Once senior year rolls around, many students find themselves stressing over getting into college, as there seems to be an expectation set for students to go to college straight out of high school. For many however, there may be a better option. According to a survey done by TD Ameritrade called “Teens and Money Survey,” roughly 35% of high schoolers in America consider taking gap years.
While many high school students aspire to continue their education at a two or four year college, this path isn’t for everyone. Rather than going straight to a college, many students take gap years for a variety of purposes.
Oyster River school counselor Jason Baker defined a gap year as a year between high school and college where a student partakes in something educationally based, in preparation for college. The reasons for taking gap years can range from getting travel experience, exposure to the “real world,” or just to mature. Gap Year programs offer students the ability to do so in safe and structured ways to keep the momentum going from high school, into the gap year, and then to college.
“For some kids, it’s a maturity experience. For other students, it’s a safe and supported way to experience life outside of the seacoast,” said Baker. According to the Gap Year Association, 92% of high school students who take gap years are doing so to gain life experiences and grow personally before college, 85% of students take gap years to travel and experience other cultures, and 82% of students take gap years to take a break from academics. This information can be found at gapyearassociation.org
During her gap year, Charlotte Clarke (‘18) took two trips to Southeast Asia where she did volunteer work and service projects. Clarke chose to take a gap year because she was physically and mentally exhausted from high school and, like many students who take gap years, couldn’t handle four more years of school right away.
Nick Cornejo (‘19) decided to take a year off from education for a different reason. “Personally, the reason why I decided to take a gap year was because I wanted to work and save money, so that when I went into college I was more prepared economically, and more ready to take on the size of the debt that comes with college.” While his motive was mainly economic, Cornejo said his gap year has also helped him mature as a person. Technically, what Cornejo is doing doesn’t fit the definition of a gap year, however that doesn’t mean that his year off isn’t meaningful.
In his year off, Cornejo has spent a lot of his time working. He also helped coach the ORHS boys varsity soccer team in the fall. Cornejo said that he’s also seen a lot of benefits come out of his gap year. “The main benefits are learning more about yourself before you go and start learning about a subject before you go and involve yourself in four more years in education, taking a year off to really figure out if that’s exactly what you want to do,” said Cornejo.
Baker said that one of the biggest benefits that comes out of taking a gap year is perspective, and the eye-opening experience that some students may experience. [Where we live] “is kind of a bubble […] this is not representative of what the real world looks like, so to be able to experience that in a safe and structured way [is eye-opening].” For some students who travel abroad, seeing how life is like in other parts of the world and seeing some of the hardships in other countries is one of the biggest things students take away from their gap years. “It’s not to go see the sad side of life, but it is to go see not everything is ‘easy peasy’ as it seems in Durham, Lee, or Madbury,” said Baker.
While many students take gap years for economic or exploration purposes, gap years are also common for high school athletes who have collegiate level aspirations. Michael Szymanski (‘21), plays hockey for Islanders Hockey Club, an elite program out of Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. Szymanski said that a lot of athletes that have aspirations of playing at the collegiate level, especially hockey players, find gap years a necessity in order to achieve their goals. Currently, the average age of a freshman college hockey player is 20 years old, according to College Sports Scholarships (CSS). “The difference between an 18 year old and a 21 year old physically, and how mature you can be, is a lot different. If you don’t [take years off] you’re at such a disadvantage to other players in the game,” said Szymanski.
Baker added that usually when an athlete takes a gap year to improve or “bulk-up,” colleges usually still like to see an element of education incorporated as well. Szymanski said that he knows some hockey leagues make it mandatory that athletes are still taking classes, whether they’re still in high school or taking time between high school and college. “The organization I used to play for, the coach really wanted to enforce the idea that it’s really smart that if you’re going to take this time off from school that you still continue your education,” said Szymanski.
For many taking a year off between high school and college, the educational portion is provided through programs. According to the University of Iowa, the wide range of gap year opportunities available include fellowships, service programs, jobs, internships, and experiences abroad. Programs like National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Thinking Beyond the Border, and The Leap are all programs that allow students to travel all across the world, doing fieldwork with experts, volunteering in low-income areas, and participating in other once in a lifetime experiences while still being motivated to learn. This information can be found at careers.uiowa.edu.
While gap years may be beneficial to students in a variety of ways, there can be some difficulties that come with them. Baker said that a common struggle was “finding one that a person likes that they can also afford.” Baker added that the programs that a lot of kids gravitate towards can be pricey. “They can easily cost as much as a private college tuition, and there’s not a ton of financial aid or scholarships to those.”
Economic reasons can heavily influence what high school graduates decide to do after high school. Colleges are expensive, gap year programs are expensive, post-grad years at prep schools are expensive, so students can be put in tough situations. Some gap year programs can cost as much or more than a full year of college. Some gap year programs, according to CBS News, can cost as much as $50,000. According to Value Penguin, the average cost of in-state attendance for college is $20,770.
While many students face economic problems while searching for their gap year, for both Cornejo and Clarke, most of the struggles of taking a gap year came socially rather than economically. “A main struggle of taking a gap year is sometimes you don’t really know where you belong. You’re not in high school anymore so you don’t have your high school friends, but you’re not in college so you don’t have the college friends, so you have to find how else you can make connections and make friends,” said Cornejo.
\ Clarke had similar struggles socially during her gap year. “I had major fear of missing out from all my friends going to college and not getting to be a part of that. I was terrified of just going abroad and missing out on everything I was so used to,” said Clarke.
While Clarke and Cornejo both have had social struggles during their gap years, these struggles will likely fade away in college. After his gap year, Cornejo will attend Plymouth State University in the fall of 2020, where he will go into the criminal justice department. Cornejo is hoping to become a police officer after college. [Becoming a police officer] “has just always seemed like something that has been fitting for me, because I like being in the community and being active.” Cornejo knew that this is what he wanted to do leaving high school, but he was unsure how to do it. Cornejo said that during his gap year, he’s been able to take time to do more research on how to accomplish his goal. “Taking a gap year definitely allows you to prepare for what you want to do without all the distractions that are college and social life.”
After her gap year in 2018-19, Clarke is currently attending the University of New Hampshire. Clarke is majoring in social work, and is hoping to work with children in either adoption, orphanages or foster care after college. Looking back on it, Clarke is happy she took the gap year. “If I could do it all over again, I 100% would. The experiences I had were once in a lifetime,” said Clarke. During her gap year teaching English to kindergarten classes in Bali, Indonesia, helping build a playground in China, making water filters in Cambodia, and cooking to help feed malnourished children in a small town in the Philippines. Clarke said that being from the Philippines really made her experiences more meaningful.
Szymanski added that he still isn’t sure whether or not he will take a gap year in the future, as he sees it as a potential risk. “I’ve seen people where they’ve gone to take a gap year and it gets to a point where you realize that you’re chasing a dream that you can’t really catch. He added that there are downsides for athletes who fall short after taking gap years to achieve their goals.
“It’s a tough decision you have to make because if you’re 21 years old and you’ve taken multiple gap years for athletic reasons and you don’t catch that dream that you’ve been striving for, it puts you in a tough situation socially because they’re living in dorms with kids who are two or three years younger than them, which can be hard at times,” said Szymanski.
Clarke said that she recommends taking gap years to everybody that she talks to. “I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do with my future, but a lot of kids come out of high school not knowing and just pick something just to say they have a plan. You’re young and not supposed to have your whole life figured out,” said Clarke.