No "Years Off" Here: What A Gap Year Really Is

By Min-Anh Day

“President Obama's daughter Malia is taking a year off after graduating from high school before attending college.” — PBS News

“The growing trend of taking a year off between high school and college…” —

I’ve heard “a year off” almost half as much as I’ve heard “a gap year”. That’s a problem. I’ve heard it from everyone: students, parents, and teachers. It’s not just quibbling over a meaningless word (as much as I love to quibble over words). This matters.

On a few occasions, I’ve heard people say something along the lines of, “If you got into a top school, you can take a year off. Rest, so you don’t burn out.” Leaving aside the implication that you only get to rest if you’re at the top, this is still a stupid assertion. Let’s be clear: if getting into your school was so difficult that you need an entire year to recover properly, you are going to be slaughtered by four years at that school.

It’s problematic, too, because it creates a stigma around the gap year. Gap years have been proven to increase academic performance, college completion rates, and even future job satisfaction, but the percentage of high school seniors who opt for a gap year is still quite small. Why this dissonance? The last thing a high-achieving high school senior wants to do is look lazy, halting their academic momentum for the sake of time to goof off. So, instead of taking a gap year, they go straight through to college. They miss out on the life experience, the real world exposure, that you can get from a year spent challenging yourself outside of the classroom.

Gap year is the right phrase. A gap opens up, between you and college, and you have to make the leap. There is nothing easy or comfortable about a gap year, when it’s done right. You can take a year off when you’re dead.