While many students head directly to university or other education institutes after graduating from high school, a smaller group take an alternative path: a gap year.
In the wake of this year's novel coronavirus outbreak, worldwide interest in deferring university admission has increased. Many students are now considering whether a different approach to the 'traditional' post-high school experience would be more suitable - namely, a gap year. Indeed, the gap year has become a popular point of discussion among students, educators, and industry leaders all over the world. In late April, Forbes magazine published an article titled "It's Time to Reinvent the Gap Year" in its Education column, and just last week the BBC published an article that addressed "The Rise of the Pandemic - era Gap Year".
Supporters of the gap year 'initiative' believe that gap years can help our children explore themselves and develop their career aspirations while developing useful life skills. Still, there are a number of people who have reservations about the idea; those with opposing views believe that a successful gap year experience requires a person to have a high degree of self-discipline and independence before they go. These gap year naysayers would advise students not to take a year (or two) off just because it is 'trendy'.
In the years that followed the Second World War, governments all over the world began to advocate for increased travel and cultural exchange between their countries in a hope to increase global awareness and prevent further world wars from occurring.
By the time humanity reached the 80s, cheaper (and more frequent) airfares had become commonplace, and the idea of backpacking and overseas advantures had led to a huge rise in the popularity of gap years. The arrival of the Internet made planning overseas travel a lot easier, and the growing appreciation for cross-cultural experiences in education and the workplace helped foster a new generation of 'gapper'. Today, gap years are a very common occurrence.
According to the Gap Year Association, today’s version of a ‘gap year' typically refers to “a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional and personal awareness.” During a gap year, it is common for an individual to take up paid or voluntary work or travel abroad to explore and enrich their life experiences.
Other benefits of taking a gap year include fostering a more rounded worldview and positive attitude, which helps students develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their career aspirations. The gap year experience will also bestow students with practical and useful life skills that will serve them well when working – and ultimately thriving – in the future.
The ‘Royal Connection’
Many well-known figures have taken gap years, including Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and his eldest son Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.
In 1978, Prince Charles and Colonel John Blashford-Snell founded Operation Drake - the precursor to what is now called Raleigh International, a sustainable development charity. Operation Drake’s aims were scientific exploration and community service, and this round-the-world voyage inspired a generation of young people to change the world.
Operation Drake is now thought to be an early model of what we now know as the ‘gap year’. Today, Raleigh International continues to support young people who take part in community projects all over the world.
Many years after Prince Charles launched Operation Drake, ‘like father, like son,’ Prince William embarked on his own year-long adventure around the world.
When Prince William graduated from high school in 2000, he could have followed his peers straight to university, but with his father’s blessing he instead decided to take a year off.
At the beginning of his gap year, Prince William spent a week in the jungle of Belize receiving military training. He then travelled to the island of Rodrigues to join a marine conservation course. After that, William went on an expedition to a remote region in Chile, where he worked on environmental and community projects that sought to improve local buildings and construct new walkways. Toward the end of his gap year, William visited several countries on safari and worked on wildlife conservation projects in Africa.
In the space of a year, William had travelled around the world. Away from family, friends and the media spotlight, William experienced a lifestyle that was very different from what he was used to in the Royal palaces and castles back home.
As a “thank you” to the British media for leaving him alone during his gap year, William made a pre-university debut with a series of media engagements in Scotland before his first year of study at St. Andrews University began.
And what was one of the first things he said, after twelve months away? “I loved my gap year and wish I could have another one.”
In addition to members of the British Royal Family, several other public figures and celebrities have also taken gap years:
Steve Jobs – the founder of Apple Inc. – is known to have spent several months in India, meditating and learning what was important to him, before returning to the United States feeling inspired to change the world.
J.K. Rowling spent three years teaching English in Portugal. During this time, Harry Potter went from being an idea on a piece of paper to the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
After graduating from high school, Benedict Cumberbatch took a gap year and taught English at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. During his time away the actor learned to meditate and became immersed in the local culture.
An individual’s gap year experience is likely to contain many important and life-altering moments – as was the case with the aforementioned celebrities. A person who takes a gap year is likely to undergo a great deal of personal development, and although this is considered a major ‘pro’ for gap years we should also realise that there are several drawbacks and/or risks associated with the concept.
Let us have a look at the National Alumni Survey Report published by the Gap Year Association in 2015.
Of the gappers surveyed, the top three motivations for taking a gap year were:
· To gain life experiences and experience personal growth
· To travel, see the world, and experience other cultures
· To take a break from the traditional academic track
It is easy for young people to view gap years through rose-coloured glasses. If a student embarks on a gap year without setting clear goals or a concrete action plan, they may find that the actual experience fails to meet their original expectations.
Below are some of the most common drawbacks, risks and ‘expectation versus reality’ scenarios associated with gap years:
1. Lagging behind in academia or the workplace
Gappers will be a year behind and may graduate or enter the workforce a year later than their peers. This different pace of progress may make gappers feel as though they are falling behind.
Additionally, they may lose some of their academic knowledge or skills following a year’s worth of adventure, and upon returning to academia or the workplace, gappers may need a little more time to reacquaint themselves and adapt. Some gappers may even lose momentum or motivation to further their studies.
2. No guaranteed gains
As shown in the Gap Year Association’s Survey Report, many gappers took a gap year to explore potential academic and career pursuits. However, their ability to achieve these goals is dependent on multiple factors, including the gapper’s own attitude, abilities, enthusiasm and instinct.
Those who wish to learn and grow during their gap year would have to have a strong will, critical mind and comprehensive worldview. If a gapper fails to make meaningful plans for themselves during their gap year, they may end up gaining very little.
3. A journey full of uncertainties
An individual’s gap year experience is full of uncertainties and possible dangers. If travelling abroad or to unfamiliar places, a gapper may contract infectious diseases, suffer from injury, lose property or even experience financial difficulty. Accidents like these could scar a person for some time.
What should students consider when planning a gap year?
1. Know your “why”
A lack of purpose and strong will may lead to someone gaining very little from their gap year experience. When planning a gap year, students are advised to think carefully and develop a clear understanding of their purpose or objective for taking a gap year. For example, if a gapper wants to experience personal growth, what specific aspects of personal growth are they hoping to improve? What can they include in their plans that will help them achieve this growth?
For pre-university gappers, it is important to consider how their gap year experience will benefit their university applications and future academic development. Are there any particular skills or attributes worth developing during their year away that will help them succeed in their desired discipline?
2. Make plans
Pre-university students should have a comprehensive post-gap year plan in place. When do they need to submit their university applications? Will they need to spend time during the year gathering evidence to support these applications?
For those who wish to spend their gap years in a foreign country, what documents will they need? Where will they stay? What should they do in case of an emergency? Work, travel, personal development – how can they strike a balance between these three elements? Are there any well-reputed gap year companies worth seeking advice from?
With a comprehensive plan in place, students will be able to make the most out of their gap year experience.
3. Understand that it may not suit everybody
In general, people with great discipline, self-motivation and self-sufficiency will be able to arrange meaningful activities and take full advantage of their gap year experiences; in contrast, those who are less independent, lack self-initiative or fail to make good plans for themselves may end up wasting their time.
Young people are advised to understand their purpose for taking a gap year, set goals and make plans before they set about taking action.
Gap years give people the opportunity to explore the world and experience new things. Taking a gap year may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and often people do not have the time or resources to ‘drop everything’ and go for it, but nevertheless the gap year concept continues to grow in popularity.
As a rule, we should always remember to keep an open mind, observe the world around us and treasure every experience. Gapper or not, these habits will ensure that we remain lifelong learners and get the most out of every day.