Why Taking a 'Gap Year' Should Be a New College Admissions Requirement

A year off—spent wisely—can enhance a student's educational experience.

(Photo: Margot Gabel/Flickr)

Jun 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Google the words gap year,” a term that barely existed in the national lexicon a decade ago, and you’ll get roughly 60 million results. They range from websites for a dozen or so programs as well as gap year fairs, at least one online guidebook, and testimonials from students who say it’s a rewarding, valuable experience.

The options for a recent high school grad looking to take a break from formal education to travel or volunteer before heading to college have exploded in recent years. They range from opportunities in exotic places, like working on an organic farm in Thailand, to helping rebuild schools or teach young children in Washington, D.C.’s underserved communities.

That's why Joe O’Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, argues that time off between high school and college can pay dividends for society at large.

“It’s very common for students to go through the motions in high school, and be pushed along by family” to get to college, “often as quickly as possible,” says O’Shea, who is also director of Florida State University's Office of Undergraduate Research. However the key lies in how that year off is defined.

Traveling abroad and volunteering in a developing country “is the gold standard,” says O'Shea. Going to a part of the planet, or the nation, that they’ve never seen before, can lead to a more thoughtful, mature student better prepared for college.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling also recommends traveling and volunteering as a way for incoming college students to figure out what they want before heading to campus.

"While there is significant peer pressure, parental pressure, and school pressure to go right on to college, the adventurous few who take time off are richly rewarded," according to the NACAC’s web site. "Taking time off before college gives you the gift of time to learn about two essential things: yourself and the world around you."

Rather than digesting and regurgitating rote classroom lessons, a year doing something interesting “introduces into a young person’s life a challenge in a new and interesting way,” O’Shea says. “They get an experience that challenges their assumption of themselves and the world around them. They get a better capacity to understand problems and think from a different perspective.

“It can help you see your own life and your own historical context and privileges in a new light,” he says, “and it can help to enrich their college career afterward.”

Top quality programs, O’Shea says, focus on the whole student, and not just the volunteer services they provide. The best ones, he says, offer development, leadership or educational components, guidance on college or career options, a support system for students as they travel, and a safe, nurturing environment that program alumni have vouched for.

Gap-year experiences can seem exotic. The website Omprakash.org boasts “volunteer opportunities in 42 countries...with 142 international partners,...[and] 11,985 volunteers.” And over at the website GapYear.com, tours of Italy aimed at gaining a better understanding of art history as well as volunteer research opportunities at a marine preserve in Malawi are available.

Other students may sign up for AmeriCorps, which offers living-expense stipends and college scholarship money in exchange for domestic service. However, depending on the program, an AmeriCorps member may have to apply for food stamps because they are paid so little.

While gap years have spiked in popularity, O’Shea says, a year off from school isn’t for everyone—young people who have personal or family issues, for example, or who don’t want to venture any further than the distance from the sofa to the refrigerator in their parents’ home. More work also needs to be done to make gap years more accessible to kids who don't come from well-off families. Although a student can gain valuable experience by simply getting a job and working for a year before enrolling in college, a real gap year, says O'Shea, “usually involves leaving your home community to do something else."

“The benefits of it are so varied, but in the end they become the type of [well-rounded] people we need in society,” O’Shea said. “They’ve experienced not just people who look like them and think like them and talk like them.”