For many students, college feels like simply the “next step” in the hamster wheel of life: automatic, and without clear purpose. Taking a year off between high school and college can be a great way for students to challenge such passivity and re-evaluate their reasons for pursuing higher education. In this blog entry, I will attempt to assuage some fears associated with the gap-year, address reasons why students opt for a year off, and suggest some ways the year can be spent. I will also advise on a few practical issues, such as planning the gap-year or finding a program, and whether students should alter or maintain the college application timeline.
What is a gap-year and how is it different from “taking time off”?
Many parents are (understandably) nervous that the gap-year will cause their children to stagnate and flounder. In response, I want to note the distinction between a gap year and simply taking time off. “Taking time off” implies a sort of directionlessness. It is an unbounded, unrefined period of time that tends to end in the same place it began. A gap-year, by contrast, is well-structured and planned for students to resolve a question or achieve a goal.
Harvard University officially encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year “to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.” Many universities have likewise noted that students who take a year off are more academically focused when they begin college. In short, a gap-year done right can promote immense confidence and maturity, as well as instigate a sense of direction about the future.
So, parents: Don’t balk if your kid doesn’t want to go to college right away. Instead, push your student to question his/her reasons for wanting a break from school. This will help your child turn his/her ambivalence into a focused plan that he/she feels comfortable with and excited about.
Why take a gap year?
In my research, I have come across three common reasons why students opt for a year off:
1. Post-high school exhaustion
This is essentially self-explanatory. After the tremendous pressure of junior & senior years, many students feel burnt-out and dread the thought of 4 more years of (increasingly difficult) essays and tests. A year spent traveling or pursuing a non-academic interest or hobby can help such students refresh and refocus.
2. Lack of clarity about future goals
Taking a break after high school to clarify one’s goals is actually a deeply mature, forward-thinking move. If you feel this way, you should make gap year plans that are not only refreshing, but that will also galvanize your passions and excitement for the future. A year in the workforce—as a paid employee, volunteer or intern—may excite you about potential careers that require a college degree. At worst, spending a year doing a hated, menial, full time job will help you feel more motivated to go through with college. Meeting new people, making responsible choices, and navigating unfamiliar terrain while traveling or volunteering abroad also helps students self-examine and become more independent.
3. Gap year as a back door to top-choice schools
Some students see a gap-year as a way to get into a better college than those that admitted them in high school. This is generally not an effective strategy, unless your gap-year plans include taking classes at a local college to raise your GPA and prove your potential. However, according to an article on College Confidential, gap year plans that build on passions pursued in high school can also impress admissions committees. For example, if your college application already demonstrates an interest in painting, you might take this to the next level by looking for a pre-college artist residency program or interning at a gallery or as an artist’s assistant.
So, I think I’m gonna take a gap-year! But I still have a few questions…
1. What’s the most common gap-year pitfall?
Ah! The beautiful feeling of nothing to do! So liberating! So many options! I… uhhh… think I’m gonna go play PS3.
BEWARE OF THIS. Spending your valuable gap-year vegging out before the boob tube is, of course, a waste of time. Avoid this by planning your gap year in advance. If you’re staying at home to work or pursue a personal interest, make a contract with your parents that limits the amount of time you can just “hang around”.
Parents: If your child plans to work, volunteer, or intern while staying at home, he/she will gain valuable experience by seeking opportunities on his/her own. Encourage your child to use our student resume writing tutorial to get started. Avoid holding his/her hand too much, but also give direction and guidance so he/she doesn’t feel overwhelmed, stagnate, and fall into the cavern of video games and TV.
2. Should I still apply to college during my senior year?
Most experts advise that students taking a gap-year should still apply to, and select a college during their senior year of high school, while they have access to guidance counselors and teachers for letters of recommendation. Most colleges are happy to defer enrollment for one year, provided the student has a meaningful, well-thought-out interim plan.
That said, it’s fairly common for students to emerge from a gap-year with new perspective on their interests, as well as an altered idea of what they want in a school. In such instances, it may be wise to defer application, or reapply to college during the gap-year.
3. What’s the best way to plan my gap-year?
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to planning the gap year. As the gap-year is often intended to facilitate independence and self-exploration, some experts recommend that the structure of the trip or activity should be left to the student. This is how Gregory Kristof approached his thoroughly rewarding gap-year in China. “Just do what I did,” he writes, “sign up for a foreign language school and book a flight.”
If Kristof’s larky independence makes you or your parents uncomfortable, there are numerous formal gap-year programs you can use. Here is a short list to get you started:
Global Citizen Year – Kind of like a mini peace corps, Global Citizen Year is a gap-year program that guides high-achieving high school graduates through a year of volunteer service and leadership training in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
City Year – A division of AmeriCorps that places high school graduates, ages 18-24, in high-need public schools across America as tutors and mentors. This is an excellent, eye-opening opportunity for students interested in education to see what it’s like to teach in a real classroom, impact the academic success and confidence of young students, and learn about issues related to the sociology of education.
Cross Cultural Solutions –A volunteer abroad placement program that provides room & board and a thorough professional support system. Students choose to volunteer in one of 12 countries, located in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
TeenLife.com Gap Year Listings – This is a general catalog of gap year programs. Spend some time surfing and researching the options they provide!
However you plan it, if you choose to do a gap-year, I am sure it will be an exciting and enriching experience!
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