One way that many students choose to spend their gap year is traveling the world. While this can be promote cultural knowledge, there are are actually many more opportunities a student can explore during that year. There are programs that allow students to explore a field of interest and get real world experience, potentially saving them thousands of dollars on studying something at university that turns out to be of no interest to them.
Things like internships, apprenticeships or personal projects force students to take an active role in their learning, which is a significant résumé booster. Employers also want to hire people that have hands-on experience in their field.
The gap year shouldn't be thought of as a gap in education, but rather an effective way to prepare for the rigors of college work that a student can expect once they return to academia -- and most gap year students do return. Ninety percent of students who take a gap year return to college within a year.
As Rainesford Stauffer wrote in Forbes, "In spite of its name, the gap year is one of the most authentic outlets we have to creating a well-rounded, prepared student, a substantial education and closing the gap that is currently threatening to swallow our collegiate system."
Plus, if Malia Obama is doing it, then it must be a good idea.