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To Gap Year or Not, That is the Question

That is the question.

One of the byproducts that the pandemic has had on education is the exploration of gap year opportunities. However, even prior to 2020, a number of ESM students have undertaken a gap year for various reasons, but with one common outcome: personal growth.

If you’ve ever attended a high school graduation, it’s likely that you’ve heard a line referencing the excitement of college life starting in a few months--or how ready everyone is to make a difference on their university campus. Recently, however, such lines might not apply to everyone. There’s no denying that COVID-19 has accelerated the idea of taking a gap year - a year (or more) where a student isn’t enrolled in an academic institution - before commencing university studies. Though gap years have been an ordinary practice in the UK for many years, 2020-21 is the school year that universities in the US have seen their gap year numbers triple. What does this all mean for the future of gap years in America?

In order to answer that question, it’s worthwhile considering how impactful gap years have been in the past, and who better to ask than former ESM students. Here are a few questions I asked Simon, who partook in an immersive and transformative gap year experience before starting at NYU in the fall of 2018.

Josh: Why did you even consider a gap year in the first place?

Simon: I felt I wasn’t ready for the transition between high school and college. I was unsure of what I wanted to do study, and I didn’t want to force myself into a program that I knew was not for me. I felt that taking a gap year would help me mature in ways that I needed and help me appreciate the value of working hard, while taking advantage of the opportunities given to me. In high school, everyone told me I had potential, but I think a gap year and time on my own, without the pressures of school, made me realize that.

Josh: What did you actually do during your gap year?

Simon: I participated in a program called Kivunim, which combined intensive academic work with international travel and cultural immersion. We visited 13 countries across Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa and had the opportunity to meet such a wide variety of people. We engaged in weekly Social Responsibility projects and even got to meet the Dalai Lama. 


Josh: What were 3 of your takeaways from the gap year?


  1. I was able to finally grasp firsthand the importance of education, and since I was not rushed into it, I could find the things that interested me (or not). By interacting with others, and especially with people in much different circumstances to me, I decided that I should take advantage of the opportunities given to me.
  2. I finally recognized that my teachers were right when they said, “If Simon put in that extra effort, he would succeed”. It’s a shame I realized this on my gap year and not before, but I’m still happy I did.
  3. I know this is cliché to say, but I truly did “find myself”. I gained confidence in my learning abilities, and by engaging with new people, I was ready for the transition of going to college and finding a new community.


Josh: What’s one thing any young person should prepare for if they are considering taking a gap year?

Simon: Think of it as an opportunity to find yourself and find your true interests. I think people who are hesitant about going to college, or who just don’t think they are ready to go, should take a gap year. It gave me the opportunity to live independently for a year and truly find the things I liked and didn’t like. Prior to my gap year, I was not sure what I wanted to study, and my work ethic was non-existent, but I can truly say that thanks to my gap year and the experiences I had, it transformed me into the dedicated student I am today.


One fact I always remind my students of is that their path is their path - they have to walk it as they see fit. For some, taking time between the end of high school and the start of college equates to more efficient and enjoyable success down the road. Though there may be students concerned that breaking the school routine would make coursework and assignments that much more challenging upon returning, the reality is that we never stop learning - even outside the classroom. If anything, a step away can sometimes reignite the flame of curiosity and provide an honest appreciation for the range of knowledge than can be acquired within a school curriculum. 

Growth can also manifest itself in many ways. Young people tend to grow when the scaffolding they’re used to gets removed. In a university setting, there is often a set structure that students can step into and develop a sense of comfort, albeit new. When considering gap years, high school graduates will need to properly establish how much structure they need and ultimately what goals they are seeking to accomplish.