Gap Year: New Trend or Step for Self-Exploration?

A ‘gap year’ has emerged as a lucrative option among school students before they take on the next phase of their life, whether it’s college or work. More than a trend, it can be a purposeful break to explore one’s areas of interest or pick up new skills. But let’s first understand what it means.

What constitutes a gap year?

Construed to be a fashionable practice in the UK about thirty years ago among students who had completed high school and were awaiting college acceptance, gap year was a way to step out of education or employment. It could be voluntary or incidental, but the main purpose was honing one’s prospects. The word ‘year’ is a misnomer; it can refer to any period of ‘off’ time.

This trend of taking gap years has been gaining popularity in the US (especially after Malia Obama announced to defer her admission to Harvard by a year). Many Ivy League colleges and universities have given formal recognition to gap years through innovative programs. In fact, some universities encourage students to defer their admission for gaining some worldly experience by participating in volunteer work, building skills, learning new languages or traveling to new places. More recently, countries like Australia and Asian countries like China have also embraced the concept of gap years. 

What’s the brouhaha about?

In India, gap year continues to be a taboo topic: It is considered the last resort among students who may be unable to cope with the system. There is a perception of ‘failure’ associated with the word itself. However, research shows that this shouldn’t be the case as gap years can have a positive impact. For instance, studies by Elisa Birch and Paul Miller (2007) found that students who defer university tend to have higher marks than students who commence university directly after completing high school. This advantage was more pronounced among low-performing students, particularly male students, who are in the lower half of the university marks distribution. Thus, a gap year can provide a unique opportunity for students to rejuvenate and work on themselves. 

It also gives students several opportunities to build their CVs. As for millennials, there’s a growing need for self-awareness self-realization in their respective careers. And a gap year is a welcome step in this respect.

The rising need for gap years

After-school gap years are a leading trend for more reasons than one. 

In today’s competitive world, good academic credentials are not enough to gain admission to reputed institutions. Along with good grades, there is a pressing need to hone important skills like interpersonal communication, leadership, job-related or technical skills, professional networks, and cultural capital. This path to self-discovery is not covered in the school academic curricula, and often, families may not possess the requisite skill set to train their children for the world out there. 

Take, for example, the following two scenarios.

  • Miriam loves to read and wants to read all her favorite award-winning books by the time she turns 21. But usual school life doesn’t leave her with much time, especially since she has to focus on her class XII exams. She has to do well in the exams to get admission into her dream college. She began planning her application a year ago, realizing that she needs to read and write more to make her application stand out. This means she will need more time to pursue her reading list. But with the growing academic pressure, it is next to impossible for her to do so. She plans to apply for the next college intake and defer her admission. She knows her parents may not approve of her decision to take time-off, so she has to be sure of her plans while taking the time off. She intends to take on some short-term projects and immerse herself in a field of her choice.
  • Asif dreams of securing admission in one of the top-notch engineering colleges in the country. Upon writing the entrance exam last year, he had narrowly missed the cut-off percentage. That made him really upset and he felt he needed more time for better preparation. He decided to take a year off and has enrolled in some coaching classes to stay focussed and maintain a schedule.

Benefits of an after-school gap year 

Social interaction with peers can make teens less self-centred and more open to working in groups. Students also become more self-reliant and mature, dealing with differences with greater equanimity. They also gather richer anecdotal experiences to share, which increases their employability. 

This ‘time off’ can help them to focus on other areas they had earlier not got the time to pursue due to their strict and rigorous academic schedule. This way, the gap year instills a sense of motivation, interest, and a ‘sense of purpose’. 

This can also be a  cooling-off period a

that lets students explore academic or career options before taking the final plunge into either phase that they wish to pursue. Joseph O’ Shea, who penned the book Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People the Way the World Needs in the year 2013 enumerates various benefits of gap years by collecting testimonials from students who have had gap year experiences. He states that intensive gap year programs cultivate curiosity by providing refreshing reading material and immersive experiences. Such programs offer opportunities to get involved in different circumstances that avoid burnout and allow students to brace themselves for the next year. 

A lot of the time gap year enables them to step out of the protective cocoon and familiarity of student life, which is rarely engaging or challenging vis-a-vis the real world.

Abigail Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year vouches for an attitudinal change in looking at the gap year by renaming it a “bridge year.” She aims to normalize this transition by using this “time to build self-awareness, global skills, and grit which are foundations of success.”

Rounding up

Gap or Bridge years help unlock teenagers’ educational potential and facilitate civic development. We need higher education systems to ideally prepare students for life and for being able to handle social roles in general, not just for hoarding academic achievements. So, a gap year should be a “meaning-making” process, a reflective experience, and an opportunity to be challenged, rather than a waste of time.