Are you unsure about starting college right after high school? Learn more about the benefits of taking a gap year and how it will set you apart when you apply for college admission.
Deciding whether to attend college right after graduating from high school is a big decision. And it is a decision that only you can make.
While taking a gap year is less common in the US than in the UK, Europe, and Australia, its popularity is increasing as institutions begin to value such experiences as opportunities for personal and professional development, and not just as ways for recent graduates to delay the transition into ‘adulthood’.
The notion of the gap year can be traced back to post-war Britain. It was popularly thought to be important for young adults to travel to other countries and learn about different cultures to promote peace and understanding.
The practice grew in the 1960s when Britain’s “gappers” traveled by bus to distant places like India, Nepal, and Pakistan, on what became known as the “hippy trail”. The movement has only grown since then, and is most popular in the UK, Europe, Australia, and the US.
There is no one correct way to take a gap year – it can be undertaken both in your home country or abroad, by working, traveling, or volunteering.
Chances are, that if you’re reading this, you’re already interested in taking your gap year overseas and making it meaningful.
Whether you’re looking to volunteer abroad or challenge yourself with a professional internship, you will have an incredibly unique experience that will prepare you for college in ways that other experiences couldn’t.
Benefits of taking a gap year
We live in a society where moving seamlessly between high school, college, and the workforce is common and expected. Taking a gap year is out of the norm and the benefits of such an experience are often misunderstood.
However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests taking a gap year has measureable academic, professional, and personal benefits.
Set yourself up for academic success
Concerned that taking a year off from school will hinder your academic success when you return? Don’t be.
A recent study of UK and US students showed that students who took gap years actually had higher GPAs in college than a similar group of students who went straight into college after high school.
There are a few possible reasons for this. First, taking a gap year gives students a chance to take a mental break from academia and the rigors of lectures, notetaking, and test-taking.
Second, by exploring their interests in a non-academic setting, students get the chance to explore or affirm their interest in potential college majors in a way that jumping into one without any direct experience can’t.
Not only are students more likely to return to college with a clearer sense of what they want to study, but they are also more energized and highly motivated in their studies.
Think about how much more exciting it would be to study marine conservation when you’ve already conducted underwater surveys of coral and sharks?
Get professional experience
Not only can taking a gap year hone your academic interests, but also it will allow you to gain hands-on experience. As an intern in the field you’ll work alongside industry professionals on high-impact projects, which will allow you to explore your various career interests.
If you are certain about what you want to do professionally, consider signing up for a long-term internship that will allow you to dive more deeply into the development issue you are the most passionate about.
If you are less certain, consider taking part in multiple volunteer projects, or finding a project site that allows participants to get involved in various kinds of work. For example, in Thailand’s southern coast, you can work on GVI’s marine conservation project and volunteer with children.
By exploring multiple project types, you’ll also better position yourself to figure out what you do not want to do professionally. It is infinitely better to figure out what you’re truly passionate about before you commit four years of study to something you don’t really want to do.
Grow as a person
Academics and professional interests aside, taking a gap year has a variety of personal benefits that will prepare you thoroughly for the challenges of college life.
Traveling somewhere new is not easy: especially when it’s someplace completely different from your home country. It can be downright nerve-wracking.
But there are few things more empowering than traveling to a foreign country by yourself and learning to successfully navigate a new culture and language.
As you navigate international travel, learn to communicate despite language barriers, and live among an international group of people you’ve never met before, you’ll inevitably become a better problem-solver who is both increasingly adaptable and self-sufficient. The transition to college will feel easy in comparison.
Increase your cultural awareness
Being able to successfully complete an international gap year experience shows that you are willing to get out of your comfort zone and adapt to different cultures and customs.
As a volunteer, you will be invited into the community in ways that no ordinary traveler would. You will participate in local ceremonies, learn to cook traditional foods, and listen to the stories of those you are serving.
The value of such international experiences and cultural exchanges cannot be understated, especially as the world globalizes further and our lives become indisputably intertwined.
Make your college application stronger
If you’re waiting to apply for college admission during your gap year, your experience will only make your application stronger. You will have unique, real-world experience from volunteering or interning on a global development project, and that’s something few of your peers will have.
But just saying you went on a gap year will not help you get into college. You will need to know how to appropriately translate your experiences on your application.
- Clearly state how your experience inspired your decision to choose the major you did. For example, did you decide to study public health after volunteering on a global health program in India?
- List specific experiences you had and skills you learned that will make you a successful student. Rather than writing that you “worked on a women’s empowerment project in Peru,” explain that you “assisted local partners in planning and conducting community workshops for women to increase literacy skills”. Framing it this way illustrates how you actively participated on a project.
As the world becomes more globalized, international experiences are critical. Gap years in particular, give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in different cultures abroad. This is invaluable when it comes to setting yourself apart from other students applying to the same colleges.