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Why A Gap Year is Important Before College

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Why A Gap Year is Important Before College

Do you yearn to be in the real world and discover life beyond a classroom? Consider a gap year before college. Whether you spend it volunteering, traveling, interning, or working, a gap year is the kind of experiential learning that gives young people the grit, resilience, and focus they’ll need to be successful once they get to college – and later in life.

What is a gap year?

Some people call a gap a year “off” because it’s usually spent outside a traditional classroom. But it’s really a year “on” for travel, community service, interning, research or field experience, language immersion, or working – or a combination of any of those. Sometimes it does include academics or even sports training. That’s the best part of a gap year - it can be whatever you like based on your goals, budget, and time constraints.

Most students who take gap years do it between high school graduation and freshman year in college. It’s long been popular in the United Kingdom, Australia and parts of Europe and is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Some colleges, such as Harvard, actively encourage admitted freshmen to take gap years. Some colleges, such as Princeton University, offer structured gap or "bridge" programs of their own or partner with gap-year organizations to help students take gap years. The University of North Carolina invites incoming freshmen to apply for a design-your-own gap fellowship program. Local organizations like Carpe Diem in Portland, Oregon, offer fellowships for going overseas.

The benefits of a gap year

For many students, high school is a high-pressured race to get into college, and by the end, they are just too burned out to do well once they get there. A gap year is a chance to push the reset button with life experience before plunging back into academia. Some students want a year or semester to cultivate the maturity, balance and independence that college requires. Some want to become fluent in a language or try out an interest, sharpen a skill or shadow an expert. Some are committed to gap year community service and helping others. And some are just curious about the world and want a chance to explore. Most gap students probably fall into several of those categories. But no matter the reason, research by Sydney University shows gap years boost motivation and help students focus once they get to college and even in their career paths.

There are a lot of gap year myths. Such as:

Myth 1: If you take a gap year, you’ll never go to college. Actually gap year data shows that if you accept an offer to college before taking a gap year, you are just as likely to go as students who go directly to college after being accepted.

Myth 2: Gap students are behind when they get to college. A recent survey of gap-year alumni by the American Gap Association showed that gap-year students were likely to finish college in four years and have GPAs of 3.0 or higher.

Myth 3: Gap years are only for rich kids. There are gap-year options that allow you to have a full- or part-time job during a gap year. Some gap programs offer scholarships or you could try crowdfunding. Read below for more funding ideas!

Myth 4: Gap years are exotic and dangerous. You can spend a gap year on the other side of the world or around the block. Should you get out of your comfort zone, meet new people and try new things? Yes. Does that mean you have to spend your gap year in the jungle or on top of a mountain? No. Your gap year should meet your own goals, not someone else’s. And you can take steps to make sure your gap year is safe.

Planning for a gap year

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best thing to do if you’re thinking about a gap year is to apply to college. It will be far easier to go through the college admissions process while your friends are doing it and you have support at home and school than if you are out in the world. If a gap year is on your radar, however, you need to ask college admissions officers some specific questions, such as:

  • What does the college think of gap years, and what are the requirements for asking for an admissions deferment?

  • How will deferring college affect my financial aid, and what can I do about it?

  • Can I get college credit for an internship, research, or community service I do on a gap year?

  • Does the college itself offer any gap-year fellowships or programs?

Once you have that information, you can start thinking about the options for your gap year or semester. And FYI, this is a good time to make sure you and your parents are on the same page about a gap year. Be realistic. For example, it you’re in a program overseas with little structure, do you have the focus and maturity to stay on track?

Some things to think about:

  • Have a gap-year goal. You might want to become fluent in Spanish or learn to make the perfect puff pastry. Perhaps you want to intern in a research lab or see if medicine is really the career for you. Maybe you want to challenge yourself physically on a mountain trail or tackle an issue like clean water or get involved in politics. You don’t have to pick one thing to do during a gap year. You could, for example, work for a few months to earn the money for a community service trip that lets you practice your Spanish.

  • Decide if you want to plan your own gap year or enroll in a structured program. It all depends on your budget, time and level of independence. And don’t immediately discount expensive gap programs. Some have scholarships, and there may be other ways to raise the money.

  • Be creative. Can’t afford to spend a year gaining Spanish fluency in Peru? Perhaps an immigrant center near you could use interpreters or ESL tutors. But if you do a gap close to home, make sure you make time for exploration and fun. A gap is not a year to be on the couch practicing "Minecraft."

  • Do your research. Go beyond the information on gap-program websites. Ask to speak with gap-year alumni, look at online reviews and forums, and talk to people knowledgeable about what you want to do. Attend a gap year fair to talk to representaives of different programs. This is a year or semester of your life and an investment. You want to get it right.

  • Consider hiring a gap-year advisor. These people can help you plan a gap year and figure out how to pay for it. It may be worth the investment to know you are joining a tested program. They may even know about experiences where you can get paid or at least get room and board!

Gap Year Programs and Ideas

What could you do on a gap year?

  • Volunteer work through programs like AmeriCorps and City Year provides stipends and allows you to give back to your community.

  • Internships offer the chance to shadow professionals in a field or work in a research lab or field site, politics or business.

  • Groups like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) match students with farms in countries throughout the world, where they can volunteer for four to six hours a day in exchange for room and board.

  • If you are very independent, consider using sites such as Volunteermatch.org to find a volunteer opportunity in the United States or Idealist.org to find volunteer placements or internships in the United States or abroad.

  • Some service programs are faith-based and are a chance to do community service with a religious perspective or do a gap year in countries with religious connotations such as Israel.

Paying for a gap year

First, consider this: A gap year might actually save you money in the long run since you will be more focused once you get to college and more likely to finish within four years. You can even spend much of your gap year working, but plan short adventures or experiences that let you explore the wider world, whether it’s up the street or overseas. There’s no “right” way to do a gap. You just have to plan what’s best for you and your budget.

And before you dismiss a structured gap program as too expensive, explore how much it would cost to plan something on your own. You might be surprised.

Here are some ideas for funding a gap year:

  • Plan ahead. If you are thinking about a gap year, start early to put away savings from your job or birthday checks. Ask family to make a contribution to your gap fund instead of giving you holiday gifts.

  • Make a deal. Is your family willing to contribute? Make a contract with them and offer to match their contributions.

  • Fundraise or crowdfund. Could you sell your amazing cupcakes during exams or offer tech help through a posting at the library? You can also try crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo or Volunteer Forever. Crowdsourcing is more likely to be successful if you are doing community service during your gap year. Crowdsourcing sites offer advice on how to elicit donations and use social media to spread the word.

  • Scholarships. Some gap programs do offer financial aid, but apply early!

  • College-based programs. If you are still considering where to apply to college, look for schools that offer gap programs or fellowships.

  • Ask if a gap program qualifies for 529 Savings Plan funds. It might if the program qualifies as college credit.

What else do I need to know about gap years?

A gap year is not an obvious choice, at least not in the United States. You’ll be swimming against the stream. While your friends are buying textbooks, you’ll be rolling your sleeping bag or packing your lunch. But a gap year is going to open up a view of the world that is very different from the one you’ll see from a college dorm window. Just the fact that you are thinking about it means you are curious, adventurous and independent – all qualities that will stand you well when you get to college. Nurture that with a gap year!

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Marie Schwartz is the CEO and Founder of TeenLife Media. Marie launched TeenLife in 2007 after moving to Boston with her husband and two middle school sons and discovering that there were no information resources for families with older children. Today, TeenLife's award-winning website lists thousands of summer and gap year programs, schools, college admission resources and volunteer opportunities for teens around the world.

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