Carney: Gap year convention would do more harm

Carney argues that taking a year off would have negative repercussions on college transitions if it became commonplace.

Michael Carney

Michael CarneyNever in my life did I think that I would disagree with a recommendation from Harvard College, but in this instance I must.

In an article co-written by Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, Director of Admissions and a psychology professor, titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” Harvard explains its endorsement of what is commonly known as a “gap year.”

Essentially, students graduating high school who want to go to college have two basic options: to begin school immediately following their high school graduation or take time off and begin college at a later date.

The Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA estimated, “1.2 percent of first-time college freshmen in the United States deferred admission to take a gap year in 2011.” Therefore, an immediate transition from high school to college is the most common option for students of my generation.

Harvard’s article states that its “overall graduation rate of 98 percent is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off.” However, Harvard states that only about 5 percent to 7 percent of each class take time off, yet still says that this has a statistically significant impact on overall graduation rates – an unlikely assertion.

Although a time off can give students an opportunity to work or travel, I believe that the disadvantages of this break outweigh the advantages.

Throughout high school I found it difficult to transition from a three-month summer to the fall semester of a new school year because the freedom of summer made me extremely reluctant to return to school. Although I began college the same year as my high school graduation, I suspect that taking a year off would have been so free and comfortable that I would have been deterred from ever going.

If one’s break is spent working, I believe it will provide consistency, stability and responsibility to the life of that student, making his or her transition to college slightly easier. However, if one’s break is spent sleeping and partying with no schedule or responsibilities – as I suspect most breaks would – that student’s academic routine would be destroyed.

Given an entire year and an opportunity to decide whether to do something productive or not, I believe that most students would spend their gap year irresponsibly, treating it as an “extended summer” of sorts, and would have a more difficult time adapting to college than a student who began college immediately.

Students who chose an unstructured gap year would likely see their independence from academics and responsibilities carry over to their freshman year, causing them to focus less on academics and more on maintaining their casual lifestyle of the past year. A student who encounters the independence of college simultaneously with rigorous academics will inevitably experience less independence than a student during a gap year because academics force responsibility.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that  in 2003 that 44 percent of high school graduates who went straight to college got their bachelor’s degree within six years. About 15 percent of those who delayed college for a year, either intentionally or because of personal struggles, had their bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling.

A gap year can lead to a student taking a semester off later in college or possibly even another year off, extending his or her time at a typical four-year institution to five years or more. Students who take a year off may forget some of what they learned in high school or forget some of their academic habits, both of which would make the transition to college more difficult. Friends from high school who move on to college immediately would be enjoying their time in college while a student who took a year off is forced to watch most of their high school class move forward in life without them.

A one-year break between high school and college can eliminate the good academic and responsible routines that students develop in high school.

Michael Carney can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. In the UK the concept of the gap year is well established and the 34 member organisations of Year Out Group collectively arrange some 45,000 placements annually. Over the past three years the biggest growth in take up for these placements has been by US students.

    Year Out Group’s main aim is to promote the concept and benefit of a well-structured gap year programme with the majority of activities being educational in a broad sense. Contrary to common perceptions very few participants are away from home for the whole year. Most devise a mixed programme that typically goes as follows. Immediately after leaving school a short period of time to relax and chill preferably with the family or friends on holiday. Then a period of paid work near home to gain work experience and raise funds for subsequent stages of their programme. The favourite time to depart on major projects is early in the New Year for anything up to eight months. This period might include a mixture of voluntary work and independent travel returning home in time to prepare for college. (The range of activities available is considerable and includes training courses, cultural exchanges, expeditions and internships.)

    In UK universities note that those that have taken such a gap year arrive at university refreshed and focussed and a far more likely to complete their chosen course. Some may take time to readjust to academic life but this is more than compensated by their social maturity. In class they are more globally aware and are able to offer more to their chosen course in tutorials and can bring a broader perspective to their essays and other work.

    The soft skills and experience acquired in planning and exectuing a successful gap year programme significantly increases their self-confidence and enhances their employability. Employers look out for such students both to employ in the long vacations during university and on graduation as they have the skills to hit the work shop floor running.

    One final point. The ratio of women to men that participate in structured gap progammes is 65:35. It seems the men prefer independent travel and for most of them a gap year probably is a waste of time. However those men that do decide on a structured programme regularly achieve some amazing results.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.