Studies on Gap Years Show You Should Be Jealous of Malia Obama

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Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

You have likely heard by now that Malia Obama will be attending Harvard – that is, she will be attending Harvard in 2017, after she takes a year off from school entirely. Gap years, as Daily Intel noted this morning, are not so common for American students as compared to their peers in, say, Europe, but they’re not nonexistent. Though the data is hard to come by, statistics from Harvard, for example, indicate that between four and six percent of undergraduates in recent years take at least some time off before beginning their freshman year.

But what do we really know about what happens to these students when they pick their studies back up after some time away? As it turns out, very few good studies have attempted to examine this, though recent years have seen the publication of a few papers investigating the academic outcome of the students who take gap years. The gist, so far, seems to be this: It’s … fine? So far, the evidence doesn’t overwhelmingly find that these students perform any better than their peers who go straight from high school to college, but, then again, they also don’t perform any worse. One paper published last year in the journal Developmental Psychology followed more than 2,500 students from Finland and Australia, and what’s perhaps most remarkable about their study is the differences it failed to find. The study authors write:

The Finnish study found no difference in growth in goal commitment, effort, expectations of attainment and strain, or in actual university enrollment in those planning to enter university directly versus those who plan to take a gap-year. The Australian study found no difference in growth in outlooks for the future and career prospects, and life satisfaction between gap-year youth and direct university entrants.

There’s little downside in taking some time off, in other words. “In the light of our research findings, a gap year between secondary education and further studies is not harmful, especially if the young person only takes one year off,” Katariina Salmela-Aro, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement. “When these adolescents are compared with those who continue their studies directly after upper secondary school, those who take a gap year quickly catch up with the others in terms of study motivation and the effort they put into their studies.”

And yet Salmela-Aro’s paper also came back with seemingly contradictory findings. She and her colleagues also found, for example, that the Australian and Finnish students who did not take time off before university were more committed to their academic goals than their peers who had – but on the other hand, they were also more stressed than the students who’d taken time off.

Interestingly, a 2010 study of nearly 3,000 Australian students hints that the benefits of time off from school may be especially important for the students who struggled in high school. That study found that students were more likely to take time off between high school and college if they’d had a hard time with motivation, as compared to the students who did not take a year off. And the time away really did seem to help these students recharge: Once in college, they were more likely than the students who went straight on through to demonstrate signs of high motivation, defined by these researchers as superior time management and an increased likelihood to plan ahead.

Put another way: The research on what happens to students after a gap year remains fairly thin, but so far it seems to indicate that the students who do take time off from their studies do not perform any worse than their peers who do not, and some may in fact do a little better, especially in terms of motivation. The other question that remains for researchers, then, is this: Is 31 too old for a gap year?