Narrowing the Gap: How Time Off Helps Students Transition from High School to College

When Malia Obama recently announced that she would be attending Harvard, most of the conversation centered not upon where she was furthering her education, but what she would be doing beforehand. While the American public hasn’t been briefed on the specifics of the Malia’s plans – that is a First-Family matter after all – it was recently reported that our Commander In Chief’s eldest daughter will be taking a gap year before matriculating. And by all accounts, this is a very good decision.

While I cannot say I have ever had the pleasure of meeting Malia (or any relative of any US President to my knowledge), I do know many, many people who have taken time off before or during college. And by and large, almost without exception, they were better off for it. The Washington Post recently published an article detailing the specific benefits of the gap year. According to this article, students who take a gap year are 75 percent more likely to be ‘happy’ or ‘extremely-satisfied’ with their careers post-college. Furthermore, a certain liberal arts school in Vermont, one that actually has a gap semester built into its curriculum for about one hundred students per year, found that students who take a gap year also tend to outperform their peers both academically and extracurricularly.

And this makes sense. Students generally complete high school at eighteen years of age after a scholastic lifetime of prescribed courses. They generally have little experience with independent living or independent decision making, a murky idea of their academic interests and passions, and a startling instinct to seize their newfound freedom by acting as recklessly and immaturely as possible. In short, they are eighteen years old. And I understand this, in fact I was eighteen years old too, once. And like many other eighteen year olds, I was simply not as intellectually and socially mature as I would eventually be.

During my Freshman year, I decided that I was going to pursue an English Literature and Art History double major. I liked literature, I liked paintings, and so the choice was clear. Right? Four years later, when I received my diploma, neither of those disciplines were my intended choice of study. In fact, the only reason I never needed to formally change my major was because I never got around to initially filing the required paperwork. I was fortunate enough to attend a liberal arts college that valued academic exploration, and so I was not bound to my eighteen-year-old self’s prosaic, art historical academic determinations. Eventually, I discovered a major that stimulated and challenged me in ways I’d never before encountered. (This major was theatre, much to my parents’ dismay, but that is another story for another day).

And I was not alone in my indecision – according to the Washington Post article referenced above, the average student takes about six years to complete their college education. Many times, this extended foray into higher education is a result of very specific requirements for very specific courses of study – so if a student decides that they might not want to be a doctor after all, their pre-med classes will not contribute to their newfound political science major. And as college tuition figures are continuing to soar, this academic meandering presents a largely inefficient, impractical, and sometimes impossible path to self-discovery. The remedy? A gap year in which students can explore their interests and themselves outside the annual five-figure halls of academia.

And from a social standpoint? Well, I actually attended the aforementioned liberal arts school in Vermont. And when the “Febs” arrived at Middlebury, a half-semester behind their classmates and yet a half-semester wiser, the difference was notable. They were generally comfortable with themselves, and they were often adventurous. While many freshmen were still grappling with the newfound freedom of dorm life, these students had traveled to Southeast Asia or studied in pre-revolutionary Syria. Some had simply stayed home and worked, learning what it was like to earn a day’s wage in an office. Many arrived at school with a sense of self that extended beyond the classroom, the music hall, or the lacrosse field, which is both significant and surprisingly rare. Regardless of how they spent their time, they had almost unanimously undertaken responsibilities that extended well beyond the making of a microwavable macaroni and cheese – in short, their semester off had been time well spent, and many carried this momentum through college.

This isn’t to say that in order to be successful a student needs to take time off. There are many capable students who can navigate the transition to college immediately after high school, who can undergo the process of self-discovery within the world of academia. However, there are a myriad of advantages to taking time off before or during college. A gap experience is a path that should be seriously considered by the students who are prepared to embark on the next stage of their life. And if I could do it all again? I think I’d join Malia.