What Is A GAP Year?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about President Obama’s daughter, Malia, and her college plans. It’s been on the national TV news, all the wire services, and in a long College Confidential’s discussion forum thread. Her intentions have brought into focus an option about which you may know nothing or very little: the so-called GAP Year (I prefer the proper-noun nomenclature). I want to discuss that today.

The name “GAP Year” traditionally means taking a year off after high school to do other things before matriculating at the college where you have enrolled. In other words, it’s a year you spend doing other things that bridge the gap between high school and college. That makes sense.

I like to think of “GAP” as an acronym, standing for Gathering Additional Perspectives. When I think back to when I graduated from high school (yes, it’s possible for the human memory to span a chunk of time that large!), I was a wide-eyed idealist with not much real-world experience under my belt. I was the product of a somewhat sheltered upbringing by loving parents who made my life easy. My home town was Blue-Collar America Central and the core values of the Fifties were imprinted all over me.

I went straight from high school to college, not having the slightest idea what I wanted to do with my life. So, I declared a default major of business administration, which turned out to be the antithesis of who I was and what I really wanted to do, although at the time I had no idea what those two traits were.

GAP Year

Thus, I created my own version of a GAP Year, which involved withdrawing from college after my freshman year and joining the Navy, for lack of a better direction or motivation. My GAP “year” became three. I completed my tours of duty and then transferred from my small liberal arts college to my state flagship university. I was much wiser, far more mature, and my naive idealism had been well tempered with heavy doses of reality.

All of that gave me a particularly insightful, if not cynical and impatient, outlook on the realm of higher education. I had become much more discriminating and did not suffer fools easily. Being older than many of my fellow classmates gave me an edge on evaluating class work, projects, and professors. It was a kind of tactical advantage that I used to help myself negotiate the maze of requirements and personalities I faced on my way to a degree.

It also gave me a reputation as a kind of counselor, a dispenser of wisdom used by my younger, less worldly fellow students. They would ask me for advice in dealing with problematic personalities (mainly professors) and seemingly arbitrary requirements. My military experience had given me many opportunities to deal with adversity, so I was able to relate what I had learned through those trials to benefit others who were facing challenges of their own.

So, in a way, I had my own kind of GAP Year experience, although in a somewhat backward manner. Did I “gain additional perspectives”? You bet. Would I do it again? Yes!

However, if given the chance to go back, knowing what I know now (talk about naive idealism!), I would take the traditional route and place my gap between high school and my first year of college. My actual freshman year at that little rural college was mostly a waste for me. I needed additional perspectives badly but had no access to them. The concept of a GAP Year was completely lost on me.

Now, with all that ancient history about myself mercifully finished, let’s take a look at what some others are saying about the GAP Year. I started a thread on the CC forum entitled Gap years are becoming increasingly popular in the US, group says. It focuses on an article in the Boston Globe. Here are some highlights from it:

… Many colleges are encouraging the delayed entry to give students time to recharge after the stress of high school and build upon life or work experiences with a structured program of volunteer work, part-time employment or travel and internships in foreign countries …

… Not all universities allow it, and policies and programs vary. Upon receiving their admissions letter, students may request delaying their entry for a year — or in less frequent cases, two years — outlining what he or she plans to do during their time off. In Harvard admissions letters, students are actively encouraged to consider taking a gap year. Once approved, during that year a student may need to provide updates or otherwise check-in periodically to the university as a way to affirm their activities and continued interest in the university …

… Many students opt to spend some time abroad studying, learning foreign languages or volunteering with nonprofit groups, according to a 2015 report by the American Gap Association, which cited students’ desire to experience personal growth, see the world and take a break from the traditional academic track …

… Students who took a gap year typically say they entered college feeling more recharged and focused, while universities say those students often arrive on campus as better leaders — more civically engaged and motivated.

Anecdotally, ‘‘students come away much more mature and take their studies more seriously, and they are more assured of what they want to do major wise,’’ said Jeffrey Selingo, author of the book, ‘‘There Is Life After College.’’

More important, Selingo said, they know what they don’t want to do …

A key phrase cited from that article states that many post-GAP Year student know what they don’t want to do for a life’s work. That knowledge is priceless, in my view, simply because of the time it can save someone from wandering in the void of “Who am I?” and/or “What do I really want to do with my life?”

Granted, “gapping” is not a panacea. It’s not like asking Yoda about the meaning of life. What it can do, though, is give you some time for personal reflection and repose. I’m a big repose guy. Who was it who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”? Was it John Kerry or Sting? I forget.

The point is that when you are 18 years old, you’re probably looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope, so to speak. Your view of the world, and perhaps life in general, may be distorted and in need of clarification. Going directly from high school to college can be a treadmill experience. Your life’s “feet” never stop moving in the same direction and that sameness can glaze over one’s view of things. A GAP Year can provide a valuable interlude that leads to an off-ramp and down a road less traveled.

An obvious question should be: Is a GAP Year right for you? Back to that Boston Globe article:

… Knight also advises that a gap year isn’t right for everyone.

He says a student might not be a good fit if he or she doesn’t have a clear plan of learning or enrichment activities during the time off, or doesn’t feel that they are academically burnt out and are looking forward to classes. ‘‘If a student really lights up at the prospect of going to college, then he or she is ready,’’ Knight said.

What you don’t want to do while gapping is just goof off, making those twelve months or so a Goof Year. Isaac Newton offers insight into that negative possibility. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it. That outside force should be your plan for that year off. Don’t remain at rest and view all those gapping days as a vacation!

As a poster stated in response to my CC thread:

The article pretty much says it all for me. I have no regrets taking time off to recharge and get to experience life a different way in my gap year. The most important thing I got to learn in my gap year was being able to work with all sorts of individuals. I feel pretty humbled to have worked in a restaurant at $10/hr and working with employees I never would have met in high school. Working a job definitely made me more mature and appreciate life a lot more. The job made me more empathetic to those barely scrapping by in college and life, even though I was so fortunate to get lots of scholarships for college. It also made me value life more when a former coworker died in a car accident at 17… It made me realize how precious time was and how we all need to do what is right for our well-being, health, and goals …

So, if you’re a high school junior about to become a rising senior, think it over. Would a GAP Year be a viable option for you? Go And Ponder that.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

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