By Grace Barral (IV)

When my parents told my brother that they wanted him to take a gap year before starting school at Trinity College, let’s just say he was less than pleased. To be more precise, he was mortified. Taking a gap year would mean he wouldn’t be in the same grade as his friends. It would mean he wouldn’t have the freedom that college grants. And, worst of all, it would mean he’d have to wait another year before he could join a fraternity. To my brother, taking a gap year was a social death sentence. 

My brother wasn’t alone in his eagerness to go to college. The concept of college life, with all its glorious freedom, is one that entices many Pingry students. I myself have been talking about college so much that my father had to buy me college guide books just to get me to shut up about it. But while college is exciting, is it smart to rush into college so quickly?

The concept of the gap year––a year spent between the end of high school and the beginning of college, usually for the sake of travel––was popularized as early as the 1960s. Its original purpose was actually geopolitical, not simply for the enjoyment of the traveling individual but more importantly for two countries to exchange religious and cultural ideas in order to maintain peace between them. Although war is less thought about now than it was then, gap years have only grown in popularity and variety. A number of celebrities, including Steve Jobs, J.K Rowling, and Hugh Jackman, took gap years.

But, what makes a gap year appealing? A 2015 national alumni survey conducted by the American Gap Association asked one hundred students from across the country that very question. The data showed that by taking a gap year not only did students’ communication skills and self-confidence increase, but they were able to learn through hands-on experience about different cultures. The data showed that gap years can also improve students’ academic performance. According to a 2017 study of GPA results by Robert Clagett, gap year students tended to outperform in college by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale, with the positive effects lasting the entire four years. Gap years are so effective, in fact, that certain colleges have gone on to encourage them. These colleges include Tufts and Princeton, both of which have been very popular colleges amung Pingry graduates in past years. 

And if traveling isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. There are thousands of other things you can do on a gap year. From interning to volunteering locally to enrolling in online courses, the possibilities are endless. A gap year is simply a time to develop as an individual. It’s a time to learn things that you wouldn’t ordinarily learn in a classroom. You choose how and what you want to learn. And that is, perhaps, the most appealing thing about them.

As for Ben, he ended up going on his gap year. He spent five months in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, where he did everything from skydiving to volunteering with local youth to scuba diving. When I asked him, he said he couldn’t remember why he didn’t want to go in the first place. 

Of course, gap years aren’t for everyone. But it’s comforting to know that there are options for the future. If the conventional timeline doesn’t appeal to you, then there are thousands of other ways to live your life that are both exciting and educational. All you have to do is find the path that works best for you.