A Leap of Faith: Gap Years and Why You Should Take Them


It’s your last semester as a senior in high school. Your hard work, after all these years – all those sleepless nights mulling over papers and exams, all those lost weekends spent with extracurricular to beef up your college application rather than time with your loved ones, and who could forget all those exhausting summer SAT/TOEFL/IELTS classes  – have finally paid off. You have just been accepted to the school of your dreams! So why do you feel exhausted instead of excited for this academic adventure? Why is the thought ‘ugh, four more years of classes’ the one looming over your head, rather than the expected ‘my dream has come true!’?

An essay titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation”, co-written by three notable Harvard members including William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, states that “the pressures on today’s students seem far more intense than those placed on previous generations… The pressure of gaining entrance to the most selective colleges is commonly blamed for much of the stress we observe… The accumulation of “credentials” simply continues to intensify as the stakes increase. The “right” graduate school looms after college, and the “right” sequence of jobs is next… Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed… It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it.”

This, my friends, was unfortunately how I felt upon my high school graduation. At that point, I had spent three years away from home at Phillips Exeter Academy. Although I could not have had a better learning experience, I was emotionally, mentally, and academically drained. It is undeniably a clear sign of having burnt out, yet I ignored it. I chose to push through my first year at Barnard College, even when I felt I was not ready. The result was a mediocre freshman year, filled with me skipping classes and doing my assignments at the last minute. I longed for home and my family, and could not remember the reason why I had studied abroad in the first place.

Perhaps this is not the scenario you are in. You know you can make it through another few years of schooling if you absolutely had to, but you know you are also completely bored of studying after twelve years; at least, in the context of classroom. You want to see the cities you read in your history textbooks. You want to speak the languages you hear from the videos your foreign language teacher brings to class. You want a chance to learn how to make a living from what you love doing from the people in the real world, instead of simply studying it in the classroom. You don’t necessarily want to stop learning, but would definitely like a change of scenery.

Avoiding the prospect of burning out, or wanting a learning experience outside the classroom, are the two common reasons why more and more American and British students are taking the so-called ‘gap year’, which usually describes a year off between high school and college. Thankfully, I can also say that I am taking my personal version of a gap year – a year off between freshman and sophomore year. I knew that if I were going to continue my college education, I would rather not waste it and continue it half-heartedly. Fortunately, my parents agreed with me. After having been exposed with the American education system, they too were not strangers to the concept of gap year. Although there is no official data on all American students who took gap years, Harvard recorded a 33% increase in freshmen deferring in the past decade, while the number of MIT students who deferred doubled just in a year, according to a TIME article in 2010. Princeton even funds 20 first-years annually for their respective gap year plans. Gap years are even more popular in the U.K.. According to a survey by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, 7% of all British students deferred admission to take a gap year in 2007.

It is important to remember that when planning your gap year, however, that it is yours, meaning that you should do what you want to do in your time off. For instance, I kept in mind upon planning my gap year that my priority was to stay home. While I would have loved polishing my Spanish in Barcelona, it was more important for me to spend time with my family, who I have been away from for three years. Thus, I decided to stay the year at home. I cherished the days when I could pick up my little brother from school, or when I could have afternoon tea with my mother. I found time to do what I love best – writing – from the confines of my own home, away from the pressures of academia. But with this being said, although my gap year has so far been personally satisfying to me, it does seem a tad too quiet for others who would rather travel or work. There are certainly lots of other choices for other gap year activities. With gap year’s recent rise in popularity, fairs offering different programs for interested students have popped up across the States. These programs include volunteering abroad, internships, language-immersion programs, various yearlong courses, outdoors schools, and many more. If you are interested in a gap year, the US Gap Year Fair’s website would be a helpful resource, even if it serves merely as inspiration for you to enter other programs. It is recommended that students look for structured programs to fill their gap years, in order to avoid eventually wasting the year.

Parents often have the fear that their children will not return to school if allowed time off. This, however, has been proven wrong. Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, authors of The Gap Year Advantage, interviewed 280 gappers (students who took gap years) and found that 90% continued to go to college. But just in case, it would be better for students to apply and get accepted to the college of their desire, then apply to defer for a year.

All in all, taking a gap year definitely has its benefits. “They develop nonacademic skills and end up better prepared [for college],” says Holly Bull, who runs the New Jersey-based Center for Interim Programs, which helps students organize gap years. Freshmen at Skidmore College in New York even found they had higher GPAs than their peers. As for me, although I cannot attest to doing better in school since I have not returned to the classroom yet, I find that the time off gave me a chance to reflect. I found parts of myself I have lost over the three stressful years of high school. I am glad that I had the time to refocus my priorities and my passions, instead of getting swept away with the crowd, which I would have been if I had simply continued my college education. I am grateful that thirty years from now, I can say that I studied what I wanted to study in college, rather than following what others were doing. This is the essence of a gap year – figuring out who you are before properly entering the realms of college – whether it be through an internship or travels. The prospect of a gap year, however, can undoubtedly be intimidating. But if you even have the slightest interested, I suggest you take that leap of faith anyway, because your life will definitely be forever changed by a gap year!

If you’re interested in finding activities for your gap years, take a look at these sites:

If you’re interested in reading more about gap years, take a look at these articles:

Photo Credit: Sunset, taken during Gap Year in Honduras via flickr

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Brea Salim spent her first fifteen years in Jakarta, Indonesia, before moving halfway around the world to Exeter, New Hampshire, where she enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school made famous by alumni like Mark Zuckerberg, Dan Brown and John Irving. Brea was the only Indonesian student during her three years there and was the seventh Indonesian to graduate from Exeter when she completed her studies in June 2012. Brea then moved again to NYC, where she enrolled in Barnard College, the women's college of Columbia University, intending to pursue an Economics degree. Brea is also the author of ‘Bright Eyes’, a compilation of Brea’s written works during her time at Exeter. Previously, Brea's work has been published in various publications, such as the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe and Jakarta Java Kini. You can read about her gap year adventures at homefortheyear.wordpress.com. If you are interested in reaching her, feel free to email breaolivia@yahoo.com, or if you would like to find out more about her book, check out: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bright-Eyes-by-Brea-Salim/511794815605846 or follow @brighteyesbybreasalim on Instagram!



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