A gap year is, simply put, a year off from school.

It can come in the form of a year between high school and college, a year during college, or a year after college and graduate school.  During this time, people usually learn new skills, travel to other countries, gain professional experience in the workplace, and/or participate in a program like Praxis. Though it may sound unorthodox, as students are often taught in high school that they should get into college as a senior and then immediately go, taking a gap year can be one of the best decisions a young person can make.

Students who participate in gap years say that they end the year feeling more confident and mature about their lives, knowing what they want to accomplish, feeling intellectually stimulated, and knowing they’ve gained experiences that college cannot give them.

So why don’t more students take gap years?

For one, many students are put on the college fast-track while in high school, and believe that they’ve spent the last 12 years of their lives preparing for the opportunity to go to an elite university. To tell them to put this off may sound absurd and as if they are delaying the inevitable.

But even admissions officers and advisers at elite universities encourage students to take gap years before coming to college. Harvard’s acceptance letters even encourage students to take the time between high school and college seriously and to spend more time working and gaining hands-on skills than they would have otherwise spent.

Second, students are oftentimes taught that the world exists as a dichotomy. Either they are going to college after high school, or they’re working in a technical field. Either they want to study, or they want to work. Either they can grow intellectually, or they can grow their skills. Unfortunately, this is not how the world works. Some of the greatest philosophers are those who work with their hands. Some of the greatest tradesmen are computer programmers.

Formalized education is instilled in students through their upbringing. They think that if they’re learning outside of a formal environment, then they aren’t really learning.

However, the experiences of students who take gap years tells a different story. Consider the testimony of Joan Hanawi, a student at UCLA who took a year off to study and live with the people of the Amazon:

“A common misconception in modern American society is that education can only happen within the four walls of a classroom. Don’t get me wrong; classrooms are incredible places for enlightenment. However, in my opinion, some of the most valuable lessons are learned outside of traditional academia.”

Hanawi tells that her gap year not only gave her the opportunity to work and learn with the peoples she lived with, but it also gave her an important opportunity that many students inside academia don’t receive: the opportunity to fail. Whereas failure is penalized in academia, it is a necessary step of learning in the real world. Without having negative feedback mechanisms like grading, we’re allowed to fall on our faces during gap years and get up and be stronger again.

Students may not consider gap years for further reasons, but they ought to take the option seriously. In a world where a whopping 50% of college graduates don’t feel like they gained enough work experience while in school, a year of work may be exactly what is necessary to set students apart from the pack.

Some other common reasons:

“I may like to do a gap year, but I’m already accepted to college/have my eyes on a school.”
Many of the students who would most flourish during a gap year are those who have worked through much of their high school education with their eyes on one or two dream schools. To then come along and tell them that they should put that all on the line to go work can be a hard sell — except that these students are overlooking something: deferred enrollment.  Most universities and colleges allow accepted students to take one academic year off without giving up their admission. This means a student can be accepted to their dream school, tell the school they’ll be back in a year, and the school will let them come back in that year.

“I’m afraid I’d lose my financial aid.”
Deferring enrollment doesn’t make a difference in the financial aid process. Students and their parents will have to do the same steps they’d do without a gap year, and schools don’t discriminate against students who decided on gap years.

“I am worried about putting a gap in my education.”
Though some students who say they are taking gap years to learn may do it as an excuse to travel, the gap year is only a gap in one’s education if a student lets it be that. Many students find that it not only educates them on a life experience level, but they also gain valuable skills during that year. This gives the time and freedom to learn a new hands-on skill, to take a programming class, or to get a job in a specialized field — and this is freedom that the structure of college usually doesn’t allow for.

“I’ve never done anything but school!”
Then a gap year is perfect for you. Many students who take gap years are those who are burnt out from school and find it difficult to imagine themselves doing something else. During this time, they go work, travel, participate in programs like Praxis, and gain new skills. Taking the risk of doing something different for a year can be life-changing.

“I’m afraid it would look bad on a resume.”
If the time spent during a gap year is a time working or learning new skills, then it can be the thing that makes a resume stand out (in a good way!). If the gap year is taken before college, then it probably wouldn’t factor into a later resume, anyway. If the gap year is taken after college, it oftentimes makes the resume or curriculum vitae more impressive. More and more graduate schools are looking for applicants who have taken gap years and gained work experience, rather than those students who are coming from 16-straight years of education.
With this considered, it’s clear that the risk of a gap year is low and the reward can be incredibly high.

So why not take a gap year?