6 Reasons for Taking a Gap Year

A year ago, my daughter, Bethany, graduated from college and my son, Jonathan, graduated from high school. I know, I know—it sounds cliché—but it seems like we just dropped them off at their campuses yesterday. I have the privilege of interacting with thousands of students each year—but I must say, I am proud of these two.

There are many reasons why they did well—the relationships they developed, the struggles of work and classes, and the challenge of serving as a leader on campus. But both had one advantage many students don’t have. Bethany maximized her experience, because she took a Gap Year between high school and college. Her younger brother, Jonathan, is finishing his own Gap Year this summer. Both benefited greatly from this year of preparation.

What Did It Look Like?

In Bethany’s final semester in high school, she and I talked about the idea of a Gap Year between high school and college. She chose to work for Growing Leaders as an intern. She traveled with me and looked at colleges, did lots of self-examination, sold products, and learned to work a job. It was excellent preparation for the adult world. Jonathan is growing through the same experiences and finding his own way. Here are some of the tangible benefits I saw them receive from their Gap Year:

1. It gave them time to clarify their identity.

This may sound strange, but when a teen moves straight from high school to college, they often wander from one pressurized environment to another. They grow, but often not into the person they were intended to be; they are pushed into a mold by the rush of thousands of other adolescents. They don’t yet know who they are or what they want to do. The Gap Year provided time to experiment and achieve a sense of identity for both of my kids. They had time to “become.”

2. It enabled them to develop their emotional intelligence.

Bethany has never claimed to have the highest IQ in her class. Immediately, she knew she’d have to develop her emotional intelligence. She recognized she can’t do much to grow her IQ but she could grow her EQ. Her people skills have saved her many times. Both kids now realize that success in school may be 75% IQ and 25% EQ, but once we enter the working world, it’s the opposite. She and Jonathan took advantage of their Gap Year to deepen their self-awareness and social awareness.

3. It helped them choose a college that fit.

Not every teen will go to college, but a Gap Year helps each identify their next step. During their Gap Years, Bethany and Jonathan looked at a bunch of universities. After a year of marinating, both chose the one they felt most suited to fit into—ones where they loved the faculty and staff; schools that cultivate a God-centered worldview and are sending leaders out to transform the world. Both she and Jonathan have chosen schools that will help them think big; ones that are incubators for their own leadership development.

4.  It equipped them to find and stick to their strength zone.

During the course of the year, both Bethany and Jonathan experimented with tasks and projects. Both were supervised and debriefed about those tasks along the way. It taught them much. In fact, Bethany declared a major her first semester as a freshman. After a few weeks, she called home to say, “These are not my people.” She wasn’t critical; she just knew her strengths and passions already and didn’t have to waste money or time figuring it out. Both of them can tell you where they flourish.

5. It taught them to find mentors.

Many of people Bethany and Jonathan met during the Gap Year became mentors for them. It was these meetings and conversations that instructed them in how to seek out the appropriate adults who could furnish insights into the career and life they desired. It makes sense. During a Gap Year, the teen spends enormous amounts of time with adults—unlike their high school years. This is a transition time to locate great relationships that will ignite growth, not just provide “fellowship.”

6. It gave them a place to mature.

Let’s face it. Kids take longer to grow up because they are over-exposed to information and under-exposed to real-life experiences. Information comes early. Experience comes late. They are smart but often haven’t had the chance to mature. Too many college deans have told me: “26 is the new 18.” A Gap Year gives them the time and space to grow up; to be humbled; to build a work-ethic, to become grateful; to seek wisdom and to gain the ability to keep long-term commitments.

As you think about your own life—could a Gap Year help you? If you’re a parent or staff person, think about the kids or the students you lead—may I suggest you help them with some of these decisions above? You have to follow all of them to flourish, but they sure proved to be instrumental in our kid’s success. I have a question for you: what would you add to this list for those who wish to help a graduate get ready for the future?

Tim Elmore is the president and founder of Growing Leaders. His latest book, Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults was just released in June. Tim blogs regularly which you can read here, and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Do you think our children would benefit from a ‘gap year’? Why or why not?