Traditionally, a gap year is a semester or year of learning through experience. It is typically taken after high school and before college or starting a career. However, some college students choose to take a gap year while they’re still in college or before going to graduate school.

With many colleges and universities still deciding when to re-open their campuses after they were shuttered due to COVID-19, many high school seniors are thinking about taking a gap year. Putting off college during the pandemic might enable them to get the on-campus experience they desire in 2021 instead of going to school remotely this fall.

Traditionally, a gap year is a semester or year of learning through experience. It is typically taken after high school and before college or starting a career. However, some college students choose to take a gap year while they’re still in college or before going to graduate school.

As the coordinator of a research group that examines the impact of taking a gap year, here are five ways that students will benefit from the gap year experience.

1. Avoid burnout

Perhaps most importantly, given the pressure in many high schools to excel in school and extracurricular activities to gain admission to college, a gap year gives students the opportunity to do something completely different. Just taking that step off the treadmill can lead to new growth and self-discovery.

2. Gain maturity

Taking a break from your formal education can contribute to a deeper appreciation of what the purpose of school is really all about. This, in turn, allows students to begin college with a more mature and focused mindset.

A gap year can provide the opportunity to discover new areas of interest and even to completely reinvent yourself. One good example was a student who spent his gap year working as a fishing guide in Alaska. That experience led him to major in environmental resource management. Ultimately, he embarked on a career in nature conservation.

3. Boost academic performance

Could taking a break slow down a student’s academic momentum? Actually, research conducted by an economist at Middlebury College – and replicated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – found the opposite is true. Not only did students who took a gap year perform, on average, better than those who did not, they actually performed better than would have been predicted, based on their academic credentials when they applied to college. For instance, the study found that the students who took a gap year earned GPAs that were .15 to .25 points higher than predicted.

4. Earn academic credit

At least one gap year program also provides the opportunity to be admitted to and earn academic credit at a variety of colleges. Other schools, such as Florida State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Princeton and Tufts University offer their own gap year programs for students who want to postpone their on-campus enrollment for a year, but not always for academic credit. These college-based programs can also include financial assistance when needed.

5. Gain independence

A gap year can be a good time to to pursue one’s passion. Luis Alvraez/Getty Images

It’s not necessary to stick with a formal gap year program or limit yourself to just one activity. In my 45 years of working with gap year students, I’ve found that some of the best gap year experiences are those that are self-designed.

If you create your own gap year experience, the most important thing to figure out is what you want to get out of it – be that work experience in a career you intend to pursue, learning a foreign language, doing community service or gaining greater cultural or environmental awareness. Then it’s a matter of creating experiences that lead to that goal.

One memorable example was a student from Oklahoma who spent the first four months of her gap year tending llamas at a monastery in North Dakota, the next four months working for a lawyer in Tulsa and the last four volunteering at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

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