Graduation can represent a double-edged sword for high school and college seniors across the United States. On the one hand, you’re eager to advance in the world, and you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished. On the other hand, a simple question can bring about a world of stress. Luckily, a concept gaining traction in America provides an excellent solution to this problem and has empirical evidence to support its success: a gap year.
It’s been scientifically proven that students who take a gap year perform better academically than those who don’t. If taking a gap year has proven advantageous for students, why is taking one such a contentious topic among American families, and why does the thought make parents and students nervous?
Many parents worry that the time off from school will make their children unproductive and unlikely to pursue a better education after the gap year. However, surrounding statistics don’t support this notion and instead point to the effectiveness of a gap year. Karl Haigler, author of the “The Gap-Year Advantage,” writes, “Nine out of 10 students returned to college within a year, and 60 percent reported the time off had either inspired or confirmed their choice of career or academic major.”
With these statistics in mind, both students and parents often fail to consider how a gap year can help mitigate significant issues like burnout. Additionally, they fail to recognize burnout as a valid symptom that students experience. If you’re not familiar, burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It appears the phenomenon is affecting students at a more alarming pace thanks to the additional stress that the coronavirus pandemic has placed on academic institutions. One study conducted by The Ohio State University found that 71% of students felt burnt out in April 2021 compared to just 40% in August 2020 — a sharp 31% increase.
Statistics showing increased burnout levels among college students represent more than an interesting trend or talking point. The same Ohio State study found that students who participated in the survey were more likely to report increased alcohol and tobacco use and unhealthy eating habits due to burnout.
As mentioned earlier, science shows that a gap year can help remedy the severe condition of burnout. In the case of medical school, a study published at the National Library of Medicine showed gap years were independently associated with lower levels of burnout. In contrast, students who took gap years exhibited significantly decreased burnout.
Many shy away from considering a gap year because it’s not regarded as the “conventional” route to success for professionals and high-achievers. After all, what former president had the time to take a gap year?
Statistics show a substantial increase in the rate of students at the highest postgraduate institutions taking gap years. Harvard Law School reports that 82% of their most recent admitted students took at least one year off, with 63% taking at least two years off. Yale says that over 70% of their most recent admissions took a year off.
Contrary to popular belief, going straight to law school after completing an undergraduate education is more of an exception than the rule. And it’s not hard to understand why; a gap year allows a prospective law student ample time to study for the LSAT, more time to acquire adequate letters of recommendation, and time to refresh and eliminate undergraduate burnout, as mentioned earlier.
The field of law isn’t the only sector that’s seeing many future professionals take time off to better prepare for postgraduate work. It appears the medical field has additionally followed suit.
On the same website that states, “Medical schools appreciate the maturity of older applicants,” Harvard Medical School says that 75-80% of their medical school candidates take one or more gap years, with two-thirds of that number taking more than two years off. Medical school applicants say taking a gap year improves academic standing while in undergraduate school, increases their experience in the medical field and allows time to achieve a better score on the MCAT.
Rest assured, universities in the United States have noticed the trend of top postgraduate students taking a gap year. These institutions appear eager to create more opportunities for students who decide to do so. Harvard launched its Junior Deferral Program back in 2014, which allows juniors in college to apply to Harvard Law School under the condition that, if accepted, they defer their admission for at least two years. The opportunity was made available to non-Harvard students in 2017. The Assistant Dean of Admissions has publicly encouraged applicants from universities worldwide to take part in its program as recently as 2019.
As we discuss the abundance of benefits a gap year provides for students, it’s essential to note that taking a gap year doesn’t magically guarantee future success. It isn’t the most advantageous route for all to take. Some students find value in continuing the momentum they have going from undergraduate school, and others understandably feel like they’re ready to take on the challenge that postsecondary education presents.
Students should make decisions based on what’s best for them and rely on accurate information to lead them to the best decision. Unfortunately, many students, and their parents, are convinced that a gap year discourages students from returning to school, so many miss out on the positive opportunities such a break creates.