Is a Gap Year Good for Your Child’s Mental Health and GPA?

Parents, consider four factors when recommending a gap year before college.

Posted Feb 10, 2019

“Do you want to take a gap year?”

This is a question I never asked my children when they were applying to college. But now I recommend parents consider posing this question as their children contemplate life after high school

I learned more about gap years a few months ago, when I was interviewed on the NPR radio show On Point about the rising rate of mental health problems on campus and the role this plays in one of three students leaving college during freshman year. A caller asked me if students would benefit by taking a gap year before college. I responded with the information I knew: Some countries encourage a year or two of national service after high school, an opportunity to increase a student’s maturity before college.

After this show, I was contacted by Joni Burstein, of the college admissions consulting service Burstein with Advice. She asked me how parents can convince their kids to take a gap year. She is bringing up the topic of gap years more often with parents earlier in the college application process. As we e-mailed back and forth, she informed me that “Elite colleges have long encouraged gap years in the same breath of offering admission. They recognize that a break filled with purposeful activity can do a child good and make for a more focused and refreshed… freshman.” 

I wanted to learn more about the gap year. Was this a solution to the high freshman drop-out rate in our country? Would students experience improved mental health after a gap year?

I started asking friends if they had taken a gap year. I learned that even decades ago people took gap years for a variety of reasons: they worked to earn money for college, they did not feel ready to handle college, they wanted to solidify their goals before starting college. My own father had a difficult freshman year as a 17-year old. He left college to join the Navy for two years, gaining the life-skills that allowed him to flourish when he returned to campus. 

How common are gap years today? According to data from the freshman class of 2015, 2.2 percent of students in the U.S. took a gap year before college, and there are anecdotal reports that the number is rising. By contrast, 15 percent of Australian students and over fifty percent of students from Norway, Denmark, and Turkey took gap years. Students participated in a variety of activities including work, service, travel, and learning a new language. 

I recommend parents consider four factors to calculate whether a gap year would be a net gain for their child’s future success and wellness: 

1.     Academic: Is your high school student an underachieving and unmotivated student? Or is your student high achieving but burnt out? Both of these kinds of students may benefit from a gap year. The need for personal growth and maturity as well as recovery from burnout are top reasons students seek a gap year, according to the Gap Year Association. This organization cites studies showing the gap year provides academic benefits with an improved college performance and a higher GPA, especially for the underachieving student.

2.     Financial: For some students, taking a year off to work is necessary to save money for college. Having a nest egg to meet college expenses can make a big difference in successfully completing college. In fact, the top two reasons students drop out of college are school costing too much and needing to work full time.

3.     Social: Gap years promote social growth and development. According to a 2015 survey of students who did a gap year, 81 percent said they would recommend a gap year to someone else. The top benefits cited include: being in a new environment, forming relationships with others in other places, and forming relationships with peers. One more year of brain development and relationship building can go a long way to improving the adjustment to college life. 

4.     Emotional: Positive mental health impacts of a gap year include increases in a sense of purpose, resiliency, perspective, and motivation. If your child already has an underlying mental health issue like depression, anxiety, or ADHD, would a gap year be beneficial? Assess their ability to cope with stress and challenges. If you question their ability to face the academic and social rollercoaster of the college years, you can sit down with them and their mental health provider to evaluate their readiness for college. A year of additional psychotherapy to strengthen their coping skills while they work or volunteer can be beneficial. 

How do parents get the dialogue started about the gap year? Begin by doing some research; the Gap Year Association website provides information about the benefits of the gap year as well as gap year programs. Share this information with your child. Review the pros and cons of college deferment. If you recommend a gap year, state your reasons in a nonjudgmental, supportive way.

Bringing an objective third party into the conversation could make your child more receptive to this discussion and help air concerns. A college admissions consultant, guidance counselor, or family therapist can offer their expertise and recommendations. Joni Burstein advises, “The earlier I facilitate a conversation about the possibility of a gap year, the easier and more natural it can be for parents and students to communicate openly about the possibility.” If parents and the student agree a gap year makes sense, they can look at how different colleges treat the gap year. “Schools vary in their policies – from inviting gap years to requiring re-application. It’s up to the student to look at the college’s policy before applying and/or contact the college once accepted and ask about deferring.”

Universities are starting to understand the benefits of the gap year and making deferrals easier, even offering their own gap year service experiences. Tufts and Princeton offer tuition-free international service programs. Florida State University, University of North Carolina, and Duke are offering scholarships to make gap years available to students of diverse backgrounds. 

“Why should we live with such hurry ….?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1846. This is a question we can ask ourselves today in our fast-paced society. The gap year may be a solution for some students to grow socially and emotionally, to gain maturity, or to get a stronger financial footing, so they can achieve success in the college years. 

©2019 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved.

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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