Malia Obama’s recent announcement that she will take a “gap year,” or a year off before attending college at Harvard, has stirred interest in the student sabbatical. But even before Malia caught the headlines, interest was growing in taking a year off before college.
There are many reasons some students take a year off, but the bottom line is simple: Don’t get caught up in the glamor of the gap year.
Many teens still think of college as the beginning of the rest of their life. A year of exploration can provide the insight into a hidden passion or talent that is needed to choose a major. It may also be a way to avoid the uncomfortable task of choosing something that seems so permanent.
Practical considerations such as the cost of higher education make it important not to “waste” a year taking courses that won’t apply to the student’s eventual major. Some colleges are encouraging students to graduate in four years by returning some of their tuition when students do so. Others may employ disincentives such as raising tuition rates after four years. That makes choosing the right major all the more important.
Even if potential students know what they want to do, competition to get into many schools or particular programs can be fierce. Taking a gap year to do something out of the ordinary may be just the thing to make an applicant stand out.
On the other hand, parents and students need to ask some tough questions before deciding whether to take a gap year. Students, and parents, should contemplate why they want to take a year off from school. Is it an evasive tactic, meant to put off the inevitable for as long as possible?
Or is the objective to provide better preparation for college? If a student takes a year off simply because they don’t know what they want to do in the future, there is no assurance that they will have figured out anything by the end of that year.
One of the best ways to ensure that a student makes the right decision is to figure out what their goals are for the gap year. Specific goals make them better able to match what they will actually do during a year off from school and what they will get from it. Specific, measurable goals also help track progress, which improves motivation.
Even though a gap year may sound like fun in the planning, it can require sacrifices and much more work in the execution than originally anticipated. Being able to point to actual gains from time spent will help students stay with the program.
Another question to consider is whether this is the only, or best way, to gain the experience they need. Many colleges offer undergraduate studies programs that encourage freshmen and sophomores to explore different areas of interest if the students are unsure of a specific career path.
College programs often require students to shadow practitioners to get hours of experience in their desired fields. If you are going to volunteer during your gap year, why not do it while you are in college and get credit for it?
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, parents and students must ask if a gap year is necessary. What would a gap semester do? How about a gap summer? Consider using the summer between junior and senior years of high school to travel or volunteer.
Or, take a few exploratory classes at a local community college outside of the student’s expected major. These can be taken pass/fail for less stress and may provide just the information prospective college students are looking for without waiting a year after high school before applying to college.
Simply put, examine the costs and benefits before deciding on the right decision. While there are some good reasons to take a gap year, that isn’t the only way to get ready for college.
Mary Claire Gerwels is a senior lecturer of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Austin American Statesman and the Rio Grande Guardian.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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