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To Gap Year or not to Gap Year?: Considerations for university-bound students

Dr Mallika Ramdas, Deputy Director of Admissions, UWCSEA
10 November 2015

To Gap Year or not to Gap Year?

Based on the conversations we have had with a wide range of university Admissions officers in our most popular country destinations (USA, UK, Canada, Australia) and other countries, the answer to this question seems to be a clear 'Yes.'

Universities generally consider students who choose to spend a Gap Year productively to be valuable members of their college community because they tend to be more mature, confident, enthusiastic about returning to academic life, and purposeful following experiences that have shaped their personalities and interests since the time they graduated from High School. They comment, particularly, on students' enhanced inter-personal and communication skills, greater sense of themselves and their identity, and often, their sharpened skills as both team-players and leaders (since many students' Gap Year pursuits develop these character traits and skills).

Universities seem to value all kinds of possible Gap Year activities, which could include paid or volunteer work, community service, travel, language study, caring for sick family members, taking short-term courses, gaining work experience in a particular field, attempting extreme physical challenges like mountain-climbing, developing oneself in a particular sport or playing sports at a competitive level, or fulfilling National Service obligations - or some combination of these things.   

The willingness shown by many universities to defer a student's admission offer in order to enable them to take a Gap Year is testament to the high value that universities place on the Gap Year experience. Some universities value gap year experiences so much that they have even created their own Gap Year or Bridging programmes for High School students they have admitted to undertake before they enroll at university, for example, Princeton University. Tufts University is another of a handful of universities in the US who are so supportive of Gap Years that they recently announced the launch of a program that will provide financial assistance to students who would otherwise be unable to afford a Gap Year.

Weighing the benefits of taking on a gap year before university enrolment.

A point to note, however, is that universities are less interested in students' intentions to take a Gap Year, and more interested in what they've actually done or achieved during their Gap Year. So it doesn't particularly enhance a student's chances of being accepted if they simply declare their intention to do meaningful things during a (future) Gap Year. However, students who apply during a Gap Year (or National Service) who are able to draw on their experiences in their application essay/personal statements can often be seen as bringing enhanced qualities and skills.  

Some fields in which we have seen students' Gap Year experiences definitely enhancing their ability to get accepted onto a desired course of choice include medicine, veterinary medicine and law. Students who use Gap Years to gain valuable relevant work experience as well as gain greater confidence seem to interview much more successfully for these highly selective courses later on; we have seen several cases of a student being unsuccessful when they applied during Grade 12, but then when re-applying during a Gap Year, with considerably more relevant experience (and confidence), being accepted.  

My final note on the value of a Gap Year is on the value to future employers. Anecdotally, we have heard from both our alumni and from some employers that a student's Gap Year experiences are often an eagerly pursued topic during job interviews. Experiences during a Gap Year which develop any of the skills that many employers seek in employees (teamwork, communication, language skills, leadership, innovation/problem-solving, etc.) can make a prospective employee stand out in interview. And in today’s global, mobile world, it may also give a student a prior familiarity with a country/region where they are now seeking to find employment.