Barely weeks after finishing high school, a huge amount of just-graduated Swedes have already left home for the likes of London and Sydney. Sweden is regularly among the top rankings along with Israel, Iceland and Denmark for having the oldest first-year university students – one way to measure the gap between high school and university.
Yet delayed entry to higher education appears to be changing, with the median age for starting studies decreasing from 22 years to 21.1 in the past decade, according to the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services (Verket för högskoleservice). Last year, 31 percent of 19-year-old Swedes went straight on to their studies.
Louise Kristoffersson, 26, a student who took one year off between high school and university, and a second gap year during her university studies, impressed Americans during her exchange student year because no one had so many stories to tell about life before university. In most countries, people dive head first into the libraries, she noted.
“You rarely meet people on a year off when you’re backpacking, unless they’re Swedes,” she said, adding however, that she had noticed that Swedes were taking less time off than before.
“Maybe Sweden is moving in the same direction?”
Statistics reveal that Swedes are indeed becoming younger in their first year of university. Among graduates, the age group 25-29 years no longer represents half of registered students.
If Sweden is indeed shedding its gap-year skin, the transformation appears to be to be taking place right now, because current students still recall the gap year being popular a few years ago.
“In my class I think two out of 27 went directly to uni and the rest took a gap year,” states Evelina Westroth, a student who worked for six months after graduation in Sweden and then moved to Australia. Another high school graduate, Johanna Wagner, who left for Berlin to be an au pair one year ago, even said that taking a gap year is “almost expected.”
Many Swedes though decide to remain at home and get work experience before furthering their academic education.
“I could go abroad for a year, probably as an au pair, or go to Norway and work and make a lot of money and then travel for fun with friends,” said Linnea Jacobson, 16, as she pondered her future.
Some gap-year destinations are chosen for their proximity, with London remaining a popular place for young Swedes. Norway, with its higher salaries, is also a popular destination for students armed with their diploma. Others would rather cross the Atlantic.
“My parents were happy for me, of course, but they thought that the States was a little bit too far away. But that is kind of the point,” said Fanny Mattila, 20.
The stresses of high school can leave some students feeling “quite drained” said Malin Åberg, 26, who took three years out before she started studying law.
“I wanted to gain some more work experience and improve my job prospects, plus I wanted to learn English to be able to speak it fluently.”
“I just wanted a challenge and to see the world so there were a lot of thing on my list to tick off,” said Åberg.
“I’m glad I waited three years before I started university.”
There are exceptions like Fredrik Sandström, 22, another law student, who went to university straight after finishing high school.
“I was already certain about my studies and I was excited about it so I wanted to start immediately,” he said.
Maria, who did not want her surname mentioned, ripped up the rule book and skipped the gap year all together. She moved to London to study and later got an internship.
“I didn’t want to waste a year to just do a crap job and figure out what I wanted to do,” she said matter of factly. “It was an easy way into the fashion industry and provided security because I was still a student and had my money from the student loan agency as a back up.”
Part of the trend to go straight into university could be related to a 2010 reform, when admission rules for entering university in Sweden changed. Applying directly from high school now gives students a better chance than taking the school aptitude test (högskoleprovet) of being accepted.
And if students still want to take time off, many seem intent on cramming as much as possible into one gap year rather than postponing further studies indefinitely. Part of that sense of urgency is propelled by the feeling that the labour market is tougher than ever.
“To get something with a good salary today it feels like you need to study for a long time. Many people probably want to get it over with as soon as possible so they can move on with their life,” said Viktoria Leander, who spent her year out in Trondheim, Norway.
Not all students welcome the shift to what they say is a more stressful and achievement-focused society.
“It is deplorable that in today’s Sweden I do not feel free to take a ‘real’ break. My years off must lead to something useful for my future,” said Ellen Lindgren, who is now based in Paris.
Whether the students venture to Britain, the US, or remain closer to home, they all seem to share the same philosophy, one that Monika Milovanovic, who just graduated high school, has on repeat as she prepares to jet off to Barcelona – it’s the Swedish proverb: “Make good use of your time when you’re young” (“Ta vara på tiden som ung”).