For most young people, the gap year provides a condensed maturing process, which does a whole lot of good for future academic and life prospects, says AUT professor Welby Ings.
“Gap years can result in a student coming in [to university] with a higher level of maturity and lower level of entitlement because there has been time for a transformation from the culture of school to the culture of university,” says Ings.
A gap year gives them the time for their work and thinking style to adapt to the demands of university. Gappers learn more worldly skills than they do at school and are able to cope better with the transition to tertiary study.
At school young people have learned to think and perform in a particular way, but university is different, says Ings.
“At secondary school, students develop a strategic approach to what is required of them,” says Ings, a former secondary teacher himself. “That [approach] often doesn’t work that well at university.
“Going straight to university is often the logical progression along the conveyor belt of activities for life,” he says. “What’s more, students who have come straight from school are well versed in creative excuses for not getting their work done on time.”
Typically those who have come straight out of school might see a deadline eight weeks away and delay working on it for seven weeks, which just doesn’t cut it, says Ings. “They haven’t developed time management and there are some rude awakenings at university.”
Ings says gap years are particularly good for boys. “Often boys are immature when they come into university. Being in a gap year environment where you are no longer the centre of the world is a great thing to approach university with.”
There are many different options for a gap year. For some it’s the traditional OE in Asia/Europe with a Contiki Tour and lots of booze thrown in. Others choose something more formal, such as Lattitude Global Volunteering.
The gap year doesn’t need to be a year long, says Ings. It’s not uncommon to take three months out and then move on with life.
Young people can also have a gap year without leaving New Zealand.
“Some people are not economically in the position to go overseas. So they change the nature of the world they are in.” These gappers may choose to work for a charity or as an intern in a field they may want to enter in the future.
By the age of 18, most school leavers are strategic enough to understand that these types of experiences make their CV stand out. “Having done work with communities that are very different from your own shows a potential generosity of spirit and the ability to mix with people,” says Ings. “It both enhances your profile and gives a break from the mindset of school.”
At university, students will mix with a more culturally diverse group and have to organise their study very differently. A gap year will have expanded their cultural arc, making this easier.
There is a common belief by parents that taking a gap year will set their children back and that taking the fast track to university is the best way to go.
However, research by Claire Crawford and Jonathan Cribb for the UK Department of Education found that students who had taken a gap year graduated with a higher grade average than their peers who transitioned straight from school, says Ings.
Likewise, Lattitude conducted a survey covering 10 years of its gappers and found that 94 per cent enrolled in university upon return.
Having been away on a placement, gappers find they have matured, become more independent and are ready for adult learning, says Stevie Hight, marketing manager at Lattitude.
What’s more, when they get back into education, the skills of study aren’t lost, says Ings.
“This is not a big issue. There is no great brain drain. In the meantime, you will have acquired skills to add to ones you already have.”
Gap years don’t suit all young people, however. Those who have a very strong peer group and plan to move through university together might not benefit as much. When they return they will need to work on building up a new peer group or catching up with the existing one.
On the other hand, gap years can save students from getting into a whole lot of debt for a degree they may not enjoy. Having a year out allows them to plan for their future. Often it will also enable them to develop money management skills that may prevent them from building up too much debt at university.