With the new academic year just around the corner, there's a wave of Freshers (first-year students) flooding the streets of Manchester. If someone is younger than you, they always look waaaay younger, but this year, in particular, is weird to me because these Freshers are about the same age as my baby brother who in my mind is still 12.
When I started uni many moons ago I was already a year older than the rest of my cohort, because I had taken a gap year - before starting university I spent a year doing something non-school related. I spent half a year working to save money and then spent it all traveling around the U.S. Personally, taking a gap year changed my life. Before, I was on a track to study medicine simply because it's what I wanted to do since I was 14 (and started watching Grey's Anatomy) and had I not taken a gap year I'm sure that's what I would have done. But taking some time out to reflect and truly think about what I want from my life showed me that studying medicine wasn't what I wanted to do. All the reasons I wanted to study medicine - having an impact, working in a fast-paced environment, helping people - could be combined with my passion and interest for the social sciences. So here I am - three years later (as my Snapchat memories keep reminding me) - studying economics and I am sure I have made the right choice.
So why take a gap year?
There are many reasons you would want to take a gap year, you might not be sure about what you want to study, you simply don't want to go to university straight away, or you maybe want to travel. But for your personal development, it can be very important to do a gap year. You learn to be independent, figure out problems on your own, and learn life skills they simply don't teach at high school or university. What you do on your gap year is completely up to you. Many would like to travel but not everyone has the means or privilege to go on a trip around the world. But this isn't what a gap year should be about. It's primarily about experiencing something other than the educational system before embarking on a costly three-year journey to higher education. Whether you work a job, volunteer, or travel you will have some time to think about yourself and your future. And - as it did in my case - it might help you figure out what you want to do. During your time at high-school, you're concerned with getting good grades to get into uni, but you simply don't have enough time to figure out what you want to study. And this can be a huge factor of anxiety to many young people.
Apart from helping with your personal development, and thinking about your future, a gap year could also help in your academic and professional life. The same skills that help you in your personal life are also the "soft-skills" valued by employers. These skills allow students to differentiate themselves when applying for jobs or even higher education. Many of these benefits of taking a gap year are assumed because of the experiences from other "gappers" and haven't been systematically investigated. The paper "Widening the gap: pre‐university gap years and the ‘economy of experience’" by Sue Heath (2007) pulls together the presumed benefits and the level of evidence available to date.
It would be interesting to have some (more) research done on these issues. Do gap year students perform better than their peers? (this paper suggests yes!). Is there a benefit to the economy from students taking gap years? Are gap year students happier in their studies than their peers?
If you could quantify these benefits and show that individuals and society benefit from students taking gap years, you could make a case for government spending to increase these opportunities. Because when talking about gap years it is important to note that not everyone can afford to take a year before starting uni or a job, let alone travel. But the benefits of taking a gap year should be available to everyone so the government should increase these opportunities, whether it is through volunteering opportunities or internship experiences for example.
At the same time, the stigma around gap years as being an option for lazy teenagers to not go to uni needs to be reversed. Deciding about which uni to get into, what to study, and where your future is heading can exert considerable stress on teenagers, it certainly did on me.
For the future, it would be good to open up more options for teenagers as to what they can do after graduating high school, especially enabling and encouraging them to take a gap year.