Gap year can prepare students for uni life

6 September 2010

Gap years can help clarify what students want to do, a study has found.
Gap years can help clarify what students want to do, a study has found.

Increasing numbers of students are taking gap years between school and university, and although some contend that the gap year may be a negative thing or a waste of time, a new study by Professor Andrew Martin from the Faculty of Education and Social Work has found that a gap year can both help some students prepare for university life and clarify what they want to do.

The study - which involved a cross-section of students from fee-paying, systemic comprehensive and selective schools, as well as university students from two Australian universities - found that school students were more inclined to have a gap year when they were uncertain about what they wanted to do after finishing school or when they were less academically motivated.

"The findings suggest that a gap year can be useful for those students who are uncertain in their post-school plans or who are less academically motivated upon completing school," says Professor Martin.

Andrew Richards, who took a break between school and university to travel and now has his own Eco Tourism business, says that his gap year helped him confirm what he wanted to do as a career.

"I took my gap year to clear my head and work out what I wanted to do," he says. "I was enrolled in my Tourism Management course before I went on my gap year, but it wasn't until I got back from travelling that I knew that's what I really wanted to do."

Professor Martin's research, which has been published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, also found that university students who had taken a gap year to work or travel were more motivated in their studies and adapted better to university life.

"I did better at university than I did at school, and I think that year off helped," Andrew Richards agrees.

Previous studies into the gap year phenomenon have concentrated on the influence of demographic factors like gender and socioeconomic status in students taking a gap year between school and university, but Professor Martin's study was the first investigation to closely examine the psychology of gap year intentions and participation.

University student Tom Imanishi, who went to Japan to teach English for a year between school and university, said the gap year was an important step for him to take.

"My parents were uncertain about me going to Japan for a whole year to live on my own, but it shaped me as a person and made me more responsible," he says. "Before I went to Japan I was quite sheltered and didn't have a lot of real-life experience. When you travel like that you're exposed to so many other people and that experience might change what you want to do with your life."

Tom's gap year helped shape his future career ambitions and have provided him with tools which will be useful in later life.

"I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted to do before I went on my gap year, and I was already enrolled in a Bachelor of Economics, but living in Japan clarified that I wanted to be involved in Japanese-Australian business when I graduate," he says.

"Living in Japan also gave me additional Japanese language skills and a cultural understanding of the country which will help me later in my career."

Professor Martin also considered influencing factors like gender, age and language background as indicators of the likelihood to take a gap year, but his study concluded that demographic factors were less significant in influencing the decision to take a gap year than postschool uncertainty and motivation among school students.

"These findings are informative for students, parents, schools and counsellors as they approach the final years of school and need to make decisions about post-school pathways," Professor Martin explains.

"Although the desirability and effects of a gap year will differ from student to student, this study sheds timely light on the potential of the gap year for young people's further academic development."

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