When you go directly into college you benefit from financial aid, loans, and other supports you may receive to help you relocate and live day to day. Without that, if you want to leave home, it will probably be financially impossible.

Also, you could break your momentum. You may need a break from academia, but once you take that break it may be difficult to get started again. You may get very involved in your work or family life, so that it’s hard to ultimately make that shift back to being a student. 

Sometimes it’s better to just keep going and try to deal with your stress and mental health problems while moving forward with your degree. There are many supports for students including counseling centers (and you may have even better access to mental health treatment at school) as well as peer support. In the below vlog, Dave provides some tips on how to deal with academic stress and anxiety:

The bottom line

Ultimately, the decision to take a gap year is up to you. Like anything, make a list of the pluses and minuses, talk to friends, talk to academic people, and consult with your parents who may provide support in helping you take a break. 

Gap years should be about getting to know yourself better. What you learn during this year can enhance your school experience once you return. Higher education, work, and passion projects should all be fulfilling, nourishing, and interesting no matter what order in which they are achieved. It is up to you to plan and create avenues toward your life goals. A gap year may be the change you need to begin a new endeavor or to switch gears. 

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