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10 Things I Learned When My Kids Took Gap Years

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10 Things I Learned When My Kids Took Gap Years
There are lots of reasons for your child to take a gap year.

He’s worn out just from getting into college and needs a break before buckling down again. She needs more maturity to handle independence. He’s struggling with academics and needs to learn to manage time. She wants to find out if she really wants to be a veterinarian.

As a parent, I’m a big fan of gap years or semesters before college. Two of my three children took a gap year, for reasons that were both similar and quite different. Both had been in boarding school and really wanted a year that did not involve living in a dorm. One wanted adventure and went abroad; the other was ready to be home and working. For both of them, there were things that worked out great and some that, well, were complicated. And knowing what I know now might have made a difference.

So what should you think about if your child comes home and starts talking gap year? Here’s my list.

  1. Go through the college admissions process anyway. No matter how your child decides to spend the first year after high school, it’s a lot easier to do applications, get recommendations, take tests and moan about college application essays when you have the support of teachers, guidance counselors and peers. That said, it’s never too early to ask about a school’s deferment policies and to find out how the school feels about gap kids. Gaps are becoming much more popular, so colleges and universities have become more flexible and are even encouraging kids to take gap years.

  2. Be clear if or how a gap year could affect college financial aid or scholarships. Some schools will hold scholarships for a year, and some are even offering grants for gap years. You will, however, have to refile financial aid forms such as the FAFSA if your child defers.

  3. Set some gap year goals together with your child ­­– really, try to be all on the same page. And here is where, as parents, we need a big dose of realism. While you are imagining museums, language classes and ecological adventures your child may be thinking about other cultural adventures, such as nearby ski mountains, tropical beaches, and lower drinking ages. So if your child is taking a gap year, what’s the goal? Learn a language? Volunteer for a cause? Earn money? Do a gap year internship in a field such as medicine or art? What are everyone’s expectations, and what are the consequences of, say, going skiing three days a week rather than attending French class?

  4. And speaking of realism, how much structure does your child need? Take a close look at gap year programs. Some have more structure than a typical freshman year and some far less. If your child isn’t ready for dorm life, is she ready to be in an apartment in a strange city getting herself to class on the tram? Will he just be frustrated in a total language immersion program? How much mentoring or supervision is available? Resiliency and independence are fine, but make sure there is enough support to guarantee that your child realizes some success. And do some role-playing. What’s the plan when your child loses her ATM card in a strange city late at night or, in the case of one of my daughters, has landlord problems in Florence? How will your big-hearted volunteer cope with compassion fatigue or avoid adopting all those homeless pets?

  5. Let’s talk money. Even if you can afford a gap year of your student’s dreams, don’t make this a free ride. We all do better at anything in which we have a vested interest. Whther you’re going to spend large or small on a gap program, ask your child to make some kind of contribution. If an 18-year-old really understands how long it takes to earn the money, it will mean a heck of a lot more. And don’t think of a gap as having to be an entire year traveling to exotic ports. There are plenty of less expensive ideas and programs. You can spend a gap year in South America or in south Jersey. Your child can work part of the time and help pay for any program or adventure.

  6. Imagine beyond the exotic. One of my daughters wanted to buy a horse, so she got a retail job and lived at home with me – which, by the time your child gets to the end of senior year, might be one of your worst nightmares. But we negotiated how to live as (mostly) roommates. I certainly still had a few sleepless nights. But it worked, and we both learned a lot about trust, sharing space and each other. Her gap year job gave her a realistic view of life and what it takes to get the things you want. (P.S. It took two more years for her to get a horse.)

  7. Even if your child’s gap year is close to home, encourage some kind of adventure. It could be a language class, volunteering in a lab, an offbeat community college class, or biking across the state. You want this year to be an experience that fosters maturity but also has some adventure, independence and fun (you know, like college). Besides, you and your child are both going to need something awesome to talk about when everyone else is home from college over Thanksgiving.

  8. Practice your own verbal comebacks. Because no matter how popular gap years have become, someone is going to say, “A gap year? Are you nuts? He’ll never go back to school.” You will have to stick to your guns when everyone else’s senior is heading off to Harvard or State U. and yours is buying a plane ticket. There are also times when your child might have second thoughts and need extra emotional support, like when she’s homesick or his best friend is bragging about terrific roomies.

  9. Don’t panic. This is likely to turn out to be terrific. Most kids who take gap years return to college motivated and directed. There’s no question my kids learned things. It helped one get ready to hit the ground running freshman year and the other to know what she didn’t want (saving what might have been misspent tuition.) And yes, you should be ready for surprises. Perhaps your veterinary student will discover she faints at the sight of blood and just wants to be a musician. Think of a gap year as preventive medicine before you’ve paid freshman year tuition.

Remember that our kids are who they are, they just need to find out who that is on their own. A gap year can help them do that before the pressures of freshman year by encouraging them to be curious, confident, responsible, and a citizen of the wider world. It’s likely to be a good investment for both of you.

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Susan Moeller-profile-picture

Susan Moeller is a former newspaper editor and reporter who has directed education coverage as well as written about schools and children. She lives on Cape Cod, has three children and is a veteran of the boarding school and college search process.