Studying, homework, projects, papers, tests, exams, and repeat. From grade one to senior year, we typically spend 12 straight years going to school. The end of high school marks a milestone in our learning journey. We have completed what is considered essential education and are ready to move on to bigger and better studies. Or not. For an increasing number of American students, taking a break is a top priority after graduating from high school. When you have just finished over a decade of schooling, it is understandable not to be enthusiastic about the stressful process of applying to college. Or perhaps you are simply unsure about what you want for your future and need some time to figure out your plans.

There is where the gap year comes in. The concept of the gap year has long existed in Europe. Since the 17th century, wealthy young men would embark upon a year-long exploration around the cities of Europe to gain the life experience necessary to be considered a learned gentleman. In fact, the United Kingdom’s famous royal, Prince William, took a gap year before he started his university education, as did his wife, Kate Middleton. In 2016, the White House announced that Malia Obama, the daughter of former President Obama, would take a gap year before entering Harvard, sparking renewed interest in the idea across the United States.

Why Take a Gap Year?

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” This quote by Albert Einstein sets the stage to explain the importance of the gap year. Humans are sensory and emotive creatures. We acquire and retain knowledge by application and experience, and form connections with others through contact and communication. In a school setting, which is comparatively sterile and controlled, the potential for personal growth is limited. Out in ‘the wild’ though, young people on a gap year have the opportunities to expand their horizons and find their own way. They learn to navigate the realms of responsibility and pick up valuable life skills as they enjoy a taste of adulthood.

According to university sources, students who have returned from a gap year are more mature and focused on their career path. In addition, they generally achieve better academic performance with GPAs 0.1 to 0.4 points higher than the average student. We all know that the brain responds best to novel triggers, and there are few things as stimulating as adventure, traveling, and meeting fresh faces. By breaking the structure of school semesters and enriching our lives with a gap year, we are feeding our brains. This allows them to grow and make new neural connections, giving us a stronger ability to manage stress, multitask, work independently, and commit knowledge to memory.

Making a Difference

For those who plan to take a gap year, there are ways to make the time count. Many gap year youths sign up for volunteer programs, in the US or overseas. You can help to save wildlife, conserve natural habitats, build homes or schools, teach children in orphanages, offer health aid, and much more. Volunteer programs are a great way to immerse yourself in local communities while under the watchful eye of program supervisors. They are also a fantastic way to gain relevant experience that may help you in your chosen career path. Learning through service allows youth to connect academic knowledge with real-world issues and truly appreciate the impact of their fields of study.

Similarly, your time away on a gap year could be used to undertake vocational training. Travelers in Spain may take on diving internships to become professional dive instructors while those in Sweden may sign up for PT utbildning to learn how to be certified personal trainers and dieticians. Depending on your college and major, these qualifications could be eligible for college credit upon your return. During the course of overseas vocational training, you become part of a community that gives you advice and support and provides you with industry insight that textbooks may not contain. You may even get to work with bona fide clients, boosting your confidence and scope of practice.

Of course, the benefits of taking a gap year are not purely personal. Traveling exposes one to other cultures, cuisines, and beliefs that may help to build a clearer perspective on global diversity. Through interacting with and understanding other cultures, youth can become more empathetic and accepting of people from different backgrounds and life circumstances, thus creating a kinder world at large. In a time of racial strife and rife xenophobia, teaching a generation of voting youth about inclusion and equity can be pivotal towards the progress of society.

The past two years have been a struggle for those of us who strived to complete our studies despite the pandemic. Perhaps it is time for a well-deserved rest so that we may set our sights further.