…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
There has been a dramatic rise in “non-traditional” students: those who choose nonlinear options to academic and career success. In fact, nearly 40% of college students do not fit the traditional profile as students who took the path of a 4-year college experience directly after graduating from high school.
Among the contemporary choices being made is the “gap year” experience. For students wishing to take a year off before going to college, the range of opportunities to learn, grow, earn, and experience is steadily growing.
Why Consider a Gap Year?
Social, academic, and financial reasons might lead a student to consider taking a gap year. The student might be young, less confident, or could benefit from a focused year to mature for the college experience. They may arrive on campus better prepared for the rigor and expectation.
Perhaps the student isn’t sure of academic focus and would like to take the year off to explore career interests and clarify academic goals. There could also be a financial benefit to taking some time off to earn money in a field of interest.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for taking a gap year comes from Robert Clagett, a former senior admissions officer at Harvard University and Middlebury College. His research has found that students who delay a year before starting college have GPAs that, on a 4.0 scale, are 0.15 to 0.2 higher than otherwise would be expected.
What are Gap Year Options?
The range of opportunities is staggering, and the student may choose among many choices or combine two or more options for an optimal, personalized experience.
Here are some ideas:
- Internship (self-designed or through a program)
- Academic focus (post-graduate year at a private high school)
- Travel (independently, or in a program)
- Work (for pay or experience)
How Do You Find a Reputable Program?
In the burgeoning field of companies aiming to provide these experiences, of utmost importance is a program that is safe, reputable, and vetted. Some gap year providers, such as City Year (volunteer with stipend), and National Outdoor Leadership Schools (161 expedition opportunities), have been around for decades.
Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an educational and cultural exchange program that helps students learn practical farming skills and be part of the organic agriculture movement. Spend some time with your student discussing what would make for the best experience. For more information on the myriad opportunities that exist, visit the American Gap Year Association. An additional resource on gap year programs is the Center for Interim Programs.
How Do Colleges View a Gap Year?
While parents and caregivers may worry that a break in education may reflect poorly on the student, the reality is that many colleges view the gap year experience very favorably. Some schools even encourage the practice, and others still have affiliated gap year programs. Rather than being viewed by colleges as a year to “goof off,” it demonstrates the maturity and foresight to make a decision to enter into the academic environment better prepared in one year’s time.
According to TIME magazine, several schools, including Princeton University and the University of North Carolina, “offer scholarships and fellowships to incoming freshmen who take a gap year. Harvard has long encouraged the practice. Tufts University has a 1+4 bridge program, which offers gap-year opportunities for national and international service regardless of a student’s ability to pay…”.
What is the Expense of a Gap Year Program?
There is a wide range of expense associated with taking a gap year. A year overseas on a mission trip could cost nearly what a year of college tuition costs. A post-graduate (“PG”) year, which is an additional year in a private high school, could cost $60,000 – or more.
Fortunately, there are many options that are either free, inexpensive, or offer a small stipend for volunteering. Some programs cover living expenses in exchange for service provided. Americorps fosters civic engagement and in return, will double the Pell Grant to $10,700 for students to apply towards the cost of college.
The possibility exists that a gap year program could actually save money if it results in the student clarifying educational priorities and goals (less money spent on the “wrong” path).
What are the Drawbacks of Taking a Gap Year?
The financial implications can be considerable and prohibitive. For some students, stepping out of an academic environment could make it more challenging to re-enter a year later. A student must still be mature and responsible enough to handle a gap year experience of working, volunteering, continuing secondary education, or having an adventure.
Taking a gap year also challenges the status quo, and won’t necessarily be understood by peers. It is a highly individualized decision, and although growing in popularity, gap years are still little known or understood in many high schools and communities. It takes guts to make a decision to take a different path than peers… but it’s a great lesson for life to come, too.
What are the Logistics of Applying to College While Considering a Gap Year?
If you’re in the middle of the college admissions process and wonder if the gap year experience would be of benefit, keep doing what you’re doing (unless considering a post-graduate year; college applications would follow that year).
Complete the application process just as you would if planning a Fall 2019 start date. Accept to your college of choice, and then defer through the proper channel at that college. Have a conversation with the admissions officer to make sure that all documentation is in order to ensure a smooth transition.
Where Can I Learn More About Gap Years?
In addition to the resources cited, USA Gap Fairs provide a great opportunity to visit with a variety of gap year program representatives. Check their website for fair dates.
USA Gap Year Fairs will travel to 40 locations across the United States to connect students, parents, and educational professionals with gap year program representatives. These fairs provide students with a broad exposure to gap year programs that emphasize experiential education and personal growth. Opportunities for face to face conversations with gap year program providers, trip leaders, advisors, and gap year alumni offer attendees a personal and individualized experience.”
A Gap Year May Be Right If…:
- An exploratory year would allow for maturity, exploration of interests, strengthening of academic profile, or earning of money to fund education.
- The student would re-enter the academic environment more prepared and with clarity of goals and interests.
- The year is carefully crafted, researched, and planned to achieve established goals.
- Financial considerations are factored into the decision (cost of gap year program or earning potential through work opportunity).
- The academic re-entry plan is clearly articulated and properly communicated to the college.
A carefully planned and crafted gap year experience can be an invaluable step in a student’s journey to success from a social, academic, and career perspective. Never before have so many opportunities existed that allow a student the time to explore, learn, and grow.
With research pointing to an improved academic performance upon returning to school, and the blessing and encouragement from colleges and universities, perhaps it’s worth considering for your student. While it’s true that great care must be taken in planning a proper gap year for a student who may not be ready for the college experience, the benefits are innumerable.
While we’re on the subject of the road not taken, it’s important for all high school seniors to realize that it’s perfectly acceptable to have a different path in life, on a different timeline. In the grand scheme of things, one year is a relatively negligible amount of time if it truly prepares a student to arrive on campus more mature and focused. This is a student poised for success.
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