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3 Jan, 2018   |   

How A Gap Year Can Prepare You For University

Up with People gap year students meeting their host familiesMore and more young people around the world are choosing to take a gap year before entering university and for good reason. Top universities like Harvard now even encourage newly admitted students to take time off by deferment.

“…defer enrollment for one one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way … Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a “time-off” is to postpone entrance to college for a year. For nearly 40 years, Harvard has recommended this option, indeed proposing it in a letter of admission. Normally a total of about 80 to 110 students defer college until the next year. The results have been uniformly positive.”

Why would Harvard recommend a gap year? Because taking this time to learn more about yourself and your goals can better prepare you for university. Let’s explore how and why.


Many students first apply to their top university choices and once they are accepted inquire with their admissions counselor about gap year policies. The student then asks for a ‘deferral’. More and more universities are adopting a formal policy around deferrals as they’re seeing more students ask for them. Still others don’t yet know where or if they would like to attend university, choosing to apply during the middle of their gap year. It’s a common myth that students taking a gap year are less likely to attend university afterwards. In fact gap year data shows that 90 percent of students who took a gap year returned to college within a year.


In the book Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs author Joe O’Shea states:

“Some studies have found that taking a gap year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012). In fact, in the United Kingdom and in the United States, students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for gap year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013).”

Up with People gap year students with their host familiesSELF-DISCOVERY

An estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college undecided in their course of study, and an estimated 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation. It’s no wonder rushing into university might not be the best idea for everyone. According to a survey by the American Gap Association the #1 reported outcome of a gap year student was that it helped them develop as a person and allowed time for personal reflection. Entering university with more awareness of what one wants to do or study is incredibly beneficial and can actually help a student graduate on time without having to change majors.


Gap year students are both perceived to be and self report being more mature, more self-reliant and independent than non-gap year students. Maturity is a big part of success in university and shows up in the students employability after school.


For many students, high school is simply a race to get into college, and by the end, they are just too burned out to do well once they get there. A gap year is a chance to push the reset button before plunging back into academia. One of the reasons Harvard recommends a gap year is to combat burnout in their highly motivated student body stating:

“Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. Counseling services of secondary schools and colleges have expanded in response to greatly increased demand. 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 … What can be done to help? Fortunately this young fast-track generation itself offers ideas that can reduce stress and prevent burnout. In college application essays and interviews, in conversations and counseling sessions with current college students, and in discussions with alumni/ae, many current students perceive the value of taking time out.”


Many gap year programs or plans involve extensive travel. Travel teaches cross-cultural competence. In fact, Up with People, a gap year program that has been sending participants around the world for over 50 years, cultivates this type of cross-cultural learning in their education curriculum. In our globalized world today cross-cultural competence helps young people succeed not only in university but in their careers. In fact 90% of gap year participants report that their gap year helped them learn to interact with people that come from backgrounds different than their own.

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