February is Gap Year Exploration Month. These year-long explorations, taken by students after high school, or even during their time in college, have become increasingly common. Many universities permit or even encourage it. As Yale University puts it:
Time spent working, traveling, or studying independently … may 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?
According to the Gap Year Association, research shows that students who take gap years do better academically in college than students who don’t. But for many students, these programs are less about improving academic performance and more about being emotionally and personally prepared for the experience of attending college. Here are some ways it can help.
- It can help 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 soft skills – skills they often don’t learn in high school or a college curriculum: skills like communication, emotional maturity, 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. Often, students who take gap years finish school more efficiently. So even after accounting for the expenses, it can be a money saver.
Of course, taking a year between high school and college has some cons as well. It can cause students to get off-track, or at least lose the focus they had during their junior and senior year. And some programs can cost a lot of money.
So to get the most out of it, you should think 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.”
Keys to a Successful Gap Year Experience
Before you sign up, 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 coach about your goals for the year and decide if you prefer a structured or unstructured program.
Some kids decide to get a job and learn more about the work-world during the year between high school and college. Others work and earn some money, then pack a bag and travel for a few months. The key is to use the time wisely and know which skills you want to learn.
If you are looking for a more structured program, you’ll find they come in all shapes, sizes – and price points. One great place to start is with the Gap Year Association. Their website has a listing of accredited programs. Among the kinds of program you can pursue are:
- Travel, Language, and Culture-Oriented Programs: This includes programs such as Global Routes and Art History Abroad. The website Go Abroad has a listing of travel-oriented programs. Be sure to check the details and U. S. State Department Advisories before you travel.
- Work-Based Programs: These are programs based on volunteer work, such as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, City Year, or Americorps Vista. They allow you to work, potentially earn money, and develop essential skills and maturity.
USA Gap Fairs organizes fairs in many communities, which feature several different programs. If you’re interested, start by visiting a fair near you, or speaking to a qualified coach. A gap year can be a transformative experience if you approach it wisely.