William Shakespeare captured the combined feeling of opportunity and gumption when Pistol, in Act 2 of The Merry Wives of Windsor, declared “The world is mine oyster!” Opportunity and gumption are just what it takes for a student to alter the predetermined plan to go straight from high school to college and instead add a self-designed gap year. 

A significant amount of time is spent in high school thinking about what to do after high school. It is assumed to be a direct path. However, in addition to the question of where to go to college, one could appropriately ask when to go to college. More and more students take a gap year before going to college so they can experience something different, learn experientially, challenge themselves, or figure out what they are going to college to study. Stepping away from the academic stream to independently create a personally meaningful year will cue up their readiness, curiosity and ambition for college.

What is the motivation of a taking a gap year? Research into gap year motivation found that the top three cited reasons for taking a gap year are wanting to gain life experiences and experience personal growth (92 percent), wanting to travel, see the world, and experience other cultures (85 percent) and wanting a break from the traditional academic track (81 percent). Contrary to popular belief, not going to college is less about not going to college and more about getting out into world. 

Three myths about gap year come up often in conversation: gap year is a trip, gap year is expensive, gap year is just slacking off. 

Gap year plans nearly always include a mix of work, travel and courses. Travel is often a big part of the equation. Some students prefer designing their own travel experience, sometimes with a friend, such as, biking cross-country, farming in Europe, working at a retreat in Italy or a wildlife refuge in Kenya. Many other students want to venture forth with a group. Finding verifiable programs that ensure safety and responsiveness can feel daunting. The American Gap Association vets programs that offer international travel, college credit, work and learning opportunities. Safety is a critical concern whether participating in overseas travel programs or undertaking your own self-designed trip. 

Work is also part of the gap year equation. A significant part of the gap year experience is to figure out what you are looking for, what is out there and how you are going to pay for it. Understanding finances and value is a good skill to have before paying college tuition. One student traveled cross country visiting friends and relatives, worked back home for two months before embarking to Spain to take an au pair position. Some creative endeavors combine both work and travel in one experience—for example, volunteering at school in Sikkim or doing farm work in Denmark in exchange for room and board. 

Research and planning fill the gap between whim and reality. Considerations such as safety, cost, goals, preferences and interests help narrow the options. The No Crap Gap Guide is a website published by two Stanford students full of gap year stories, each uniquely tailored by gap year students. Taking ownership of the experience yields a sense of confidence, resourcefulness and self-advocacy, all traits important to getting the most out of college. 

Some parents worry that their student will lose academic momentum. One Wall Street Journal article stated that 90 percent of gap year students go to college within 16 months of high school. And then when they do go to college, they do better. More focused, more resourceful and not wasting time studying something they don’t like! Bob Clagett’s work at Middlebury College studied the impact of gap year experiences on academic performance and found that students who took a gap year almost always over-performed academically in college, usually to a statistically significant degree, and more important, this positive effect endured over all four years. 

Fewer gap year students transfer or change majors, and, according to one survey, they graduate on average in 3.75 years. This is compared to 59 percent of the general population who graduate in six years. There is no sense of “being behind.” They actually feel “ahead” in that they know what they want to learn about. As many as 88 percent of gap year students said that gap year experiences added to their employability. Better focused ambition when starting college often leads to seeking out relevant courses and internships, thereby increasing the return on their tuition investment.  

Another obstacle is the myth that it is expensive. It can be.  Pistol, in that Shakespeare play, made his declaration about the world and his oyster after Falstaff pronounced “I will not lend thee a penny!” Now this seems fitting, in that many parents feel that a gap year just elongates the time they need to support their student. A four-month trip to Africa to work at a wildlife sanctuary followed by another four-month stint on board a sailing vessel assisting in coastal reef research can add up. There are endless ways to decrease expenses. Scholarships, volunteering, working for room and board, finding a credit-bearing program, using 529 tax savings account, and calculating the impact on future financial aid can all contribute to taming expenses. 

A third assumption is that taking a gap year is just slacking off. Designing a meaningful year and then making it happen takes courage, skill, patience and some financial management. Slacking off? This is work! As much as 98 percent of gap year students surveyed stated that taking a gap year was important to their personal development, maturity, communication skills and self-confidence. Figuring out the goal and purpose of each endeavor, planning the logistics, handling the money management and applications, dealing with unexpected events all require resourcefulness and resilience. 

In the Shakespeare play, Pistol captured the feeling of worldliness and took possession of (some would say, responsibility for) the freedom to choose from an endless array of opportunities. Gap year is more than a trip, has a high ROI (return on investment) and takes work. Unlike Pistol in Shakespearean times, one needn’t brandish one’s sword to violently open an oyster to free a pearl; one can simply google gap year options and wade through possibilities. Finding the right ones is key, and then making it happen takes work and gumption to pluck the pearl out of the oyster!

MaryAnne Gatos, ROI Education Associates, consults with students and parents to create meaningful and relevant gap year plans. Her approach is to intertwine gap year, college and career to get the best return on investment.