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Navigating a Gap Year

Gifted Education and Support

This Tips for Parents article authored by Holly Bull is from a seminar they hosted for Young Scholar families. They provide advice on the “gap year” process.

What is a gap year?
A gap year is time typically taken by a student between high school and college, or during college. And the term “gap year” does not always have to mean a full year of activities. Some students will take just a semester and the reality is that gap time can be tailored to whatever period of time one may have to work with.

Who takes a gap year?
Any kind of student can take a gap year. It is for anyone interested in doing so (parents included!)

Why take a gap year?
The reasons and benefits are numerous. Here are just a few:

  1. It is easier to take this kind of time to explore interests during one’s student years.
  2. There is a natural break between high school and college.
  3. K-12 years of schooling can, and often do, lead to academic burnout.
  4. Students have a hand in choosing and creating their lives for a year.
  5. There is a chance to focus outward, be of service, and gain a sense of relevance of classroom study to the world.
  6. Students can explore interests hands-on and potentially pinpoint a passion, or at least determine what isn’t.
  7. In-the-world experience builds self-confidence and independence.
  8. Students gain concrete skills and generate more effective resumes.
  9. A gap year can improve one’s college admission options.
  10. Students gain a clearer sense of college studies and what to major in.
  11. Instead of the national average of 5-6 years to finish college, gap year students tend to be more focused, less apt to change majors or schools, and more likely to graduate within four years.
  12. The added maturity and life experience from a gap year makes for an easier transition to college and, later on, from college into the work world.

The only good reason I have heard not to take gap time is if, after hearing the wide range of possibilities available, a student still isn’t interested or drawn to the option.

What constitutes a gap year program option?
Gap year options range from set gap year group programs with gap year peers and leaders, to skill-based options, to job-like internships, apprenticeships, or volunteer work. Length of time varies from full year programs, to three-month semester options, to month-by-month, down to as short as a weekend intensive.

What this means is that a student can explore many different areas of interest during a gap year, weaving combinations of experiences together for varying lengths of time.

What is the structure of a gap year?
Typically, most students follow an academic calendar type schedule.

My own gap year fit this norm:

June-August – worked a local job to help pay for all airfare during my year
Sept-Dec – aquaculture internship in Hawaii – volunteer
Dec – home for holidays, college applications
Jan-May – academic cultural semester in Greece with peers
June-Aug – travel and then working a local job again
Sept – college

What common concerns do parents have?
Parents are often concerned about safety, cost, whether or not their child will continue on, or return to, college following a gap year, and what colleges think of a gap year.

The benefit of structured group programs with leaders means that someone is looking out for your child. Do your own due diligence by asking to speak with program alumni. The best question to ask them is “What was the worst aspect of your experience with this program?” I will put in a plug here for using a gap year counselor because they know the programs well and can save you a lot of time and hassle. And they can offer options you might not even think to search for.

There is an array of low cost placements available so that a gap year does not have to be an expensive venture. If a student does nothing but room and board (housing and food provided) options in the US, the cost is very low on all counts. One can also combine a “splurge” with a room and board placement.

Based on statistical research done by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson (authors of The Gap Year Advantage) 90% of American gap year students continued on to college within 6 months to a year of their gap time and the remaining 10% took more than a year due to a family illness/issue or the desire to take more time to explore. Anecdotally, I can say from my twenty years of being a gap year counselor that most gap year students continue on to college with far more vigor, focus, and maturity.

And colleges are increasingly aware of this. Mary Lou Bates, Dean of Admissions at Skidmore College, spoke on a NACAC gap year panel with me and said that Skidmore has been tracking incoming gap year freshmen and finding that their GPAs are invariably several percentage points higher than their peers. And Bob Claggett, head of Middlebury College admissions, asserted in Time Magazine’s 9/21/10 issue that a single gap semester was the strongest indicator of academic achievement at Middlebury. Harvard University has been endorsing the gap year option for years and Princeton University has recently created the Bridge Year which is, in essence, a partially PU funded gap year that students can take before commencing four years at Princeton. Colleges know they are more likely to get a mature and academically clear freshman following a gap year.

What common concerns do students have?
Students bring up the potential issue of feeling behind their senior class in high school or being too old as a college freshman.

The reality is that gap year students and their fellow high school seniors are on a parallel track, some heading to college, some to a gap year. And most gap year students engage in at least one group gap year program with like-minded peers so they generally do not end up feeling out of the peer loop.

There is no question that gap year students are older, and not just chronologically, but luckily students aren’t as age-bound in college as in high school, and any potential disjoint is usually worth the extraordinary benefits derived from gap year experiences.

Gap Year Resources:
The Center for Interim Programs’ website is full of information and resources that anyone can utilize. Please feel free to visit our site at your leisure: www.interimprograms.com

Specifically, see the “Travel Tips and Tools” link, as well as “Interim in the News” for gap year articles, books, and other media.

The following are some of the gap year books available:

  • The Complete Guide to the Gap Year, Kristin White
  • Children of Fast-Track Parents, Andrew Brooks
  • Coming Into Our Own, Mark Gerzon
  • The Gap-Year Advantage, Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson
  • Success Without College, Linda Lee
  • Taking Time Off, (The Princeton Review) Colin Hall and Ron Lieber
  • Teenage Liberation Handbook, Grace Llewellyn
  • Teenager’s Guide to School Outside the Box, Rebecca Green
  • Time Out, Robert Gilpin and Caroline Fitzgibbons
  • The Uncollege Alternative, Danielle Wood
  • Where’s the Map?, Beth and James Hood

Another good resource is the recent advent of the annual nationwide gap year fairs. These take place in public and private high schools across the US and are open to the general public. Usually 20-30 gap year programs will participate and you can speak with program representatives and attend an informational talk. Typically, programs that attend these fairs are more the group gap year program variety with fees attached; the fairs, therefore, do not fully represent the variety of options that are possible and one should not assume that the cost of a gap year has to be high as a result. The following website is for the fairs: https://usagapyearfairs.org/.

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