Each year millions of high school seniors contend for coveted spots at the most prestigious universities. Persisting through the fray has become a rite of passage at high schools across the nation. Pressure to compete in the college admissions game has turned some students into robot-like machines, frying their circuits on over-programmed schedules of extracurricular activities, volunteering, and homework while they overdose on AP exams, SATs, ACTs and subject exams throughout their high school years.
What has become the traditional high school experience leaves some students feeling burned out and longing for a way to reignite their passion for learning. For students who feel they need a break from the grind of intense coursework turning them into college-prep zombies, gap year programs have become one solution.
What is a gap year?
Students consider a gap year after high school as an alternative to immediately diving back into an academic shark tank. The ability to explore passions and interests through travel, work, or volunteering opportunities gives some a needed break from pressures endured in order to get into college. Some parents, high school counselors, and college admissions officers even encourage students to turn off the academic auto-pilot and take time to explore new areas of interest. If you are considering a gap year, it is important to think about your objectives.
While it may seem like an easy way out, a gap year is actually not an opportunity to sit on the couch, play video games, and postpone your future. It’s also not about sipping cappuccinos in Italian cafes or sunning yourself on Spanish beaches (although those things could be included in your total experience). Gap year programs often appeal to students who crave a more hands-on learning experience than is provided in typical high schools. Many students choose a gap year to have a taste of the real world, improve their language skills, learn about another culture, and get out of their comfort zone. Spending time abroad or in new surroundings can be a great adventure that may expand your worldview and a step toward truly understanding other people, cultures, governments and ways of life.
Preparing for a gap year includes doing research and some introspection. What motivates and excites you? Do you have personal goals? Academic goals? Both? Your plan for your gap year should include your overarching goals for the year.
What are my options?
There are unlimited gap year opportunities. Some options you may want to consider include: volunteering, teaching, language immersion, environmental causes or conservation, adventure travel, outdoor and wilderness activities, the arts, social causes, or a combination of some of these options.
You have the choice of designing your own gap year or going with an already established organization. If you decide to go with an established organization, try to get in touch with people who participated in the program in previous years. If you are volunteering, find out exactly what your role will entail, who you will be working with and what the expectations for you will be. Ask what a typical day looks like. If you are teaching or studying, try to find out what is expected of you and how or if you should prepare prior to your gap year.
You can also work with a gap-year advisor who will help you figure out the program or plan that is the best fit for you.
How am I going to pay for my gap year?
Thinking in advance about how you are going afford your gap year is critical. There can be a number of costs and expenses including flights and accommodations, visas, and insurance. A gap year can cost nothing, or be as expensive as a year of college. Do you have savings or do you need to launch your own fundraising campaign?
Starting a fundraising campaign may be an additional skill you learn through this process that can also enhance your resume. There are a few gap year programs that offer some amount of payment or money in exchange for work. Picking up an odd job while you are abroad may supplement the cost of your travels and may also serve as a place to meet and practice the language with native speakers.
What can I gain from a gap year?
Many students take a gap year to explore their interests and in some cases to volunteer for a community or cause. Some want to travel and spend a gap year in South American or Africa. Some explore their faiths through a program that supports a Christian or Jewish gap year. Teaching or taking courses in a subject of interest, volunteering, working, and language immersion can all be goals of the overall experience.
A gap year may be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life and part of that experience is surviving the challenge of adapting to new cultures and new routines. Learning to deal with homesickness and culture shock are also some challenges students face when going away to college but know in advance this can be challenging and difficult at times. Remember that this experience can make you more independent, resourceful and open-minded which are all very transferrable skills and good preparation for the “real world.” Think about this: the more you are challenged, the more you are forced to think creatively and problem solve. This will make you a more confident student, employee, boss, and citizen in the future.
What are the potential drawbacks?
Making the decision to have a gap year experience may have a few drawbacks. You will enter college a year behind your high school friends — they will be taking courses toward their majors, making new friends, learning to navigate the college experience, and planning for a career and graduation. Entering college a year later may also mean that you graduate a year later, delaying the start of your career in an already competitive job market. If you are worried about having your study skills atrophy after not studying in a traditional school setting, a fear of losing your academic momentum may deter you from pursuing a gap year. And you need to make sure your financial aid will still be there for you.
What about coming back to college?
In most instances, colleges offer the option to defer enrollment for a year provided that you have a concrete plan for your gap year. Be sure to find out if you need to sign an agreement, track college credits, or make a deposit should you defer your entrance to college.
If you were not happy with the results of your college applications, a gap year may give you the opportunity to reapply, retake admissions exams and reassess your college list while adding another very interesting experience to your resume. Creating more life experiences for yourself and discovering your interests and passions can lead you to become more focused. Many students return from a gap year with a clearer vision of what they want to study and how they want to spend their undergraduate years.
Who can help me plan a gap year?
Academically, financially, and emotionally it helps to have the support of your parents, family, friends and school community. Be sure to discuss your plans and ideas with your family and college counselor. Check out independent gap year advisors. If there is limited access to counseling, find an adult at school who you trust or are close to who can give you input that will help you devise a plan or choose a gap year program that is a good fit for you.
As with any other major decision, it is important to consider the positives and negatives of taking a gap year and determine if it is for you. A gap year could help you clarify your future goals and interests and can be an exciting way for you to learn more about yourself while perhaps having a positive impact on the world before you head off to college.