When President Barack Obama’s oldest daughter Malia Obama opted to take a year off from school before enrolling at Harvard, her “gap year” plans made headlines across the United States. Malia joins more than 40 thousand American high school seniors each year who delay their college enrollment to travel, work, or volunteer. But taking a break isn’t for everyone. Students and their parents should weigh the pros and cons of a gap year and create a plan for making it a success.

The Gap Year: A Planned Break

The gap year, also known as a scholastic sabbatical, is a planned, yearlong break between high school graduation and starting college. Students taking a gap year use the time to step away from the classroom and into the real world to work, travel, or pursue different ways of learning such as through volunteering and interning.

Gap years can be devoted to earning money to pay for college, testing interest in a planned major or career, or going abroad for new perspectives. This time away often helps students do better when they return to academics.

Gap Years Prepare for College

Taking a year off from school opens doors to new experiences and helps students mature. When they do enter college, they’re ready to study again, with a broader and more mature outlook on their college career. According to the American Gap Association (AGA), an organization devoted to helping students make the most of their gap year experiences, students who take a break typically complete their education and report more satisfaction with their careers after college.

A gap year gives students the opportunity to explore interests, learn new skills, and “test drive” an intended major, perhaps by working in the field or volunteering. Based on those experiences, students might decide to switch career paths, or even schools, before heading off to college. With clearer goals, gap-year students are less likely than their peers to switch majors during their college years.

Students who work or volunteer during a gap year can build important connections that can help both their education and their careers after graduation. Taking time to study new things, such as languages or areas related to a chosen major, can also enhance a student’s college career.

Taking a gap year can be a nice supplement for students who benefit from career education in high school. As students explore their options for viable career tracks, they can use the gap year to intern or work in their area of interest, before investing the time in college to study the field. As with career education, a gap year can better prepare students for their chosen career prior to college.

Gap Years Have a Downside

Taking a scheduled break between high school and college offers many benefits. But for some, the gap year can do more harm than good. Parents worry that a stretch of time off from school could derail a student’s college career indefinitely or even permanently. Without a plan for using a gap year, students can drift aimlessly, just hanging out or watching television. If all their friends go off to college, the students taking a gap year may feel isolated and lonely.

Though working during a gap year provides valuable experience as well as money for school, students may then choose to stay with the job and bypass college altogether, a move that may limit their earning power and career options. Staying out of school too long can make it difficult to catch up and regain learning skills and study habits, too.

Making a Gap Year Successful

The AGA notes that nearly every student can benefit by taking a year away from school if that year is used in the right way. Whether spent earning money for school, learning new skills, or just gaining new experiences, a gap year can build confidence, maturity, and focus. Parents and teachers can help students make the most of their year off by making it a part of the overall plan for college, not just a break from hitting the books.

Related Topics

Interested in learning more about k12's online schools and courses?