“4 Reasons to Consider a Gap Year”

Families should talk about four factors when deciding whether their teens should take a break before college.

By Marcia Morris, M.D.

“Do you want to take a gap year?” is a question I never asked my children when they were applying to college. But today I recommend that all families consider the option as they contemplate life after high school.

Taking time off before starting college is not a new phenomenon, of course. Some countries have long encouraged or required a year or two of national service after high school. When my father had a difficult time as a 17-year-old college freshman, he left school to join the Navy for two years, gaining life skills that allowed him to flourish when he returned to campus. “Some elite colleges have long encouraged gap years in the same breath as offering admission,” college admissions counselor Joni Burstein reports. “They recognize that a break filled with purposeful activity can do a child good and make for a more focused and refreshed freshman.”

Today, gap years may be more widely accepted and encouraged by schools than they have been in decades, and counselors like Burstein say the gap-year question is being raised by more parents, and earlier in the college search process, than ever before. In recent years, 2 to 3 percent of graduating high school seniors in the U.S. typically took a year off before college—to work, perform public service, travel, or learn a new language. That compared with 15 percent of Australian students and over 50 percent of those in countries like Norway, Denmark, and Turkey.

The number of kids taking a gap year soared for the high school class of 2020 as campuses across the country shut their dormitories during the peak of the pandemic and kids opted out rather than take college classes in their childhood bedrooms. At some top universities, as many as 20 percent of incoming first-year students stayed away. It remains to be seen if the numbers will remain close to those levels in the years ahead, but even before the pandemic, an increasing number of schools had taken steps to make deferrals easier; some major universities now offer scholarships to make gap years available to students of more diverse backgrounds.

I recommend that parents consider four factors when deciding if a gap year would be a net gain for their child’s future success and, equally important, his or her mental health and wellness:

1. Academic. Is your child somewhat underachieving and unmotivated? Or are they a high achiever who is feeling burned out? Young people in both groups may benefit from a gap year. Feeling a need for personal growth and maturity and recovering from burnout are among the top reasons students seek a gap year, according to surveys by the Gap Year Association, and other research suggests that a gap year can lead to improved college performance and a higher GPA, especially for previously underachieving students.

2. Financial. For some, a year off is necessary to work and save money for college. Having savings on hand to meet expenses is strongly linked to one’s ability to finish college; among those who drop out, two of the most-cited reasons are being unable to afford school tuition and the need to work full time.

3. Social. Gap years can promote social growth and development and ease the adjustment to college life, if approached properly. According to one recent survey of students who took a year off, 81 percent said they would recommend it, citing benefits like being in a new environment and building new connections with peers.

4. Emotional. Positive mental health benefits of a gap year include increases in sense of purpose, resiliency, perspective, and motivation. If a child is dealing with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, a gap year could be particularly beneficial. Assess your child’s ability to cope with stress and challenges. If there are valid questions about their ability to manage the pressures of the college years, sit down with them and their guidance counselor or mental health provider to evaluate their readiness. A year of additional therapy, focused on coping skills, while a child works or volunteers in the community and gains greater levels of independence, can be beneficial.

“Why should we live with such hurry?” Henry David Thoreau asked. It’s a question well worth asking today. A gap year may help students grow socially and emotionally, gain maturity, or get a stronger academic footing so they can achieve greater success in the college years and beyond.

Marcia Morris, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, is the author of The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students.

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