The University Network

The Pros And Cons Of Taking A Gap Year — Interview With Matthew Hudson-Flege, Program Director, College Advising Corps At Furman U

TUN sits down with Matthew Hudson-Flege, program director of the College Advising Corps. at Furman University, to discuss the pros and cons of taking a gap year.

TUN: Matthew, thanks so much for joining us.

HUDSON-FLEGE: My pleasure!

TUN: I want to start positive. What are the pros of taking a gap year? What can students gain from the experience?

HUDSON-FLEGE: Well, Jackson, I think there are quite a few pros. I actually took a gap year, myself, before college. So, I can speak to this personally. 

I’d say there are three main pros of a gap year at any time, and there’s a fourth pro in the time we’re in right now. 

First of all, it’s an opportunity to gain valuable work, volunteer or life experience. You can gain new experiences and skills that can both help you to succeed as a college student and also in your career beyond college. 

Another benefit is, if you’re unsure of a major or you’re unsure what your passion is, a gap year can be time well spent to figure that out. 

Less than half of all new college students will earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. While some of those students are doing co-ops or other things, many students take longer than four years to graduate because they spend a year or two trying to discern what their passion is and what major they want to pursue. 

If you can use a gap year wisely and hit the ground running your freshman year knowing exactly what course you’re on, you may be able to save yourself a year of college and the tuition that goes along with that.  

This year, many colleges and universities are experimenting with fully online learning or a hybrid of in-person/online learning. 

The analogy I would make is one that my parents always told me. When looking at a car, you never want to buy a brand new model of car that’s never been out before because you never know what might go wrong with it, what certain things might need to be tweaked. 

To be quite honest with you, colleges and universities are that brand new model of car right now. I can assure you that online learning is going to be better this fall than it was this past spring. But, it might be even better next spring or next fall. So, that’s another reason to take a gap year if you’re feeling uncertain.  

And, finally, I think the benefit at any time for a gap year is that you only live once. You’ll only be 18 or 19 years old with limited responsibilities one time. So, if you feel passionate about doing something this coming year, why not do it now?  

TUN: I know things have changed due to COVID. But, I want to speak about what students traditionally would do during a gap year. What are some of the most advisable ways to spend a gap year?

HUDSON-FLEGE: I think a lot of people, when they hear the term “gap year,” think of backpacking across Europe. Obviously, that’s limited to a group of students from a certain socioeconomic background. 

Again, from the you-only-live-once perspective, if you have the means to do that, that’s great. 

I would definitely advise students, though, to think about doing things during their gap year that will help position them to be a better student or a better professional. 

That might mean working a full-time job. Gaining those skills and that discipline can help you. It might mean volunteering to pursue some of your different interests and maybe discern what type of major that you want to start. 

So, I’d say travel, volunteering or full-time work are the three most common ways to spend a gap year. 

TUN: Before we get into the negatives of a gap year, I do want to speak about the present. What should students who opted to take a gap year this year be doing? How can they spend their time?

HUDSON-FLEGE: Travel is certainly a little bit of a dicey proposition right now with COVID. But, I think there are a few great options. 

Number one is working. While unemployment is high right now and there’s an economic crisis, there are many fields of essential work with a lot of vacancies that younger, healthier workers who maybe don’t have as much of a COVID risk could fill. 

Having a year of full-time professional experience, even if it’s not directly related to your field,  reflects well both in the college admissions process and four or five years down the line when you’re looking for a full-time job. 

A year of professional experience can help to make you a more qualified applicant than your peers who just have a part-time internship. 

I think another great opportunity right now is volunteering. Many non-profit, community-based organizations’ core constituencies of regular volunteers are often retirees because they have the time to dedicate to volunteering. However, with the risk of COVID, many organizations who rely on older volunteers are short-handed because some of their volunteers just simply are not able to volunteer in an in-person capacity, given the risk of COVID.

Again, that is a void that could be filled by young people who are taking a gap year. And, like working, doing regular weekly or daily volunteering in an organization can help you hone professional skills, explore different career opportunities and build your network, both for college admissions and professional purposes. 

If you’re interested in doing a full-time service program such as Americorps or if you’re interested in military service, that’s certainly an opportunity as well. 

But, lastly, I would say, if you’re looking to stay closer to home for your gap year, you can take the time to practice building your “adulting” skills as well. 

People are strained right now. People are having to work multiple jobs or struggling to fill child-care roles because things are shut down. 

So, this is a great time to pitch in and help your family out with watching siblings or cousins, learning how to cook or helping with household projects. It’s a good time to learn some of those skills that maybe you didn’t have the time to devote to as a high school student. 

That will, again, help you be more successful as a college student living on your own. 

TUN: What are some of the things that students should be aware of before deciding to take a gap year? Are there potential repercussions of opting to take a gap year? 

HUDSON-FLEGE: There are a few things a student should really think about if they’re still on the fence about taking that gap year.  

First is in regards to admissions. Typically, many institutions will allow you to defer admissions. But, that’s university-specific. So, you need to check with any schools to see if that’s the case. 

If you got into your dream school and you were right on the bubble, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get in next year. 

I will make the caveat, though, that if you do your gap right and you’re doing meaningful work or volunteer work, that could potentially help you with admissions. But, it is something to be aware of. 

The second thing I would say is that study skills — reading, writing and particularly math —  these are perishable skills. If you don’t use any of these skills for an entire year, you might experience a bit of an uphill battle your freshman year. 

So, if you do take a gap year, I really recommend that you check if there is a summer reading list or a first-year reading list for your desired school. Can you read some of these books? Can you keep a journal or a blog about your gap year experiences to kind of keep some of your academic skills sharp so that you’re not starting from scratch as a freshman?

The next thing I would mention is financial aid. Be aware of how taking a gap year might impact any institutional scholarships or state-based scholarships. 

For example, here in South Carolina, many students who are competitive academically are eligible for what’s known as the Life Scholarship. It’s $5,000 a year for students who have a strong GPA or class rank. If you take a gap year, you are still eligible for that scholarship. 

However, that means you’ve completely taken a gap year and haven’t earned any college credit. So, if a student here in South Carolina were to say, “I’m taking a gap year, but maybe I’ll take one or two kind of basic courses at my local institution so I can get a head start,” that could potentially cost you $20,000 in state-based aid. 

Whichever state you live in and whichever school you’re attending, you really want to examine how that gap year could impact your scholarships and whether or not you’re able to do any sort of part-time learning or you need to fully take a gap year.  

I’ll say one more, that I would kind of consider to be a myth as a con for a gap year. That’s that you’ll be a year behind your friends or you’ll lose a year. 

As I mentioned before, less than half of college freshmen will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years. So, if you spend a gap year right and you get to college on a mission and know what you’re planning to do there, it’s very likely you’ll be graduating right around the same time as many of your peers. 

TUN: Thanks, again, for joining us today, Matthew. 

HUDSON-FLEGE: My pleasure! 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.