National Edition

How taking a 'gap year' between high school and college can improve your life

Published: Monday, Nov. 4 2013 10:50 a.m. MST

Samantha Krieg (second from right) and friends enjoy Siena, Italy, during her gap year.

Courtesy of Samantha Krieg

Samantha Krieg’s arrival in Florence, Italy began the worst day of her 18-year-old life — or that’s what she thought at the time. But now, Krieg appreciates her memories of not knowing how to get to her apartment, and being lost for hours in a foreign city where she couldn’t understand the language. Figuring out how to solve her dilemma became a fitting start to the “gap year” the New Jersey native spent between her high school graduation in 2012 and entrance to Georgetown University this fall.

“At the time, it seemed like the end of the world,” said Krieg, now 19. “Looking back, I’m so glad I had that experience. I learned more from that than anything else.”

In the U.K. and other European countries, it’s common for students to take a gap year — a year between high school and college for gaining useful life experiences. Traveling, learning a language, performing humanitarian or religious service and completing career internships are among many options for gap years.

There are no national statistics for the number of U.S. students taking gap years, but the Higher Education Research Institute estimated that 1.2 percent of U.S. college freshmen deferred admission to take a gap year in 2011. By that measure, there might be around 35,000 gap year students each year. Taking a gap year appears to be a growing trend in the United States, based on increasing attendance at regional gap-year fairs and a big upswing in the number of students applying to gap year programs.

That could be a good thing. Recent studies gathered by the American Gap Association show that taking a gap year can improve grade point averages for returning students, solidify academic major and career choices and lead to greater satisfaction at future jobs.

A survey of 300 gap year alumni for Haigler Enterprises showed that former gappers have stronger respect for different cultures and religions than their peers, and are better at following budgets and resisting credit card debt.

Samantha’s way

Krieg worked through the summer after high school graduation to help pay for her high-end gap year, which was divided into three segments. First, she went to Florence to learn Italian, soak up art and culture and take time for self-reflection after her hectic high school years.

Her next stop was the Bahamas, where she trained in yoga and became a certified instructor. Then, she was off to Dublin, Ireland for a business internship in the publishing industry. Her gap year experiences gave Krieg the confidence to chase her dream of becoming a neuroscientist — a dream she’d discarded as being too difficult. And, the year of travel made leaving home for college a cinch.

“When I first got to college, everyone was talking about how nervous and uncomfortable they felt,” she said. “I never felt that way.”

At Georgetown University, Krieg met many students who struggle to manage their money, a skill she mastered, by necessity, during her gap year.

“I think it gave me a sense of financial responsibility, something a lot of people my age don’t have enough of,” she said.

Many ‘gap year’ options

Gap years can be as individual as those who take them, said Karl Haigler, co-author of “The Gap Year Advantage.” Among the endless possibilities, Haigler noted these: Hiking the Appalachian Trail, training sled dogs in the Yukon territory, working as a sailor’s mate on tall ships, teaching English in Central America, doing outdoor education with groups of inner city kids, and interning on an organic farm in Australia.

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