Taking a gap year: a right or wrong decision?

Taking a gap year: a right or wrong decision?

What a relief.

Thousands and thousands of you logged into the Universities Admissions Centre website on Wednesday night to find the brilliant news of the offer of a place at university. It might have been your first choice. Or your seventh choice.

Some students are shovelled into university immediately by parents who think that their kids will fall off the study train.

Some students are shovelled into university immediately by parents who think that their kids will fall off the study train.

Photo: Edwina Pickles

But somewhere in the process, your number came up.

What if, sharp intake of breath, a gap year would be a better choice than going straight to tertiary education?

Thousands of parents are looking over the shoulders of prospective students as they log in to check the UAC site, urging them to enrol there and then: arts, law, accounting, medicine, architecture. Get these places while you can!


But what if going to university this year is not the best possible choice? I teach lots of first years. I love them. They are often keen, often happy and often ready to learn again after the draining dullness and repetitive work of the HSC which, by the way, is definitely not the best preparation for university.

The facts are that some students are shovelled in to university immediately by parents who think that somehow their kids will fall off the study train. Worse, schools too encourage students to go straight to university.

What the anecdotes say is that you will party hard and then fall into a slump from which you will never recover. It might have been an uncle or a cousin or a friend of a friend who sat on a couch smoking dope for a year and lost that golden opportunity to go to university and has been on the dole since.

The research says different. The actual research from actual Australian researchers says that if you take a gap year, there is a strong likelihood you will do better at university. It's not apparent in your first year of study but by second year, wham! You are killing it. It's not just the marks, it's also what we call soft skills, how you negotiate with your peers, how you deal with multiple competing demands.

The key factor for successful university life and study is to understand why you are going. What areas really interest you? What kind of work do you imagine yourself doing?

As Andrew Martin, a professor at the University of NSW who continues to work on the impact of gap years, puts it: "For some parents, the concept of education is linear and lock-stepped, there is certainly this idea that you can't lose a year.

"But once school finishes, parents should understand that education becomes much less linear," he says.

Martin's kids are about ten years younger than mine, so they are still in school. In his conversations with them, he is very encouraging about gap years. I tell him that my three [now adult] children all had changes of mind about exactly what and how they would study during their enforced gap years – and two changed their fields entirely.

He's not too keen on bossing kids into gap years though. Damn. Students, he says, should make their own, informed, choice.

What we know about gap year students is that when they finally get to university, they value their education more. They are more persistent in their university studies and activities; and they become more and more organised as they progress through university life.

The other major researcher on students who take gap years in Australia, David Curtis, a professor at Flinders University, says the key indicator of gap year usefulness is this – a lack of clarity about academic intentions.

But he does remember interviewing a young man who took a gap year who was always clear about what he wanted to do, study medicine.

He volunteered in Africa and came home, absolutely confirmed in his choice. Curtis' advice for those who want to make a gap year work? Get a job, get into volunteer programs, have a plan.

And for those of you who aren't sure, those of you who are accepting your seventh choice, it's ok to defer; a gap year might just be the best possible choice of all.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a Fairfax columnist.
Jenna Price

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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