What phrase do parents fear the most when talking to their teens about college?
“I’ve decided I’m taking a gap year.”
Since the 1980s, taking a gap year, or gap semester, after high school has become popular for students.
Some parents are just unsure of what a gap year is. They picture their young teen, fresh out of high school, living in conditions that will either make them physically unhealthy, mentally stressed, or even unsafe.
This article will explain what a gap year means and why some students choose to take one. We’ll also dive into the positives and negatives surrounding gap years. We’ll further evaluate whether it’s a good idea for your teen to take a gap year and how they can do it successfully.
What is a gap year?
A gap year refers to a year-long break before or after college/university during which students may engage in different educational and developmental activities.
According to the Gap Year Association, the focus of a gap year should be on:
increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers.
Regardless of how a gap year is spent, both students and parents are hopeful it will be enriching.
There are different ways a student can spend their time during this season. It could be a year off, traveling abroad and immersing themselves in a new culture. Some students will take just a semester away from schooling to rest and prepare for the next step in their journey.
It could also be to find a full-time job to earn money to pay for upcoming college expenses. Other students find themselves drawn to social injustices and challenges and choose to spend their gap year volunteering for a worthy cause.
What are the top reasons why students take a gap year?
A teen may choose to take time before—and sometimes even a gap year after—college for several reasons:
- Your teen may need a break
- For self-awareness and to explore varying interests
- Desire to become more cross-culturally aware
- Need to earn an income to financially prepare for college expenses
- Your teen may want to be in a position of service through volunteering
Whatever your teen’s reason for wanting to take a gap year, it is crucial that you listen to them. Hearing their ideas, you can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of taking that year off. While it may be hard to accept, unless there are extenuating circumstances in your family, the choice of whether or not to take a gap year usually rests with the student.
Advantages of a gap year
Many agree that a gap year is a great idea. The period between high school graduation and college allows your teen to be free of the educational and social pressure they may have felt in high school. This freedom can help them cultivate a positive life experience as they explore their options, reflect on what they really want out of life, and grow in self-confidence.
Along these same lines, a gap year spent traveling abroad or immersing in a new and different culture can afford your teen a global background. This can benefit your growing teen as an individual and as a future student and employee. Having exposure to other cultures teaches tolerance for differences, critical thinking for problem-solving, and becoming independent.
According to a study by Bob Clagett, former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, students who take a gap year tend to perform better academically. Clagett found that students who took a gap year had GPAs .1-.4 higher than those who enrolled right after high school. Also, the critical thinking skills teens acquire during a gap year develop into better time management skills, discipline with completing tasks, and less tendency to procrastinate. All these skills combine to promote higher academic results.
To prepare for college tuition expenses and living away from home, students who need to pay their own way through college choose to work during their gap year. The same applies to those who’d rather not add to the $1.762 trillion current outstanding student loans. These students need to plan for the cost of college and the cost of working (transportation, business attire, etc.) so that they can effectively save most of their earnings.
Disadvantages of a gap year
Taking a gap year can sound like heaven on earth for the student who’s burned out from the rigors of high school academics. A gap year requires meticulous planning and a careful look at what kind of person your teen is—and if they’re ready for this next step. This decision should be made early in high school, not on a whim. Without this careful planning, a gap year could do more harm than good for your teen.
If a student is interested in global travel during their gap year, it’s important to consider how expensive this could be. Just packing a bag and hitting the road can set your teen up for failure, so a plan is necessary to avoid any financial issues before high school graduation.
Taking that gap year also means a late start to the college experience. This may not be an issue for an intrinsically motivated student. However, this extra time to “slack off” may not be a good option for a student struggling to maintain momentum with projects or tasks.
How to take a gap year after high school
You can help your teens plan for a successful gap year by considering the following:
- Take a look at all the options. Which one is best suited for your teen?
- Communicate with the colleges your teen is interested in attending after their gap year and make sure they support this option.
- Consider looking into a structured gap year program versus your teen packing the duffel bag and hopping on a bus, hoping for the best.
- Make a plan. If your teen is going to travel, lay out routes, itineraries, and safety guidelines. If they decide on working, help them set up a budget and a savings account. If they choose to rest and recuperate from the past 13 years spent in a school setting, help them find enriching ways to grow and explore their interests during their time off.
Gap year programs
Some top-ranked colleges, such as Princeton, Duke, and Harvard, promote gap year programs after high school, before starting classes. By offering to coordinate gap years, these colleges are giving students, including those who may be undecided about attending college, the opportunity for structure and direction before enrolling.
Some of the focus of these gap year programs include:
- Allowing students to experience what classes are like through online learning
- Becoming part of a global citizenship community
- Discussing popular books, such as The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, to prepare students for academic success
- Participating in webinars to explore career options prior to choosing a major
There are some great resources available to learn more about gap years. One of the best is from the staff of Accredited Schools Online. They have gathered a wealth of information to help teens and parents dig into this option, and see if it’s a good fit.
Is it a good idea for your teen to have a gap year?
To conclude, taking a gap year can be a positive strategy for your teen. It can allow them to develop their skills if they choose to work a job or intern at a company they would potentially like to work for. It can help them grow as individuals, which can benefit them as they decide their next steps.
Additionally, it can improve your teen’s resume by showing real-world experience and immersing themselves in a different culture or environment.