Why Consider a Gap Year?

When I ask students about the idea of a gap year prior to entering university, I almost always hear the same thing – I can’t fall behind, I don’t want to miss out, I don’t want to lose a shot at the best school, or, worst of all, what would I do? Only once – this year – have I ever met a college bound secondary student interested in a gap year, which may be defined as a year of minimal structure and maximum exploration prior to entering university. Well, for any student concerned about what the bigwigs are thinking about gap years: here’s Harvard College, a medium sized institution of higher learning in New England of some repute, weighing in on the topic.

Among the many rather non-startling revelations in this piece from Harvard are that high stress, high pressure environments aren’t successful for everyone, or enjoyable for many. Under the subtitle of “Fallout,” the good folks in Cambridge, Mass, hauntingly point out that

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. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.

Yikes.

And yet, again, not surprising. Now, while it’s tempting to blame Harvard for its own success, I won’t. Harvard doesn’t make people crazy to get into Harvard, people make themselves and other people crazy to get into Harvard. Or Brown. Or, or, or.

I went to a good university, but not an epic top-tenner. Still, I would have benefited from a year of travel or directed service because I would have matured. I wonder what the result of that might have been – probably not too dramatic, but I might have made better use of some of my course selections and would have surely saved myself an extra semester, which would have saved thousands of dollars. Not a stunning hypothetical, I know, but what of the unmeasurable? My Peace Corps experience changed and improved my life, for sure, and so I think an opportunity like that before college would have been a net positive. A new gap year program called Global Citizen Year offers something that looks very much like a Peace Corps-esque opportunity for young people. It looks like a winner, and Harvard seems to agree.

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