A few years ago, while re-reading an old copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I came across an inscription that my high school English teacher scribbled in the front of my book when I was in twelfth grade. He plagiarized Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now,” he wrote, “you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”
Back then, I probably thought that my teacher was suggesting that I go on to try new things in college—to take challenging courses, to study abroad, maybe even to take up sailing and actually learn how to throw off bowlines and catch trade winds in my sails. When I re-read his note, however, I thought immediately about gap years.
The gap year idea, which came of age in England in the 1960s, has steadily gained popularity and legitimacy in the United States. Now that it’s easier than ever to remain on their parents’ medical insurance plans until early-adulthood, many American students are looking to gain “real life” experience—to become truly fluent in a language, to volunteer on a long-term basis, to see new swathes of this or other countries—before moving into their freshman dorms.
Harvard’s admissions office has recommended the gap year option for over 30 years, often proposing it in students’ acceptance letters; their student newspaper reported a decade ago that students who had taken a gap year found the experience “so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.” Every year, between 80 and 110 accepted students defer their matriculation to Harvard in order to pursue a gap year. (Read more about what Harvard has to say about gap years here.)
Fred Hargadon, former dean or admissions at Princeton University, has said that the ideal age of an incoming freshman class would be 21 (or older!)—more mature, more focused, more independent, more aware of and interested in the wider world, and perhaps even more likely to graduate than the typical incoming freshman. A recent study of gap-year freshmen at Skidmore College found that they had higher GPAs during the first year of college than their straight-out-of-high-school peers.
Often having just finished 13 years of formal education, many students finish high school feeling burned out and exhausted. They’ve been students since toddler-hood and sometimes feel like their lives have been overly programmed for them. High school seniors are often excited to leave home, but they lack confidence in their ability to make decisions and don’t always know what they want to study or pursue in or after college.
Instead of being an interruption in or distraction from a student’s formal education, a gap year can be a much-needed time for many students to re-energize and re-focus before going to college. Gap years give students opportunities to explore their interests, acquire (or practice) skills, and gain independence, confidence, direction, and a unique perspective on the world around them.
So, why take a gap year? For one, it will change your life. Whether it’s spent working on a farm in Colorado, learning Spanish in Buenos Aires, volunteering at a children’s hospital, teaching ballet, or learning how to actually throw off bowlines and catch trade winds on a tall ship, a gap year will inevitably change a student’s life and positively affect his or her future.