School changes significantly for us as we grow older, from halloween crafts in Kindergarten to mid-term exams in college. However, the one constant through the school system in all its iterations is school itself. Many students are tethered to their academic identity within the school system from preschool all the way up to university or even graduate school. Each stage seems to blend seamlessly into the next phase of education, so much so that even the huge step of college applications is integrated with high school, and getting into graduate school is heavily emphasized for those who pursue their degrees. With this enormous pressure and standardization of one educational path, it’s no wonder that our years of ‘exploration’ are much more focused on a linear pathway than organic discovery. However, more and more, students across the nation are choosing to take a gap year and break away from the constraints of a traditional approach.

According to the American Gap Association, there was a 22% increase in students taking gap years in 2015 from the previous years. However, the number of gap-year students out of the 20.5 million students attending school is still miniscule. Despite the dozens of companies offering pre-arranged programs, easily accessible online resources and decent media coverage, as well as encouragement by schools such as Harvard and Tufts, the majority of students don’t take a gap year. Why?

Betty Poler, a junior business student, was set on taking a year to live, study, and volunteer in Israel before college; inspired by her family members and the organization she was involved in, she had been determined to take her gap year since she was a child. The youth movement she was a part of in high school, Maccabi Tzair, focused on growing leadership within the Jewish community. The gap year program brings recent high school graduates to volunteer in the army, live in a kibbutz, and take classes, all while cultivating larger life skills and experiences.

Camels in the Israeli desert. Photo by Betty Polet.

However, she encountered a number of obstacles in her quest to put her academic life on hold. Her guidance counselor discouraged her from going, telling her she didn’t know the process and to take the break later. Poler persevered, finding and applying to schools that mentioned gap years on their websites, which were “very few.” After applying to all the major Florida universities, UF was the only institution that allowed her to defer acceptance–and that was only if she came for Summer A. Because of this caveat, she had to cut the year-long program short and start classes in May.

The flag of Israel. Photo by Betty Poler.

According to Poler, a more incipient cultural bias and opinion lies behind the logistical challenges of a gap year in the U.S. Born in Venezuela and familiar with Israeli traditions, she believes that the ideas of higher education in other regions are much different in the States. In South America, it is common to take time off before university; in Israel, it is required— young men and women must commit to two-three years of military service, and many travel afterwords. On the other hand, in the U.S. it is considered risky and unconventional to defer enrollment.

Though Betty was able to organize and carry out her plans, the difficulty and stigma against a gap year is enough to deter most high schoolers. Nonetheless, it was worth it; Poler said she “grew a lot as a person,” especially in terms of communication and self-identity. She is now pursuing a leadership minor and has developed a love of travel, as well as more independence. Her own experience, which she recounts as challenging though incredibly rewarding, is only one of a myriad of options: many students do paid travel programs, work, volunteer, backpack, or a combination of activities. The main point is that college does not have to be the automatic first step for any student; whatever one’s interests, income level, or time schedule, there are options to both travel and work before jumping into university.

Poler and her gap year group. Photo by Betty Poler.

I know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be to plan a gap year during college. I enjoy school, learning, and travel, and one of my goals for university was to learn French. I was hoping to take an extra year during my time at UF and participate in an exchange in France, focusing on language acquisition and culture, and then continue my other studies on campus. To me, being a year older at graduation was worth the experience of studying, living, and speaking in France; this, however, is nearly impossible. The school requires students to plan to graduate in four years, and doing an exchange that does not contribute to a degree will result in serious academic consequences. Many individual colleges further reinforce this four-year paradigm by ensuring that their students are taking classes for their degree. Of course, I was assured there are exceptions— a petition, a drawn-out plan, a presentation to academic officials— but I was vigorously warned it would be a difficult process. Of course, the university touts its support of academic and extracurricular exploration, but within their rules and timeline. I concede that ensuring students graduate in a timely manner is important and beneficial to the school; however, no one rule or structure will work for every student.

Another option that many more students consider is a year after undergraduate school. Senior Jimmy Lee, majoring in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, is a pre-med student planning to fine-tune his applications with his year after undergraduate studies, but is also excited to visit his family abroad and travel by himself. He also wants to “gain experience, shadow doctors” and generally be a stronger candidate for med school. Jimmy isn’t alone: 60% of students at Harvard’s medical school had taken at least one year pursuing other activities after their undergraduate studies, and reputable organizations such as the Association of American Medical Colleges list the benefits of a pre-graduate school break, such as research, volunteering, studying and self-reflection. For any track, from pre-law to English, many students hope to gain experience in a field before applying to graduate school. Others aim to learn new skills such as languages, or volunteer for a year (or two!) through programs such as Americorps, Peace Corps or City Year. In addition, there are opportunities to simply travel, volunteer and do what drives you.

Of course, many individuals are passionate and driven about their career choice, and with fields such as medicine that are notorious for their length and cost, a gap year may seem counter-productive. Poler confided that though she once thought that “eighteen was too young” to start college, and still believes young adults are rushed into the career track too fast, she concedes that a year off isn’t for everyone. A gap year is only what you make of it, and it is possible to squander a year as well. However, in the end, it is vital that students have the option, resources and guidance to make a smart decision on their next steps. The recent decision of Malia Obama to defer her acceptance to Harvard to take a year off has spurred popular interest, amplified by the power of her voice in the media. Her choice to wait until her father has left office has largely been praised, though she has not revealed her interim plans as of publishing time.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia walk from Marine One to board Air Force One upon their departure from O'Hare Airport in Chicago
Malia Obama and her father, President Obama. Photo by the Atlantic.

A recent New York Times article investigated how gap years have affected individuals now in the thick of their careers, demonstrating the lasting positive effects in both jobs and lives. Examples such as these are working to break the misconception of the linear career ladder, when there are many opportunities for young adults to learn outside of the classroom. After all, it’s your education— and your life.