Is taking a gap year before university a good idea?

While in Shanghai a year out is not so common, in other parts of the world it is. Here's why you should consider a gap year

Photograph: Christopher Burns on Unsplash
‘Here, you're on a treadmill – one where the right way is to go straight from high school to university to a master’s degree, and anybody who falls off that must have something wrong,’ says Corinne Hua. ‘I spent a lot of time in May, June to August explaining and explaining, but I never found the right way to say simply that he’s taking a gap year. It just raised more questions than anything.'

The ‘he’ is Corinne’s son Joseph. Joseph is spending his gap year in London, working at a state school as a teaching assistant with City Year – a service programme designed to assist high-poverty communities – prior to going to university this coming autumn. Joseph never intended to take a gap year, but despite getting top grades in his courses at Wellington College International Shanghai, he didn’t get the outcomes he wanted out of his uni applications, realising on getting offers that he’d rather take a year to reapply to study maths instead of following the engineering track he originally invested himself in.

While gap years have always been popular in some places like the UK and Australia, and are gaining traction in the US, the concept is still far from the norm in China. ‘Here, in Shanghai, everyone’s in such a rush to get on with it,’ Corinne remarks. ‘You get kids here going to university when they’re 17 because their parents push them up a year in education.’ There’s the larger societal and cultural context, which her husband Hua Lei, notes – if you fail your exams in the Chinese educational system, then you have to wait a year and there’s a sense of shame that comes along with it for families. But even in international school communities, gap years are not typically a common consideration during post-secondary education conversations. ‘Definitely here in Shanghai, I feel like it’s a second choice, never the first,’ reflects Corinne.


But should it be a first choice – or at least a part of the conversation? ‘Data and anecdotes show that a thoughtfully considered and executed gap year can be a profoundly useful and growth-inducing experience towards preparedness for college,’ says Mindy Rose, Director of College Counseling at Shanghai American School, Pudong. The interest in gap years by American educational institutions has been increasing, she says, with some elite institutions helping students plan experiences during their year. ‘Colleges embrace these experiences because they know they will ultimately matriculate students who are better prepared for college. High student retention and engagement, in turn, creates a better experience for the whole of the teaching and learning community.’

For years, Harvard University’s acceptance letter has suggested that students consider taking a break and recently has seen a 33 percent jump in students deferring for a year, with Malia Obama’s deferred enrolment in 2016-17 being one of the most recent, high-profile gap years. In 2009, Princeton University launched its Bridge Year Program – a nine-month, tuition-free programme that lets newly admitted undergraduates apply for the opportunity to defer enrolment in order to perform community service work in places like Bolivia, Senegal and Indonesia for a year. The Tufts 1+4 Bridge Year programme at Tufts University offers accepted students a year of community service either in international locations or within the US through a partnership with City Year. Public universities like Florida State University are endorsing a year out as well; while FSU doesn’t have its own programme, it encourages students to apply with a plan for the year and funds its FSU Gap Year Fellows with up to 5,000USD to help support the experience.

In the UK and Australia, it’s a much longer and normalised tradition with many students opting to take a year out before uni – even royalty. Prince William spent his gap year travelling and volunteering in Belize, Chile and countries in Africa, while Prince Harry worked on a cattle station in Australia and then with charities in Lesotho.

Then the question becomes what to do during this year off. The stereotype of a gap year has long been strapping on a backpack and hitting far-flung locations in Southeast Asia, but whether that is actually a constructive use of time is arguable. ‘In my generation, I’ve seen people who’ve travelled around the world and I feel like they kind of lost themselves along the way rather than found themselves,’ says Corinne. ‘At that age, I think 18 is a bit young. You don’t know quite how to travel in a meaningful way, and you don’t have the money to do anything – you’re always having to skimp and save.’

Many advocate for structure and planning the time off. ‘Gap years can be very beneficial but it’s important that students have a clear idea of how the year is to be structured so that it can be used for maximum benefit,’ says Mark Weston, Head of Higher Education at the British International School Shanghai, Puxi. ‘Taking a year between finishing school and starting university can give students the opportunity to undertake work experience, learn new skills, and increase their independence and confidence.’


So what kind of student should consider one? Perhaps everyone. Specifically, Rose advises, ‘Gap years make most sense for: students combating academic fatigue or burnout; students interested in developing the focus, goal orientation or personal maturation required to be successful in college; students seeking to narrow academic interests through intentional co-curricular work in areas like language immersion, arts or other specialised fields.’

Zara Horlacher, who graduated from United World College of South East Asia in Singapore and will be matriculating at McGill University in September 2018, is spending part of her gap year in Shanghai. Taking a gap year was never a question for her. ‘I thought everyone took a gap year and just assumed that I would.’ Both of her elder siblings took a year out and United World College has a strong focus on service, actively encouraging and assisting students with gap year itineraries.

For Horlacher, the year is a chance to test out different industries and find out more about her passions. ‘I didn’t know what to study or what I wanted to do for a career, so rather than committing to a narrow university course in the UK or trying a million different things at a college in North America, I thought I would use my gap year to try a few different types of work. After a short stint backpacking through Europe (‘insightful but exhausting’) at the start of the year, Horlacher has been living on her own in Shanghai and interning, first in a marketing role and now in an editorial role here at Time Out Shanghai. It’s allowed her to discover what she doesn’t want to do – ‘I know now I won’t study marketing at college, which I was considering, as when I’m 40 I wouldn’t be happy.’

Paid work is also an option, making the finances of the year less of a burden and teaching a lot of life lessons at the same time. Rob Jameson, Operations Director of The Nest and The Cannery here in Shanghai, took a gap year after secondary school in the UK and plans on encouraging his daughter, now a toddler, to consider one in the future. Jameson spent the better part of a year working in restaurants in Australia. ‘I knew I was going to study hotel and catering management,’ Jameson says. ‘I thought I’d get some good experience working in another country and another culture. It was a bit more specific for my career, but it was a great chance to be independent and be away from home. Instead of relying on parents, earn money, pay rent and be self sufficient.’

As with anything, whether it’s community service, backpacking or working a job, a successful gap year depends on the student’s goals and finding the right fit. For some those goals might be identifying what major to take or a future career path, for others a chance to live on one’s own and for still others, simply time off to rest and reflect.

‘If you think about it, you’ve been studying in school since you’re six or seven years old all the way until 18 – that’s ten years of studying. It’s quite nice to have a bit of a gap before you start studying another three or possibly four years at university,’ says Jameson. ‘Because after uni you get a job, and then you don’t stop ever. You never get that period to rest. I think for a young person, it’s good to get that breathing space, and that’s what a gap year gives you.’

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Photograph: Nick Garrett / NOLS

Dean of Harvard College William Fitzsimmons, Director of Harvard College Marlyn McGrath, and Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education Charles Ducey speak to a similar idea of taking ‘time out’ in the article ‘Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation’. ‘Many current students perceive the value of taking time out. Such a “time out” can take many forms. It can be very brief or last for a year or more. It can be structured or unstructured, and directed toward career, academic or purely personal pursuits. Most fundamentally, it is a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.’

It’s a rat race in Shanghai and easy to get caught up in thinking of ‘progress, progress, progress’ only. ‘Perhaps that year out, regardless of what you do, can be good. I think it’s the parents that have to cope, especially for me,’ Corinne laughs towards the end of the conversation. ‘I think I fall into that same trap that you always need to be doing something that moves you forwards, because I’m in Asia and that’s how Asian parents think: if you’re not doing anything that’s useful to build up your CV or be able to move you in a particular direction then you shouldn’t be doing it. Though maybe bumming around for a year is the best thing for some kids. Maybe that’s what the gap year is meant to be after all.’

And in any case, as Lei notes, it’s not like a year out will hurt your career: ‘Life is very long. A gap year is a year.’

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