Gap Years: Taking Time off Study to Learn

A desire to travel, escape boredom, and take a much-needed break from studies. Do they sound like good reasons to take a year off from university? How about wanting an education that extends beyond the confines of the classroom, and craving for a taste of independence?

– Tan Shiow Chin, Gap Year Allure, The Star (Malaysia) Sunday 4th June 2006

Those words head off an article in The Star’s recent Education pullout about five British girls – Rachel Baum, Victoria Young, Emily Wemily-Whitefield, Lisa-Ann Goodman, and Claris Davison – who are all here in Malaysia travelling and working on various projects (working at the Taiping Zoo and doing community outreach, amongst others) as part of their gap year.

Some may wonder, what exactly is this “gap year” we speak of? Here’s a guide:

So what exactly is a gap year?
A gap year is pretty much what the name implies – a break between periods of study. Basically, gappers (a common nickname for those who take gap years) take time off between periods of schooling to do something else for a while.

When are gap years often taken?
Gap years are most commonly taken between secondary education (O-Levels/SPM or A-Levels/STPM) and tertiary education (college and university), between undergraduate and graduate/postgraduate work, or between graduation and work – though there are some that take gap years during secondary or tertiary education itself.

Where are gap years popular?
Gap years are very common in the United Kingdom (one very famous example being Prince William, who took time out after Eton to work with Raleigh International) and are gaining popularity in the United States, Europe, and Oceania, but they haven’t been quite as popular in Asia, including Malaysia.

And why is that?
There are a few prevalent beliefs amongst Asian cultures – including Malaysian ones – that discourage youths from taking gap years. Amongst them:

  • You must go straight to university from secondary school, and complete it entirely; if you take time off, you won’t be able to reenter
  • If you reenter university after taking time off, you’ll be older than the rest of your classmates, you’ll be old when you graduate, and you’ll be old amongst your colleagues
  • You must enter the workforce right after graduation, or else you will miss out on climbing career ladders and be dommed to low-level jobs for a long time, losing out on money and prosperity
  • Gap years only encourage you to loiter around and waste time; nothing is gained
  • Gap years are expensive and not worth the expense
  • Gap years are a “Western” thing

Let’s tackle these beliefs one by one.

Belief 1: “You must go straight to university from secondary school, and complete it entirely; if you take time off, you won’t be able to reenter”
There is no law that states required age for university entry. You will not miss out on admissions chances if you take time off after your exams. Indeed, for many students in Malaysia, they won’t be able to enrol immediately anyway since they would most likely be called up for National Service, which already takes a chunk of time away.

Universities and colleges will always be around; they will wait. It is possible to get accepted and then apply for a deferment, which allows you to enrol later. In some countries (especially the United States), taking gap years may actually boost admissions chances, as it shows initiative, independance, and other skills and abilities, making you more of a complete package and an asset to the university community. Harvard University, most people’s idea of a “top university”, even encourages recent accepted students to take a gap year before enrolling.

Gap years also allow you to really reflect on your chosen path, and it’s a great opportunity to see whether the course you want to take is the one for you – better to find out that you don’t really want to be a dentist after spending a few months working in a dental clinic, than to find this out after spending at least 4 years (and thousands of dollars) in dental school!

Not everyone does return to university life after a gap year. Some just seem to take on “gap lives”. This isn’t lways a bad thing; university isn’t for everybody, and for some people, being a free spirit is better for their souls. Everyone has their own path, after all.

Belief 2: “If you reenter university after taking time off, you’ll be older than the rest of your classmates, you’ll be old when you graduate, and you’ll be old amongst your colleagues”
Here’s where the old adage “Time waits for no man” doesn’t quite apply. Life isn’t exactly age-dependent. You DON’T HAVE to graduate by 21; you DON’T HAVE to earn a million by 30; you DON’T HAVE to be married with kids by 35. Everyone has their own pace in life and you’re allowed to live by your own pace. Age doesn’t necessarily determine your success; what determines it is your dedication, passion, and determination to make it happen. Anything is possible if you set your mind to it and work for it.

There are people who graduate college in their 70s and 80s. Presidents and Prime Ministers are typically in their 60 to 80s. One of my university classmates was nearly 30; she was the oldest in a group of 18-20-year-olds.

Heck, I’ve taken plenty of time off here and there (I’ll share my story soon), and if I do graduate by the projected time (2009; I’d be about 24) I’d still be very young for a lot of things. Life is short, yes; that doesn’t always mean we have to rush. Age is but a number; it’s all in how you make of your situation.

Belief 3: “You must enter the workforce right after graduation, or else you will miss out on climbing career ladders and be dommed to low-level jobs for a long time, losing out on money and prosperity”
Again, you don’t have to rush. There’s plenty of time for work. Employment rates change, and there are always job openings – you can even create your own job! Even fresh graduates who have never taken some time off aren’t always guaranteed a job, so there’s no real way to say whether having a gap year is necessarily a detriment to employability.

Gap years can also be a great resume booster. In the same way that they help university admissions, employers would be very impressed with people who have taken the initiative to explore various options and gain experience. Based on your varied skills and experiences, you would stand out over other competitors vying for the same job whose resumes are more conventional but less unique.

I personally feel that we’re focusing too much on materialistic gains. “If you don’t get a good, high-paying job, you’re a failure” – this mindset is a corollary to “If I don’t get straight As/admission into top universities/a scholarship/a degree, I’m a failure”, and is extremely destructive. Success shouldn’t be on just how much you earn or what you own; it should be about your satisfaction with life. What makes you happy? Many people take gap years just to answer that question; it’s definitely something we should think about.

Belief 4: “Gap years only encourage you to loiter around and waste time; nothing is gained”
Here’s where I share my story.

I was severly burnt out after my SPM exams in 2002. I had struggled through that year with stress, unpredicted and unfortunate circumstances (including the disappearance of a few dear friends), as well as panic disorder and depression. The school environment had become highly toxic for me, and I knew I couldn’t continue in similar environments – at least not immediately.

Right after the exams, I vowed to take time off for myself. I used that time to really delve myself into things I was interested in. The first couple of things I did was a radio book review show, as well as applying for a job with Xfresh. (I almost got the job; however, I lived out-of-state, which was a problem.)

2003 was a flurry of activity. I was reunited with one of my best friends, Asha Gill, after 9 months of no contact and got to meet her for the first time later that year. (She was based in Hong Kong previously.) I took hip-hop dance classes for a few months – finally, some exercise! I gained an interest in American Idol, and in the middle of the year my mum and I flew up to Washington DC, USA, to see Clay Aiken (whom I’m a big fan of) and the other contestants on their American Idol roadshow. (My aunt – my mum’s sister – lives in Virginia, which is nearby, so it was good for my mum to come along too.) That was an experience in itself – Clay Aiken’s fans are a community of their own, and we had plenty of parties and meetups; I even got filmed for the news!

I also became part of The Star’s BRATs – going to my first workshop in Lumut, Perak; writing a front-page interview (with Asha!); participating in their End-Year trip to Mabul, Sabah to work on marine conservation by making artificial reef balls. I also took part in the National Novel Writing Month, an international challenge to write 50,000 words or more of a novel in the month of November. Together with the BRATs’ End-Year trip, I closed off the year by participating in Power 98 FM Singapore‘s Radio DJ workshop, and on New Years 2004 I launched Asha’s official website AshaGill.Com, which I had been working on for much of the year before.

Ironically, I was meant to be enrolled in Limkokwing University College by mid-2003, which wasn’t really to my liking but at the time wasn’t much of a choice; other circumstances delayed this to February 2004, which really gave me my “gap year”.

I have since taken another gap year. After one and a half years in college (much of it spent on other things such as volunteering with Amnesty International, writing for BRATs, and participating in the Project-Blog Blogathon), I travelled with Up With People from August till December 2005, and (besides having the time of my life) had a major reevaluation of wht I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t return to college; instead, I visited my relatives for a while, and then worked with Channel [V] International for a few months to gain experience and save up for my trip to Denver, Colorado, for the Up With People Premiere. I also got involved with the All Women’s Action Society through a few projects and workshops. I will soon reenter university life by entering Queensland University of Technology for three years; who knows how long it really will be or what else I’ll be up to!

Those two years I spent doing out-of-the-box things (2003 and 2005-2006) were the biggest learning experiences of my life. I learnt more from all the activities I did during those times than I ever did at school. It built up my confidence, taught me so many things about myself and the world, connected me to all sorts of people, and gave me exposure to things that I would NEVER get in a school environment. Many gappers have reported that they felt the exact same way. And besides, we were too busy to loiter!

Belief 5: “Gap years are expensive and not worth the expense”
That really depends on what you aim to do in your gap year; not all gap years are the same.

There are plenty of organized programs that market themselves for gap years – from specific gap-year programs such as LeapNow and Where There Be Dragons, to programs organized by the likes of AFS, Up With People, Raleigh International, The Peace Boat, semester At Sea, and The Scholar Ship, and much much more. Prices of these programs differ; some offer financial help, some are self-funded.

Gap years need not always be organized programs. Plenty of people design their own gap years. Backpacking is especially popular, particularly with people who want to travel on a low budget. (The Art Of Travel provides excellent advice for backpacking on the cheap.) Some people take up jobs or start their own businesses, helping them earn money instead of spending it. Internships, volunteering, and job shadowing barely cost anything but can help you earn good money in the future by gaining experience. There are also people who are more spontaneous about their gap years – instead of planning in advance, they just take whatever comes their way.

Gap years can also help you save money. Many people enter university not really knowing what they want to study or do with their lives. While not everyone is going to know their life purpose in their 20s, gap years offer a great opportunity to explore interests and see what sort of things you like. You could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in university fees by enrolling to a course or university that fits your ideals more, rather than something chosen in an undetermined haze.

Belief 6: “Gap years are a “Western” thing”
While they are more common in Western parts of the world, due to their more liberal attitude on education and youths, there are plenty of people in other parts of the world that take gap years. I’m one such example. Young Singaporean men are automatically enlisted for their own National Service, which is in a way a form of a gap year (albeit a government-mandated one). Gap years are even gaining popularity in countries with traditional expectations of education, such as Japan and Korea.

Another perfect example of local people taking gap years is Suzanne Lee, who has taken time off from studying to explore and photograph the world. She has just been selected as one of the top 10 finalists for the KLue Blue Chilli Awards, which is a great way to recognize her efforts. Congrats Suzanne!

Gap years are flexible, open to possibility, and full of potential for growth, exploration, and innovation. Here are some resources:

GapYear.Com is widely regarded as the definitive guide for gap years in the UK. Transitions Abroad and GoAbroad offer plenty of ideas and articles on studying, working, travelling, and volunteering abroad. SolBeam is a young woman who took time off from her work to travel to Costa Rica – and has never stopped travelling since. Her blog contains wonderful stories about her trips and explorations, as well as some tips on travelling. Also check out the links in the “Links In Post” section below.

The Teenager’s Guide To School Outside The Box (ISBN: 0613938860) by Rebecca Greene contains plenty of ideas for those still in secondary school (and who just left), while Delaying The Real World (ISBN: 0762421894) by Colleen Kinder is geared towards college students and college graduates. Also check out Michael Landes’s The Back Door Guide To Short-Term Job Adventures: Internships, Extraordinary Experiences, Seasonal Jobs, Volunteering, Working Abroad (ISBN: 1580084494).

Whether travelling, volunteering, learning something new, or just doing something different, gap years are a great way to decompress from the pressures of school and still get amazing learning experiences. If you’re stressing over where to go to university, or what to do after graduation, take a gap year – it’ll help you clear your mind and explore your choices.

If you have any gap-year stories of your own, please feel free to share in the comments. Also feel free to ask questions, and share opinions. Discussion is fun!

Links in Post:

4 Responses

  1. As someone who took a gap year – a forced one, thanks to the Finnish education system and my own meagre efforts to get into a university – reading your post made me smile and nod in agreement.

    I’m a person who wants to have an education and life experience. While my gap year wasn’t a personal choice, it was beneficial and it is something that a lot of Finns do. It allows you to see the world from a different perspective, to get work experience and to travel. In short, you get some very necessary “me-time” while figuring out what to do with your life and where you might want to go.

    Very few of us actually know what we want by the time we finish high school. I know a lot of people who’ve gone into a university straight after graduating and ending up changing majors or even quitting their studies because they’ve found out that it’s not for them. I have friends that are in their forties and just beginning their studies after working and travelling and maybe having a different career before. Everyone has their own pace and way of learning. There’s no need to adhere to the pressures of the society by going for the two-and-half-kids-by-35 goal.

  2. My ‘gap years’ (3 of them, several decades ago) between high school and college came from necessity — I had to earn the money to pay for college. As it turned out, the time away from academia was beneficial in a way far more important than simply getting the money to pay for a college degree. I learned that I did NOT want to spend my life in the kind of job I could get without a degree. I found that I LIKED learning and missed it when I was working at various nine-to-five mundane jobs. I found that when I returned to school, I could look at what the professors were showing me in a way that I never could have without the 3 years out in the real world. I was more grounded and motivated and had learned about what was important and what mattered and what was real.

  3. I have taken a gap year, my freshman year in college. It probably didn’t help that I went to the University of New Orleans which has a bar on campus.

  4. Gap years are also very, very common in the Modern Orthodox (Jewish, not Greek) world, particularly in the U.S. In this situation, the kids usually go to a Yeshiva or Seminary to do a year of Jewish learning before going away to college. Some schools will tend to give college credit for this (mostly lower tier and Yeshiva University or other degree granting Jewish schools), but some of the higher tier ones will give limited credit as well (4 classes’ of general elective credit at University of Pennsylvania if you’re doing a Jewish or Religious Studies degree).

    Most of this subset goes to Yeshivas/Seminaries in Israel, but there are some in New York as well.

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