Understand a gap year before you dismiss it or suggest it.

You may have heard the term “gap year” partly because of its growing popularity in the U.S. Students in Europe are very familiar with the concept and take advantage of it more often than their American counterparts. Read on to learn more.  Italy5What is a gap year? Generally, a gap year is one in which a teenager takes a break between the end of high school and the start of college. The Princeton Review gives this simple description: “A gap year is a year spent taking time off between life stages.”

Many parents imagine their recent grad sprawled on the couch playing video games, scrolling through their social media and binge-watching Netflix for a year. In reality, a gap year is just the opposite. The idea is to use that year for self-enrichment, discover your strengths and interests, and become a more focused person ready to start college.

Why take a gap year? The reasons are unique to each teenager, but ultimately it’s about not feeling ready to head off to college prepared to make a decision about what to do with the rest of your life.

  • The most common reason teens delay college is because they have no idea what they want to study and/or no clue about a possible career path. They realize college is too expensive to waste time floundering.
  • A gap year offers more time to save money to pay for college. Most financial aid packages don’t cover the full cost of college, even for the neediest students. One way of avoiding plunging into debt with student loans is taking a year to earn the money to cover the shortfall.
  • A student who wants to learn more about potential career paths can use their gap year exploring some areas of interest, then hopefully head to college confident and motivated by their major and career choice.
  • An immature teen can benefit by using a gap year to become more independent, responsible and prepared for college. Some students grow up once they start college, but for those who really aren’t ready, the experience sets them back.
  • The student who loaded up on honors and AP classes, participated in a full-range of activities, plus crammed in volunteer work and a part-time job, may feel burnt out and need a year “off” before taking on the demands of college.
  • Once all of their acceptances are in, a teen might realize they don’t like their choices. Applying to college again in the fall will help them find a school that better fits their interests, strengths and academic abilities.

What can you do during a gap year? The possibilities seem endless with the growing options. Sure, a student can continue working at their high school or summer job, but they can do much more. The one thing they can’t do is sit around and waste the year.

Eifel Tower

  • For a teen who wants to research majors and/or careers, an internship, mentoring program or job in the area they’re interested in will help them figure out what program to choose in college.
  • Traveling domestically or abroad can work for a teen who wants to explore other cultures, become immersed in a foreign language, meet new people, develop their independence and come to college as a more worldly person.
  • Volunteering is a great opportunity to learn about a possible major/career path and travel as the same time. It’s also an environment for teens to mature, appreciate their own circumstances, develop new skills, meet other kids with similar altruistic goals and feel the satisfaction of knowing they’re making a difference.
  • A gap year allows a teen to improve their academics or earn college credit while trying something new. Learning better study habits, improving time management skills and taking classes in a new environment all can prepare a student for college level work.
  • Students interested in the arts can create work for their portfolio or develop their performance skills to improve their chances for admission to a fine arts program.
  • If your teen is interested in competitive gaming, the arts or another career path they believe they can follow without a college degree, they can use a gap year to test their abilities and talents to see if they can make a go of it. The experience will show them whether they’re ready, need more formal training or if a different path makes more sense.

When is a gap year not a good idea? A teen who’s afraid to make a decision about what’s next in their life and who sees hanging out at home living off of Mom and Dad a viable option shouldn’t take a year off. They might need help working through some issues or time to mature, but enrolling in community college or a vocational school will probably serve them better than avoiding a commitment to anything.

Can you still apply to college if you want to take a gap year? Many students apply to college as a senior, then defer their acceptance to take a gap year. Some colleges, including Harvard and Princeton, encourage this. It’s easier to apply to college while in high school with easy access to guidance counselors, teachers for recommendations and an academic environment preparing them for college entrance exams. They’ll also be working on applications while their friends are. Going through the college admissions process allows a student to decide whether to go to college or take a gap year after graduation.

My next post will take a closer look at planning for a gap year and the available options.

Share your thoughts and experiences on a gap year in the comments section below.