On the Custom of
"A Gap Year"

By Faith Walessa

After twelve (or more) years of school, not all of us want to immediately sign up for an additional four years of school! Is there merit in the idea of taking a gap year?

I regret to inform you that the human experience is not one-size-fits-all. This is true in every stage of life and is especially important to young, stressed high school students who are about to make some incredibly big decisions. There is no cookie-cutter educational and career pathway that will achieve the best results for everyone, and that is fundamentally a good thing. We all thrive best in different environments, and we all have our own unique gifts and talents. Sometimes, however, it’s hard for a freshly graduated high school senior to know how to best use those talents and experiences and set off for college straight away. A gap year, therefore, might be a solution—but there are also several drawbacks that might go unnoticed if not firstly considered. As with most potentially life-altering decisions, it is usually best to evaluate every side, especially when there is a strong argument for each.

In favor of a gap year is the fact that you have just granted yourself an entire year of time with no pre-existing obligations. This is a year in which to develop skills you have been wanting to pursue and to find what matters most to you. Previously, school has almost entirely dictated your life. It’s hard to know your own interests when so many of them are decided for you, and your time in a day is broken down into color-coded sections allotted for each subject, extracurricular, and hobby. Oftentimes, hobbies can even get thrown to the side because a busy life pushes them out. A gap year could be the chance to bring these back into your life and discover exactly what you want to pursue in your future, independent of classroom expectations.

This leads into the typical argument for a gap year—by taking a year to collect your thoughts and plans, you prevent yourself from rushing into a degree you haven’t fully considered. Time is the only commodity you can never get back, and in certain cases, a year taken off from school could save decades in the future spent on a career you never truly wanted or understood. Planning a lifetime at the age of eighteen is an intimidating thought, and a year spent in that pursuit is entirely justified. With so much to discover, research, and decide upon, such time would be invaluable.

Additionally, for most, college is the first time that schooling will cost money as well as time. As student debt is obviously undesirable, a good financial decision is often to take time off to work, apply for scholarships, and create a plan to make it out of college debt-free. This way when you start your future as a new graduate, you can launch straight into a career and new opportunities without feeling tied down by monetary concerns. This may also allow you to pursue even higher education, like a masters degree or Ph.D.

Lastly, a gap year is a chance to go after a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Maybe you were offered a chance to travel to another country and learn about their culture. Maybe you have a shot at your dream internship or apprenticeship. Maybe you need the time for a creative undertaking, like writing a novel, painting, or acting. No matter what it is, if you have a chance at such a breakthrough, a gap year seems inevitable. College will still be there in a year or two; experiences don’t always have the same level of patience. Even more importantly, you get to keep what you gain from those experiences and take it with you to college, making you a more confident, capable, well-rounded student who knows their own mind and their own goals. That is a force to be reckoned with on any college campus.

Now, there are also necessary drawbacks to creating a year-long gap in your education. You as a student have just spent the last 14-odd years wearing pathways into your mind that allow you to accomplish specific tasks with high efficiency. For this to happen has required persistent, disciplined repetition and practice at increasingly high skill levels. Learning, in fact, is both an innate ability and a skill. We are all born with the ability to learn, but that ability can be drastically improved through diligent use. For instance, the ability of your four-year-old self to learn to count does not naturally translate to the advanced learning abilities of an eighteen-year-old attempting calculus.

You have to train your mind how to accept new ideas and when to either follow or ignore your own instincts when it comes to the counterintuitive sections of any subject. There was a time in life when every new concept felt overwhelming, simply because, as children, our brains hold far less information, and almost all of it is new. We quickly begin to stretch ourselves with new experiences, and every effort of this kind is rewarded by the ability to understand and interpret more in the future, within less time.

Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable.

This development requires real work and practice and is not something to take for granted. I have often been told that a teachable mind is one of the most valuable things to bring with you from high school to college, where the concepts will become exponentially more difficult. However, like any learned skill, a mind open to new ideas can grow dull without use. A year off from the classroom-type rigor of learning and expanding the mind could result in a serious shock when the time comes for an eventual re-transition into schooling—but this time, at the college level.

Remember that back-to-school jolt that never failed to hit you at the end of each summer? Returning to old routines requires real willpower, and that’s after only two or three months of absence from the classroom. Now multiply that feeling by four to complete a whole year away from structured learning and consider how that might affect your mentality upon starting college—an experience that is already entirely new and understandably overwhelming. In fact, the negative effects upon your learning habits will likely be more exponential than multiplied, because not only does a gap year present the opportunity to ignore old habits, it allows you to make new ones that override them. The old mental paths begin to fill in and new paths are drawn on top in different directions.

Finally, a gap year creates a break in your resumé that is typically undesirable, unless accompanied by a persuasive reason. However, no matter what your reasons, it will almost definitely mean that there will be a gap in your extracurriculars, such as music lessons, theatre, or sports, which may be a concern to some colleges who want to enroll students they are sure will be an active part of the campus community.

Personally, I would consider myself generally against the idea of taking a gap year, though obviously, this is not a blanket statement. Everyone’s experiences are different, and for some, a gap year may be the exact thing they need. But my general opposition is because I disagree with one of the usual arguments in favor of it: namely, that it’s better to wait a year than to “rush into a degree” you may end up regretting. I think this advice, while true in some circumstances, is generally misapplied here. You’re not, in fact, rushing into a degree–you’re heading into a single year of schooling, after which you will likely know your own mind and interests even better. By the end of high school, students may not know their exact career choice, but they have certainly narrowed it down to a few fields they would be more or less interested in. Any credits acquired in that area then, will likely be able to transfer over if a student decides they want to switch their major after a year or two.

Furthermore, learning is never a waste for any reason. New experiences and new ideas will always come back to help later in life, even if it’s when you least expect it. At the very least, you now at least know something you certainly do not want to do. That translates to a “what if” you can cross off in your mind, which is valuable in and of itself.

Though gap years may seem appealing, it’s hard to fall behind friends and classmates. It’s hard to remain in one place. And it’s hard to feel that you’re waiting to find yourself when you might be able to find yourself by pushing ahead and just trying. Really, how can you know if you’re making the right choices if you’re not moving forward? At this stage in life, everything is different and constantly changing. When so much is new, sometimes it’s easier to fall back on one of those old clichés we all tend to ignore and do the next right thing.

Ultimately, the question comes down to this: what is the purpose of college in your life? If you’re looking at it in terms of career-readiness, then slowing down, taking that year off, and making sure you’re committed to pursuing such a career path for the rest of your life is quite possibly a good idea. However, if you’re looking at a liberal arts college instead, college is not seen as only the path to a career. A liberal arts education is formative; it is schooling with the intention of teaching you how to become a more virtuous, grounded, compassionate person. That is the education of a lifetime that will likely help you find your career—so why wait?

It’s helpful to remember that there are no wrong answers when it comes to paging through endless lists of majors and career options. You will never lose by acting on a good opportunity. Knowledge and experience are simply never worthless, and you have a lifetime ahead to find all that unforeseen value in them.

Faith Walessa is a rising senior from Ontario, Canada. She hopes to study English at Hillsdale College, write books, and someday travel to England. She loves fanciful poetry, theater, reading by flashlight, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look around the Journal and see what else you like! We have a series on the many men and women (and handful of anonymous works) on our Author Bank, such as Hesiod, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Christine de Pizan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Leo Tolstoy; we are currently publishing a series on spotting fallacies and errors like straw men, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and various appeals to ignorance; we have a series on the many topics of the Great Conversation, including animals, definitions, form, pleasure and pain, sameness versus otherness, and technology; and, of course, plenty of standalone posts, like these ones on finding your personal learning style, the concept of just war theory, and the present relevance (if any?) of the Quadrivium. Thank you for reading.

Published on 14th May, 2024. Page image of a relief portrait of Astræa, the goddess of justice and innocence, who reputedly lived on earth until the end of the Silver Age, and was then translated into the constellation Virgo; this relief is located in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the Vermont State House, and used under a CC BY-SA 2.5 license (source).

Share this post:
Scroll to Top