Mind the Gap: Taking a Year Off Before College [Guest Post]

By Julia Levine, Director, EnRoute Consulting

It’s May, and if you are the parent of a college-bound high school student, you are either recovering from, or in the midst of, the college search process.  During this time, it might become clear to you that your child might not be entirely ready to embark on this next step in their education.  This should not be immediate cause for concern, however, but rather conversation.  There is another option for the wary pre-freshman: the gap year.

A gap year, or “year out”, is the British tradition of deferring college in favor of a year spent traveling, volunteering, interning and engaging in other forms of experiential learning.  Recently, the trend of taking a gap year has been gaining popularity stateside, with more and more young Americans opting to take a year off before college.  Colleges and universities are supporting this opportunity by making deferring school easier and in some cases, like Princeton, offering their own in-house gap year programs.  In most cases, a simple letter to you child’s school of choice explaining their reasoning for taking a gap year is enough to secure their spot for the following school year.

There are many benefits for a student taking a gap year.  Parents often list the following as changes they see in their children over the course of a year out:

  • Maturation, self reliance and independence
  • Recovery from academic burnout / Renewal in eagerness to learn
  • Wider world view and global perspective
  • Discovery of interests and passions through firsthand experience
  • Ridding themselves of the travel bug or the desire to “do some things” before they begin college
  • Learning or gaining proficiency in a foreign language
  • Real world experience before the college “bubble”
  • Better avoids the risk of first year drop/fail out by providing the opportunity to refocus priorities and gain maturity

In this economic climate, taking a gap year can also be a wise financial decision.  A gap year allows you more time to let your college savings mature, reapply for better financial aid packages and allow the federal stimulus money time to enter the bloodstream of the college aid programs.

So let’s assume your child is well suited for a gap year. “What now?” you may ask.  In short: communication and research.  Sit down with your child and speak to them about why they want to do a gap year and where they might want to spend their time.  It also helps to have them write down a list of goals to help them focus.

Next, you and your child should look for reliable, structured volunteer or travel opportunities designed for young people.  Idealist.org and TransitionsAbroad.com can be good resources for finding both domestic and international organizations. Be sure to research an organization carefully by personally speaking with the volunteer coordinator and asking for references.  This will give you peace of mind as well as improve your child’s safety. You can also seek the help of guidance counselors or independent consultants (such as myself) who specialize in helping students and their families choose reputable gap year programs.

Set a budget, keeping in mind students are usually asked to pay a fee for volunteering overseas with organized programs.  Be sure to factor in the “extras” like vaccinations, airfare, travel money and international health insurance.  Don’t be shy in asking your child to contribute a certain portion of the budget themselves; either through a summer job or fundraising.  This gives them a financial stake in their activities.

Try to guide your child without pressing upon them what you think they should do.  Set some ground rules i.e. “You may not go to the Congo,” but be sure to allow your child the freedom to make their own decisions about how they want to structure their year out.  This will not only empower them to be deliberate but will let them know you trust them to make adult choices.

Before you know it, your child will be off to school, matured from a year of unique experiences and ready to take full advantage of their college years!

For more information, check out these online resources:

enroutegapyear.com

planetgapyear.com

idealist.org

transitionsabroad.com

yearoutgroup.org

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  • http://blog.shapingyouth.org Shaping Youth

    Excellent piece…and interesting that I’m hearing this echo even in younger kids’ mental mantra (e.g. “I don’t wanna burn out before I even get started”) —makes me wonder about all the testing/stressed out students among those who just don’t find the talking head teacher approach viable any more in this uber-digital media world of multi-tasking engagement.

    Some great new ideas are forming via the Learning Library/MIT collaborative media studies crew which I just posted about here in a mashup of Henry Jenkins, Randy Pausch, and the new Star Trek movie called “Beam Me Up Scholars!” http://blog.shapingyouth.org/?p=6774

    See you at Ypulse soon Vanessa, we need a separate timeslot to catch up and strategically pow-wow on the advisory front. –amy

    Amy Jussel
    Founder/Exec. Dir.
    http://www.ShapingYouth.org

  • http://www.university-bound.com/ Sarah

    Great article. I wish I had taken a gap year, simply to get my head straight and travel a bit. Although I felt ready for college, I wish I could have started college with some new experiences under my belt (not just high school). A lot of med students do something similar BEFORE they get jobs, or even in the middle of their career. They volunteer abroad as well. I hope this trend gets more popular! I write all about education and opportunities at University bound high school students</a), check it out!

  • student travels

    Thanks for sharing benefits of the Gap years. Also nice online resources

  • Pingback: 100 Tips, Tools, and Guides for Taking a Gap Year Before College