College-bound students around the country are out of time and lack critical information to make a decision about their path forward this fall. Final admissions deadlines for most colleges loom on June 1st, with precious few clearly articulating the learning environment students can anticipate. The gap year option has been mopped around the media as both a poison and antidote, yet few helpful truths have been articulated to help students with their decision. Let's get a few things straight about the gap year.
Despite what you might have read, gap year is not a new idea for U.S. high school graduates. Over 40 years ago Cornelius Bull, once a headmaster and the first gap year counselor in the U.S., championed the idea of students taking time after high school graduation to learn more about themselves and their aspirations. Simultaneously, the experiential education field was blossoming in the U.S., with a multitude of wilderness, service and travel experiences aimed at bolstering young adults' in their growing independence. The last twenty years has seen those opportunities for youth evolve into refined and highly sophisticated gap year experiences that range from art history exploration to life skills and entrepreneurship.
While media coverage of the gap year tends to focus on organized gap year programs as glorified vacations for children of the wealthy, those of us that have dedicated our lives to leading and directing these programs know that young adults of all kinds emerge from their gap years as more resilient, adaptable and engaged adults, college students and citizens.
Grounded in a deep sense of integrity and commitment to individual growth, the modern gap year program presents a student the chance to step out of her comfort zone and learn in a mentored, reflective and challenging environment. We have met few adults that aspire to confront the kinds of adversity and world-view reshaping experiences that gap year students courageously step into each fall. These are not vacations. They are transformations.
A gap year goes far beyond the official gap year programs, though. Gappers also pursue low or no-cost: service opportunities, internships, skills courses and work exchange all over the globe. They earn money, take on personal projects and hike thru-trails. In a non-COVID world, an aspiring gap year student has thousands of organized and supported options open to them. These opportunities cost far less than a semester or year of college and many motivated gappers have flourished on shoe-string budgets.
The essence of gap time (as we often refer to it in our field) is simply an intentional period that one takes to step out of the typical aspects of one's life to learn and grow in a productive way. Notice that we did not suggest how old one needs to be, how long gap time should last, where one needs to go, nor anything about what one needs to do. This is an opportunity to engage learning in an experiential and different way to maximize personal growth. A gap year serves as a bridge that amplifies our ability to be successful and engaged on the path that proceeds it, whether that is college, a career etc.. Thus, a gap year is not an end in and of itself, but the means of cultivating achievement in the pursuit of a future educational or professional aspiration.
Reframed through this lens, students considering a gap year in fall 2020 should ask themselves what their true goals and motivations are for taking gap time. Like making any major commitment, those considering taking a gap year or going to college should start with the question of 'why'. "Am I choosing this because I am burnt out, curious about the world, deflated by coronavirus etc.?" Perhaps it's all of those. Perhaps it's something else.
Knowing our 'why' allows us to define our goals and then choose the appropriate activities, programs and experiences that will help us fulfill those aspirations. We have met with thousands of students exploring the gap year and each of them created a unique sequence of pursuits, sometimes with as many as five different experiences woven into their gap time. There is no wrong way to take a gap year as long as you are mindful of the following criteria.
In a recent social media post, we articulated that a quality gap year: is intentional, has structure, offers mentorship, and includes one's peers. Nearly any activity that incorporates these facets offers a young adult the chance to take on the empowering independence of their first chapters of adulthood. Life is full of learning, and whether you end up overseas or living in your parents' home this fall, you can make it meaningful and productive if you build in these elements.
Many colleges fear that you won't approach the gap year with this in mind, as those students that don't, tend not to return to school the following year. They'd rather see you enroll in virtual learning from afar to make sure you actually matriculate. Their approach is self-serving but not wrong. As gap year counselors, we also urge you not to pursue the gap year unless you are serious about making it productive. Gap year is not the easier path, but an intentional gap year can certainly be incredibly meaningful.
With the deep uncertainty about your college-based experience in September, perhaps a gap year is a real consideration for you. If so, it is time to get clear on your 'why' and begin researching your options. Gap year programs, volunteer organizations and internships everywhere have begun making serious modifications to their programming and itineraries in the face of our new reality. There are and will be options this fall. Unlike college and university campuses, gap year experiences have always had to be nimble in order to manage risk and changing conditions. Adapting is what we do.
With that said, and in an unprecedented year like this, you will be wise to identify not only your optimal experience for achieving each of your goals but also a modified (and acceptable) alternative too. Should travel or the chosen activity be limited by current global conditions, you will be ready to make gap time productive no matter what.
Finally, there is a real possibility that some or all of your gap year could require you to remain local/virtual. How can you get creative to address each goal even if you can't be out in the world like you want to be? Despite this least desirable scenario, you can still find joy, growth and learning if you incorporate the ingredients of intention, structure, mentorship and peers.
This is where your gap year decision really lies...can you make this something meaningful even if you can't venture far? If not, gap year is not right for you at this point and you should consider a different path this fall. If so, take the gap year and go to college on your own terms in fall 2021.