Considering a gap year?

It’s become increasingly common for students to take a year off between high school and college, or even while in college. Very famously, of course, President Obama’s daughter Malia took a gap year after high school, which has made the practice even more visible and common. Students now do it so often that many universities permit or even encourage it. As Yale University puts it:

“Students who take gap years often report that the experience was highly valuable to them in many ways. Time spent working, traveling, or studying independently, whether in the U.S. or abroad, may not only prepare you well for managing life at Yale, but may also provide you with the chance to pursue a personal interest without any concern for grades, the judgment of others, or the effect your undertaking may have on admission to college.”

Why take a Gap Year?

Why are so many students taking gap years? There are many reasons:

  • It helps students know what they want out of college. As Robert Clagett, former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury and admissions official at Harvard, put it, students who take a gap year will “frequently be more mature, more focused, and more aware of what they want to do with their college education.”
  • It enables students to build the skills they need to truly benefit from college and their education – skills they often don’t learn in high school or in a college curriculum: skills like communication, teamwork, empathy, and leadership.
  • Surprisingly, it can save money. Fewer than 20% of students who attend college finish a four-year degree in four years. Students who take gap years often finish school more efficiently once they attend, so even after accounting for the expenses, it can be a money saver.

Here’s What You Need to Know to Make a Gap Year Count

The research shows that to make a gap year truly valuable in terms of your odds of graduating and landing meaningful work after college, you need to spend time thinking through your goals and plans. Jeff Selingo, author of the book “There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow,” says that a gap year needs to provide “meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world.”

So before you sign up for a gap year, ask if your college will allow you to defer enrollment or take time off while preserving your financial aid options. Then speak to your counselor, parents, or a coach about your goals for the year.

A gap year program can be unstructured. Some kids decide to get a job and learn more about the work-world during their gap year. Others work and earn some money, then pack a bag and travel for a few months.

If you are looking for a more structured gap year program, you’ll find they come in all shapes, sizes – and price points.

  • Many programs are travel-oriented. For example, Global Routes offers service opportunities around the world. Art History Abroad steeps participants in the history of Italian art.
  • Looking for low-cost travel options? Consider joining Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms . You’ll earn room and board in exchange for your labor on an organic farm in the U.S. or overseas.
  • Uncollege helps students learn vital skills and build networks they can rely on for lifelong learning.
  • U.S. based volunteer programs include AmericaCorps Vista and City Year.

Consult the following organizations offer ideas and information to help you plan your gap year:

  • The American Gap Association provides information on the benefits of taking a gap year, and accredits gap year programs.
  • USA Gap Fairs organizes fairs in many community that feature a number of different gap year programs.

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