The Bridge to College: In Praise of the Gap Year

For those in a hurry, slowing down seems counterproductive. Lost in the pursuit of a college degree and a good job is the recognition that the true value of higher education is actually education, not job preparation. Yet college is an evolutionary moment, and learning is not limited to taking classes or training for a job.

A gap year is an opportunity to delay college by one year. This is not “taking time off”; it is adding unique opportunity to a holistic education. Students may travel, study, research, volunteer, or do whatever they envision might be useful to their personal growth.

Gap years are becoming increasingly popular, recognized by the finest colleges as an extremely valuable pursuit. Harvard advocates gap years; it even has a “Z-List” for students to defer their studies and a website to guide them. Princeton has an official “Bridge Year Program” and a student led Gap-Year Network. Tufts University offers a fully-funded “1+4” program. Other highly-selective colleges that offer gap years include Yale, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Columbia, NYU, UPenn, Carnegie Mellon, William & Mary, Washington & Lee, Emory, Georgia Tech, even New College in Sarasota. There must be something worthwhile about gap years.

Here are the perspectives of three students enjoying gap years. One is taking time away from Harvard, another deferring admission to the University of Chicago, and the third starting at NYU next year. What are their experiences?

S.T. worked in a start-up company in Boston and interned for a consulting company in Shanghai. While learning much about real-world business, she “also learned one of the most important things that changes how I approach things: I learned more about myself. I feel like I’m more of an explorer in opportunity than I was before.”

K.Z. told us about her gap year: “Taking the time to find out what you want to do with your life and where you want to be after college is an important step many students skip over. Too often, high school seems like the beginning of a rocket launch: we strap in, count down and shove off ... but no one really knows what they want to do once they are in the air. Students are rushed into leaving the atmosphere before they know what planet they want to end up on. It's like starting a road trip without a map or trying to build something without reading the instructions first. My gap year gave me some much needed time to learn outside the limits of a classroom about the world and about myself. Gap years give students perspective and time to set a trajectory for their rocket launch.”

J.K. is taking his gap year to learn more about business and finance, his intended major. He has interviewed experienced financial experts; conducted independent research into business necessities such as organizational culture, marketing and buyer psychology; has taught himself trading regimen; and plans to travel not only to experience the world, but to observe and investigate the business world from foreign perspectives. In just a few months, he sees an evolutionary change in his attitude towards education, career and life. “I now see education as more than the mere culmination of classes that lead to a diploma. I have begun to develop critical, creative, and even unconventional thinking with regards to finding solutions. I find possibilities rather than look for the negative. I see and capitalize on opportunity more often and am much more willing to try things instead of using the potential of failure as an excuse for inaction. Because of my gap year, I can no longer imagine a day where I stop learning through experience, whether through internship, work or simply daily life experiences.”

Gap years may not suit every student, but the philosophy to inquire actively and become sophisticated and intelligent about one’s own abilities and future is universally valuable.