As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in the United States, many students doubt that college campuses will reopen this fall and are understandably underwhelmed about the prospect of paying full tuition for a year of virtual classes.
As a result, some current college students are reconsidering their plans for the upcoming fall semester.
And the class of 2020 high school seniors are considering a gap year.
But how should students spend this time? Typically, students can approach a gap year as an opportunity to travel or gain work experience in their field. Due to restrictions around COVID-19, however, opportunities to travel and work will likely be considerably less available in the coming months than under normal circumstances.
Still, for some students, a gap year can be a great opportunity for personal and professional growth, even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Why you should take a gap year: Benefits of taking a year away from school
Even in an unusual year where you won’t be able to travel abroad, there are still many opportunities for personal and professional growth in a gap year during the pandemic.
It is an opportunity to reflect and reevaluate your priorities
Taking a gap year can give you an opportunity to step outside of the educational system for a moment and evaluate your life outside of the classroom. If you approach a gap year with a productive, goal-oriented mindset, you can reassess your priorities, and perhaps gain some new experiences that will help you understand more clearly what you want out of your education and your life.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Gap Year Association, an organization that accredits gap year programs, 98 percent of students who took a gap year said their gap year helped them develop as a person and 97 percent said it allowed them time for personal reflection.
A separate study from 2013 found that students who used gap years productively gained important skills and achieved better grades when they returned to school.
If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, consider what a year away from the school would provide you. How would you utilize a year without schoolwork? What would you want to get out of a year outside of the school schedule? A gap year can help you develop in ways you wouldn’t anticipate and learn about yourself and what you want in life, allowing you to return to school more focused, more goal-oriented, and stronger emotionally.
It is an opportunity to develop new skills, work on a project, gain experience, or volunteer
Students are busy. It’s difficult to juggle schoolwork, extracurricular activities, a part-time job, and a social life all at the same time. By necessity, most end up putting off that one thing they have wanted to do for a long time, whether it is volunteering for a food bank, learning how to use Photoshop, or learning to paint.
A gap year is an excellent opportunity to accomplish something you haven’t had the time for in the middle of a busy schedule. Even if you are not taking classes, there are still countless opportunities to learn. Perhaps there’s a skill that you’ve been wanting to develop.
You can also take the opportunity to undertake an ambitious project. If you’re creatively oriented or artistically inclined, a gap year can provide you with the time and headspace needed to complete a large project. Make a film, record an album, or complete a painting series. These opportunities don’t present themselves very frequently in life so you may as well take advantage of them when they do!
You can also take the time to try to gain real-world work experience. Depending on what field you are interested in, this may be more or less difficult to do in the midst of a pandemic. Some industries won’t be hiring interns for the foreseeable future, but there are new opportunities for remote work appearing in many areas. If your interest is in journalism, for example, this could be a great opportunity to start pitching articles to local newspapers and magazines and steadily build up a writing portfolio. If you’re interested in web design, start building websites for clients through websites like Fiverr or Upwork and develop real, professional work skills and experience. The possibilities are endless — if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you could even take the time to start your own business.
Lastly, you could approach this as an opportunity to give back to your community. In a typical year, many students use their gap years to travel abroad to a developing country to do community service work. That likely won’t be possible (or advisable) in the coming year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. However, the current pandemic has underscored how many people in the United States are in need of assistance. Millions of workers around the country have been laid off and are in need of various forms of assistance, while over half a million homeless people are at a greater risk of hunger and illness than ever before. Now is the time to give back to the most vulnerable people in your own community.
A virtual education may not be worth the cost of tuition for all students
College is expensive — like, put-you-in-debt-for-the-rest-of-your-life expensive. As a result, students tend to have expectations for what they will receive from their college in terms of both education and experience. For most students, an online education doesn’t replicate the experience of college in or out of the classroom.
A college education is about more than just earning credits toward a degree. The experience of working with and receiving feedback from professors and experts in their field is the most important aspect of a college education. Working virtually changes the dynamics of student-professor relationships and limits the amount of time students can spend working directly with their professors.
Students who take discussion-based or experiential classes will find their educational experience particularly limited in virtual courses. How do you replicate a political theory discussion, a chemistry lab, or scientific field work in online courses? What does an acting class look like without in-studio exercises? Many students might find that they don’t want to pay full tuition for courses that are limited in fundamental ways.
College is not only about in-classroom education, either. Campus social life is a crucial aspect of the college experience. Virtual education means fewer opportunities for out-of-classroom discussions, no in-person study groups with peers, and fewer networking opportunities — not to mention missing out on parties and being unable to see and live with friends. For many students, virtual education is simply not what they signed up for when they enrolled in college.
Why you shouldn’t take a gap year: Drawbacks of a year away from school
While a gap year is a worthwhile consideration for many students, it isn’t for everyone. Here are a few reasons that you may want to think twice before taking a year off.
Graduating a year later could be costly
Taking a gap year inevitably means that you’ll be delaying your college graduation by a year, unless you plan on loading up your schedule over the rest of your college career to make up for the lost time.
If you’re anticipating landing a job directly after graduation, this means you’ll get a later start in your career and miss out on a full year’s worth of salary. That is to say that a year off is quite literally a costly endeavor. Furthermore, if you’re planning on going to graduate school, law school, or medical school, you won’t be starting your career in earnest until your late 20s, and every year you take until you graduate is another year you won’t be able to pay off your debts.
In immediately high-earning fields like computer science or accounting, a gap year could easily cost anywhere from $60,000-100,000 in the very near future. If you are in one of those fields, or even in a lower-paying field, you’ll have to weigh those costs against the benefits you foresee yourself getting from a gap year.
What you’ll be able to do will be restricted by the pandemic
Under normal circumstances, a gap year can be an opportunity to travel abroad, learn a new language, experience an unfamiliar culture, and expand your world. Unfortunately, this year traveling abroad likely won’t be an option.
Travel restrictions related to coronavirus have already derailed study abroad programs and international exchanges. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has even stated that international travel will likely be suspended until 2021. Even without the restrictions, traveling abroad at this point of time wouldn’t be advisable given the health risks involved.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely make it difficult for most students to gain work or internship experience. In any other year, a gap year could serve as an opportunity to complete an immersive internship program, or even multiple internship programs. Due to the economic restrictions that have been set in place and the economic struggles that many economists are anticipating as a result of the pandemic, these kinds of opportunities seem far less likely to materialize in the near future.
It could be a waste of time, if you don’t make the most out of it
While a gap year can be an excellent opportunity to build your resume, develop both personally and professionally, or complete a project, if you don’t take advantage of the time outside of the classroom, you could find yourself wondering what the point was a year later.
In order for a gap year to be worthwhile, you will need to craft a plan that will keep you busy and productive. Not having class shouldn’t be an excuse to have no schedule. Neither should it give you a reason to sleep in every day and watch a lot of television. It is far too easy to fall into a pattern of laziness without a formal schedule.
Because many formal gap year programs will likely be canceled, keeping a schedule during a gap year this year will require a great deal of self-motivation. If you don’t think you’re capable of pushing yourself to build a weekly schedule, you may want to think twice before taking the year off.
With many campuses likely closing for the coming academic year (or at least the fall semester), there are many reasons to think about taking a year away from school. A gap year can be hugely beneficial for students who approach them with a productive, concentrated mindset. In fact, many students may ultimately find a gap year more worthwhile than a year of virtual classes.
However, taking a year away from school and delaying your graduation is a major decision and it may not be a worthwhile trade-off for all students. Before taking the year off, make sure to devise a plan so that you stay productive and come out of the year having accomplished something significant.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.