Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to college. For the past half year, you’ve thoroughly edited your applications and waited, with anticipation for the response. Finally, you’ve gotten in; it was worth it.
But what do you do now?
Celebrate, plan, and execute the best summer ever, and then settle down at your college of choice the following fall—obviously. Going to college right after you start is a pattern we pursue without thinking twice. But following the tried and true method obstructs us from an option we don’t even realize exists. In September 2015, while former high school seniors all over the country unpacked their belongings in their dorms and eagerly met their new best friends, Sasha MacDonald set down her suitcase in a small Bedouin village halfway across the world. While friends from back home were striking up conversations with their new roommates, Sasha was playing with children who spoke only Arabic.
Sasha is one of thousands of students who are choosing to defer their acceptance to college in lieu of a gap year. She’s with a program called Kivunim, which allows Jewish gappers to learn more about their Jewish heritage. The program is based in Israel, but there are often two-week-long trips all around the Mediterranean, where Sasha and her peers can observe current and former Jewish settlements and learn more about their own heritage.
“Gap years are an amazing experience.” Sasha tells me enthusiastically “They really prepare you for college; they give you real life experience. I mean, I’ll never have the chance to do this again, travel like this without having to worry about what’s going to happen when I get back.
During college I’ll be too worried about classes, and after college I’ll be worried about a job. During my gap year I can choose to do whatever I want without worrying about all that.” I hear one of the girls in the background of my video chat with Sasha yell “Preach, girl!” so, obviously,
she seems to agree.
As Sasha describes them, the allure of these programs is obvious. Who would want to take classes and wade through massive piles of homework when they could be traveling around the world? But are gap years really just a momentary breath of relief for students before they plunge back into challenging coursework, or can they provide more than that? And since they are so alluring, why don’t more kids take them?
Since their creation in the UK in the 1960’s, gap years have only increased in popularity. According to Andrea Wien, the founder of the first global gap year community Gap to Great, gap year fairs, in which students can explore different gap year programs, have seen an increase in attendance of over 294% in the last five years. However, despite the romantic notion
of traveling the world and the growing popularity of gap years, only three students from the 500 large NNHS class of 2015 chose to go on one.
Sasha is one of these three students. Initially, she hadn’t wanted to take a gap year either, despite her mom’s great enthusiasm for the experience. However, after she didn’t get into her top college, she began to reconsider. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she says about the harsh reality that she would not be able to attend Washington University. “My friend who was going through the college admissions process with me didn’t get into her top college either and suggested the gap year. I knew I wanted to take one in Israel, so I did a bunch of research, and eventually found the program
Kivunim, which I won a scholarship for!”
However skeptical Sasha may have initially been, by November all of her misgivings were gone. “Taking this gap year was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Sasha gushes. “I think along the way I’ve gained a lot of maturity. Being alone without my parents could feel daunting, but I’ve learned to be so much more independent. Navigating the streets of Jerusalem
taught me a lot that college couldn't. Traveling like this also has
helped me gain an understanding of culture – I’ve become more open. My town is like a bubble, and the actual world is so different; venturing out into all these countries… it’s so different. I’ve never been exposed to all these cultures before.”
Many gappers (as they’re called) who go abroad share the same sentiment. Most that I’ve talked to report gaining maturity, experience, and “real life skills,” saying that these are all things that they feel they would not have learned in college. “Some of the personal attributes and social skills required are often particularly difficult to include explicitly in a degree program, yet they could be at the heart of the gap-year experience. These attributes include motivation, autonomy, selfawareness, self-motivation, flexibility and adaptability” (Blackburn). The numbers also agree. Students who have taken gap years overwhelmingly perform better than expected in college in terms of GPA.
Gap years are not always abroad. Many students choose to take gap years locally, due to financial or personal or other various reasons. They often get internships, or self-study, or work. To learn more about gappers who don’t travel, I sat down with Carole Jabbawy, the founder and director of a program called the Internship Connection, which guides graduating seniors through the internship application process locally for their gap year. “As a businesswoman, if kids come to me for a gap year I encourage it, because there’s nothing better than a gap year to help you figure out what you want to major in in college,” she tells me. Her website backs up her statement, saying, “Studies have been conducted by leading universities like Harvard that conclusively show that students who take a year out before college
are more focused and motivated when they arrive on campus than those who don't take this detour. Harvard's admissions department is so convinced of the benefits of a gap year that they offer the option to every admitted freshman in their acceptance letter.”
However, after the sentence her tone changes, as if she’s now leaning in to tell me a secret, “but I’ll tell you as a mother of three sons, I did not encourage them to do a gap year. I think a lot of the time students are burnt out, by the time they’re seniors in high school especially, and they just want time off. Gap years are fine, but my advice is that if you just take senior summer of and have all that downtime, by the time school starts in the fall you’re really ready to go back to school.”
The logic to her reasoning seems to be a widely felt sentiment. It is most likely why only three graduates of the class 2015 went on a gap year out of a class of 500. However, the three who have gone report that they absolutely love it and that it has been extremely beneficial. I mention this to Dr. Jabbawy and she looks conflicted, sighing and taking a moment to think. “I hear from parents and students that a gap year can be beneficial, it really depends on the student… I think it depends what you do on your gap year.” Dr. Jabbawy eventually elaborates. “A lot of times parents and students will research, and you can do two to three different experiences [throughout the year]! Just think about it – when you’re a freshman and you’re sitting in a classroom in college and you have all these conversations about whatever, [if you take a gap year] you have a richness of experience that you can talk about.” While plenty of teens do lots to enrich themselves on the gap year, there is a fear, especially as a parent, that your child will sit on the couch all day and do absolutely nothing meaningful.
Dr. Jabbawy makes it clear that she does not anticipate that this will be a problem for any of the kids she mentors. “Those students that come to me are the best and brightest out there and they want to do internships to really explore a field that they’re really considering as a college major.”
When asked if her clients usually enjoyed their gap years, Dr. Jabbawy smiled. “I certainly hope they do! They’ve always told me that they like it, or I would move them to a different internship! But yes, my students like it. Sometimes they even tell me how grateful they are to not be in school.”
Clearly Sasha and Dr. Jabbawy’s students love their gap years. Not only are they not slogging through finals, they gain maturity, real-world experience, and a broadened view, whether that happens while abroad or near home. What, then, can account for the lack of students taking a gap year?
Perhaps it is the culture we live in today. "American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed - taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness," says Contributing Digital Editor of Conde Nast Traveler Lilit Marcus to GoOverseas.com. "We're a country permanently in hyperdrive." There is a general blueprint that American students today are expected to follow throughout life: school, higher education, job, retirement, death, with no breaks in between. The “American Dream” has turned into the American expectation – all Americans are expected to achieve this one, singular, American Dream in the same exact way. During high school even, college counselors, SAT and AP prep, the entire high school experience revolves around the “ultimate goal” – college. With this system in place, doesn’t going straight to college seem natural? These college prep materials lay out a methodical blueprint for students to follow on the path to success. Gap years are not included within this blueprint, and therefore many students do not even realize that this is a viable option.
Or perhaps it is the parents that are holding the kids back. When I mentioned the thought of a gap year abroad to my own mother, she scoffed. “Claire, if you get out there and travel, you’re never going to want to come back!” Dr. Jabbawy seemed to share this fear, despite running a gap year program, when she told me that she did not encourage her sons to take a gap year. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to Sue Shellenbarger, writer for the Wall Street Journal, 90% of gappers return to college the following year. Still, there is always that 10% who leave school, never to return again.
Despite these fears and stigmatizations, the benefits of gap years cannot be discredited. While college is supposed to be the defining moment; the period of time where one finally comes to a moment of clarity and realizes exactly where their life is headed, this usually isn’t the case. Many students who haven’t taken a gap year emerge from college feeling lost and without a direction. Taking a gap year can allow students to reflect on their lives so far and their true interests without doing extracurriculars just for college to find clarity. Wien says, “The gap year industry gets a bad rap, but it’s actually one of the more logical ideas I’ve come across. Why do we think it’s better to throw an 18-year-old kid into college, and then almost immediately force him or her to come up with what they want to do for the rest of their lives? Sure, there are a few that succeed without major setbacks, but the vast majority of teens aren’t making the right decision.” Meanwhile, according to The Gap Year Advantage by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, a large majority of former gappers report being satisfied with their jobs later on in life.
In the end, just going straight to college is not always the best way to find your path in life. “At first I was kind of, alright, I was really upset that I hadn’t gotten into my top college,” Sasha says. “Now I’m honestly glad that I didn’t get in, because if I hadn’t been rejected, then I never would’ve taken this gap year, and I think that taking this gap year is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”