The Grand Gap

Ms Susan Garson, Director of International Studies

In a few months the final exams for the Year 12s will be over. The stress and anxiety caused by the frenetic pace of school life will subside. Then comes the reality of deciding what to do next. What about twelve months off between school and university to mark the transition from one phase of life to another? The notion of the gap year has been around for a long time, and sounds like a great idea, but how does one make it truly successful and not just a hiatus? New knowledge and myriad skills and positive experiences await those who embark on a gap year in the right manner.

A gap year can take many forms. Students may, for example, defer enrolment at university or participation in a career to complete a year of travel, special venture or activity, to engage in service learning, or to work or spend time in another meaningful way (Fitzsimmons, McGrath & Ducey, 2011). The whole point is to ‘take stock’ somewhere separate from one’s home, familiar pressures and expectations. Some gap years also involve students stretching themselves even more to purposefully live in a country where they do not speak the language. As Director of International Studies and a German teacher, I will declare a particular interest here. This enables them to immerse themselves in a new language in daily life activities, learn it in a structured way at a language school or utilise their new-found skills when working with a family, in a capacity such as an ‘au pair’. The social norms that school leavers are used to are likely to be challenged, requiring them to be more adaptive and sensitive to cultural differences (CESA Languages Abroad).

In 2014, approximately four per cent of Brisbane Girls Grammar school leavers deferred their university offers in order to complete an overseas exchange, employment or other activities. The benefits of undertaking a gap year are many and varied, but are very much linked to the approach of the individual. Students may gain a fresh perspective and purpose and become excited about embarking on a journey, new and unknown. Travel to exotic and different places, listening to and learning different languages and connecting with new friends, is all part of the mix. Dr Joe O’Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in the Ways the World Needs, believes that the communicative and relational capacity built while on a gap year enables students to ‘remove the focus on themselves and shift to become more others-oriented’ (cited in Leocata, 2014, p. 2). Gap years involving foreign language learning, in particular, can allow students to deepen their engagement with others. The value of building this kind of intercultural capacity cannot be underestimated, in terms of the self-confidence and maturity students return with and put to use in tutorial sessions, other aspects of university life or in the working world at large. Indeed, such skills may enhance employability. Furthermore, Moore (2012, p. 2) suggests that ‘experience has its own currency’ and that some of the most valuable things in life are learnt when ‘we are left to our own devices’. Not everything during a gap year will be charming and anticipated, and risks may have to be taken.

Certainly, it is these risks that could generate uncertainties amongst parents when discussing the prospect of gap years with their daughters. Parents may fear, for example, that the academic momentum gathered through an education at a school like ours would be disrupted by taking a break. If they break away from formal education, will they be able to re-enter ‘the zone’? These concerns are understandable, but it is worth pointing out that many educators support taking a gap year, assured that students will not only get back on the ‘academic treadmill’ (Hoder, 2014, p. 1), but will also be able to run faster, be more engaged and keep going in a purposeful manner. It is informative that universities such as Harvard and Yale have advocated for gap year experiences and supported scholarships and the deferral of courses for some years (Fitzsimmons et al., 2011).

Researchers from The University of Sydney report that a gap year can pay academic dividends. Professor Andrew Martin and his colleagues from the Faculty of Education have traced more than 900 students in Arts, Social Sciences and Science through their first four semesters at The University of Sydney. Professor Martin states that ‘when used constructively, gap years helped students to gain skills, obtain better grades and did not slow their rate of progress through their courses’ (cited in Maslen, 2013, p. 2). Although the researchers did not have specific data about the activities that the students undertook, it was thought ‘likely that structured volunteering, part-time work or language-based travel in a foreign country could help develop skills useful for university study’ (Boyd & Creagh, 2013; Maslen, 2013, p. 2). Professor Martin’s most recent research found overwhelmingly positive effects on student motivation, and genuine achievement. He gives excellent advice to students and states that, ‘once school is over, post-school education is a new chapter, a fresh start, a blank slate … it might mean having an honest look at what academic skills they need to enhance to make university a more positive experience’ (cited in Maslen, op.cit.). His earlier 2010 study reported that those students who undertook a gap year were far more motivated than those who had directly enrolled from high school. Linda H. Connelly, a counsellor at New Trier Township High School District 203 near Chicago, agrees with Professor Martin and adds that gap year programmes are beneficial for those who might not yet be ‘mature enough’ for university as well as ‘burnt-out overachievers’ (Sparks, 2010, p. 2).

There are a number of factors that make a gap year grand. The first is structure. ‘Gappers’ need a road map to a successful year. The starting point is actually the final goal. What do they want to get out of the experience and what particular outcomes do they seek? Perhaps students seek personal growth experiences, work or academic pursuits, or an immersion language experience. The key here is that each student must define those outcomes for herself rather than reflect an image of well-meaning parents. Students must be allowed to make these choices on their own (Fitzsimmons et al., 2011). This is not to diminish the value of encouragement from parents and the step-in guidance provided by professional school counsellors. They are excellent human resources who can introduce students to gap fairs and other gap year programmes, can guide students through the broader goal-setting process, and assist in applying to the right university courses of their choice. In addition, counsellors direct students through the deferral process and safeguard the right credentials to support them in a chosen career. This saves the confusion of not having a plan on their return from abroad.

Our School provides a great deal of this kind of step-in guidance which helps school leavers to see the gap year not just as a space that needs to be filled, but rather as a grand, planned experience that contributes to the development of the whole person. Director of Post Secondary Planning, Mr Jim Seaha, assists students to formulate their plans, gain acceptance to university, defer study, and embark on personal growth experiences. Mr Seaha also organises a ‘Personal Growth Evening’ in even years, the next of which will be held in Term I, 2016. This event encompasses discussions and advice around tertiary study and personal growth pathways, and engages guest speakers to share their wisdom and experiences with current students.

The value of a grand gap year is real. Life-changing events, turning points, and unfamiliar paths, all add to personal growth, new visions for the future, increased intercultural awareness, heightened academic engagement and career prospects. We should not fear that students taking gap years will miss out or fall behind, but rather, look forward to the ways in which their involvement in a new world of experiences will broaden and enhance their academic, social and cultural outlooks.


Boyd, S. & Creagh, S. (2013). Study links a gap year to better university grades. Retrieved from:, 1–3

CESA Languages Abroad. Retrieved from:

Fitzsimmons, W., McGrath, M. & Ducey, C. (2011). Should I take time off? Retrieved from:, 1–13

Hoder, R. (2014). Why your high school senior should take a gap year. Retrieved from:, 1–2

Leocata, A. (2014). Mind the gap: An analysis of gap years. Retrieved from:, 1–3

Maslen, G. (2013). Students find clarity in gap years. Retrieved from:, 1–3

Moore, S. (2012). In defence of the gap year. Retrieved from:, 1–2

Sparks, S. (2010). Research suggests a ‘gap year’ motivates students. Retrieved from:, 1-–9