How to make the most of a gap year

Eiffel Tower, daytimeA “gap year” is generally a period between completing high school and beginning college (or sometime during college). This time can be either a semester or a full year away from traditional classroom studies.

When many parents hear the phrase “gap year” they think about students “vegging out” in front of SpongeBob reruns, sleeping past noon, and having fun, fun, fun. They also worry that students will never go on, or return to, college.

A gap year, however, can be a much-needed respite from years of academic burnout resulting from piling on the Honors and AP classes, tutors, standardized test prep, community-service projects, varsity sports, and other extracurricular activities.

It can also stem from a desire for increased self-awareness and a more purposeful enrollment in college.

Taking a gap year just got a little easier

Can a gap year really help kids become better students by taking time away from the classroom? In a word… yes!

In a recent article for TIME, author Randye Hoder explains, “Many educators tout taking a gap year, saying that kids who step off the academic treadmill after high school to work, travel, and volunteer or explore other interests are more mature when they arrive at college and more engaged in their education going forward.”

And, top colleges agree.

Princeton and the University of North Carolina, among others, offer scholarships and fellowships to incoming freshmen who take a gap year. Harvard has also long encouraged the gap year. And just last year, Tufts University launched its 1+4 Bridge Program which offers gap-year opportunities for national and international service, regardless of a student’s ability to pay.

What does a gap year look like?

There are many things a student can achieve during a gap year, although the choices tend to fall along three lines:

  • Work
  • Travel
  • Volunteer

Each experience has its merits. Working during a gap year helps students learn independence and gain the maturity needed to succeed in college. Working may also help a student commit to a major. And, the opportunity to pad the bank account will be appreciated once September rolls around!

Travel is a popular option and offers students a chance to experience a different culture in a way that is totally different from a typical vacation. Immersion into a culture not only helps a student learn (or hone) a foreign language, it also encourages students to better understand our increasingly global society and develop new life skills.

Volunteering also provides myriad benefits for the gap year student. Discovering a passion for an organization or a cause can change the course of a student’s life. Plus, many student volunteers are able to learn and develop important new work and life skills in the process.

The benefits of a gap year

According to the American Gap Association, “On an educational level, universities are reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, increased likelihood that students will graduate ‘on time’ or within four years, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions.”

Of course, the question most parents ask when faced with a gap year student is, “Will my child really return to school?”

While there is always a risk that gap year students will not attend college, experts with decades of experience in the field estimate that 98% of gap year students who were on a college track go back to school immediately following their time away from the classroom.

The down side

Although most students have a positive gap year experience, the key to success is to start with a plan. Firm work or volunteer commitments, and a travel itinerary are just the start. A written set of goals for the year will also keep students on track.

And, a quick note about college acceptance and the gap year…

Some students, mistakenly view a gap year as a way to get into a “better” college. Generally, this is not an effective strategy. Most colleges base their decisions primarily on academic factors. So, if a gap year does not include taking rigorous classes, then students should not expect a stellar gap year alone to vault them into a top-choice college.

Gap year resources to get you started

American Gap Association – As an independent non-profit, the American Gap Association (AGA) reviews and accredits gap year program providers that meet the highest safety and educational quality standards. Additionally, AGA offers guidance regarding all aspects of preparing for and returning from a gap year.

GoOverseas.com – With listings of most major gap year program providers and a combination of student and parent reviews, GoOverseas is the best place online to research program options. Additionally, their blog offers great guidance and support to truly understand the US gap year market.

The USA Gap Year Fairs – This national series of gap year fairs serves as the pre-eminent source of information about gap year opportunities for US students. With 35 fairs nation-wide and more than 50 participating gap year providers highlighted on the website, this is a primary resource for anyone researching gap years.

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Photos by Matt Banks and FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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