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How to know if a gap year is right for your student

Here's a guide to what a gap year is and whether it might be the right option for your student.

You may have heard of students taking a gap year before, but do you understand what it entails, why someone would consider taking one, or if it might be the right option for your student? The transition to life after high school is often confusing to navigate for students and parents alike. Throw a gap year into the mix and it can be hard to identify what is best for your child. Here’s what families should know.

What is a gap year?

While taking a gap year has yet to be considered a mainstream option in the United States, research shows its “interest and enrollment trends continue to grow.” Still, some parents may be wondering, what is a gap year? According to Dr. Shari Sevier, director of advocacy for Missouri School Counselor Association, a gap year is simply “taking a year off from education.” Typically, it’s associated with (but not limited to) the period when a student has finished high school but has yet to begin college. So, why might a student, their parents, or even their school, be in favor of taking a year off from education? Well, there are a multitude of reasons, and how a student chooses to spend their gap year depends on their ultimate objective.

Why take a gap year?

To gain experience

While a gap year can be a good moment for students to “pause” and reevaluate, it doesn’t have to be a halt on all productivity. In fact, according to Gap Year Association, in 2015, 92% of students elected to pursue a gap year in order to gain experience or perspective before entering college. However, what this looks like varies depending on the individual. Some students may want to dive deeper into a field of interest prior to majoring in it by seeking out an internship or apprenticeship. Others may be uncertain of what they’d like to study, and instead look into a variety of options. If your child is unsure of where to begin, Dr. Wendy Rock, assistant professor of counseling at Southeastern Louisiana University, suggests taking classes that enable students to explore potential career paths while developing the skill set required for it, such as learning to code or studying a second language.

Additionally, many students taking a gap year seize the opportunity to engage in volunteer work or expose themselves to another culture by traveling abroad. These students may apply to specific programs, or plan their own service trip. There are also those who elect to take a gap year because they didn’t get into their school of choice, and they want to take time to build up their application and experience. Stephen Handel, executive director of higher education at The College Board, says while high school transcripts will still be a factor in a college’s decision to accept a student, taking a gap year may provide them a chance to add more color to their resume, illustrating why they’d be an asset to the school’s student body.

To avoid burnout

Another reason a student may opt for a gap year is to avoid burnout. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2015, 30% of high school students in the United States experienced symptoms of depression. Additionally, National Institute of Mental Health found 32% of U.S. teenagers aged 13 – 18 had an anxiety disorder. While there are a variety of factors – from social media to financial strain – tied to the mental health crisis among adolescents, one major issue is the growing pressure put upon young people. “If we have kids who are so anxious and so stressed out after high school, taking a gap year to get their mental health in order can be very important,” Sevier says. “Too often we send the message that it’s not okay to not be okay, but sometimes you just need to prioritize.” That’s not to say all students taking a gap year are dealing with mental health issues – some may simply want a break from the stress of school – but those who are diagnosed with mental illness might need to take time to seek therapy and treatment before enrolling in college.

To save money

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from January 2006 to July 2016, the Consumer Price Index for college tuition and fees increased 63%, while consumer prices for college textbooks increased 88% and housing at school increased 51%, and students are paying the price. This may not come as a surprise to many families, however, as the issue of student loan debt has affected many students nationwide. Because of this, some young adults may get a job to save money and mitigate the risk of falling into debt. The benefits of this can extend beyond just a number in the bank account, as they’ll develop their financial literacy skills and ideally be more aware of the potential expenses that can add up in college.

To mature

When teenagers are in high school, we understand their bodies – and their brains – are going through continual development. However, by the time they emerge as young adults, we expect this process to have completed, but this is not the case. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the adolescent brain continues to “rewire,” or form connections, until a person reaches 25 years old. Rock says it’s not unusual for a student to need some additional time to mature and develop both their executive functioning skills – or the “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks” – as well as their life skills, such as doing laundry or managing a budget, before enrolling in college.

What are potential risks?

For many students, gap years can offer robust opportunities for personal and professional growth, but the rising trend does have its critics. The primary concern lies in the risk of students neglecting to enroll in college altogether after delaying it for a year – an issue that disproportionately affects “delayed entrants who are racial minorities, come from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds, and have parents who are not college-educated,” according to a National Center for Education Statistics study. Richard Weissbourd, a development psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explains, “You worry that if kids go to work for a year or step off the path in some way, they’re not going to come back.” Still, studies show 90% of students who took a gap year did return to college within a year – and they were statistically better off. A recent study at Middlebury College found “students who took a gap year almost always over performed academically in college.” What’s more, the study found they’re reaping the benefits far beyond college, as “students who have taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs.”

Similar to the issue of time, many gap year programs also require money, which is why they’ve traditionally been regarded as an option only for wealthier families. However, there are some programs, such as City Year or University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship, that offer financial aid and compensation to participants, making them a viable option for all students regardless of socioeconomic status.

How can my student best prepare?

Have a goal

First, start with purpose. According to Handel, gap years can be “highly individualized” and it’s important that a student uses the time effectively to focus on something. “If you’re going to do a gap year, make it count, have a plan and make sure it’s in line with your goals for life,” Handel says. Does your student want to travel abroad? Are they trying to make some money before heading off to college? Or do they need some time to explore their interests through volunteer work? Make sure your student has a productive reason for wanting to take a gap year.

It’s also worth considering if a gap year is the best route to achieve those goals. Sevier suggests doing additional research to see if their reasoning for taking a gap year, such as having an opportunity to travel or saving money, can be met while enrolled in college through study abroad programs, community service projects, or on-campus jobs. While this may not be a traditional gap year, these opportunities still provide the chance to engage in meaningful experiences.

Make a plan

Once they’ve established their objective for taking a gap year, students should begin mapping out their course of action. Plans may look different, depending on what they’re aiming to achieve. For example, some students may be deferring enrollment for a year, which means they plan to attend their school of choice a year after they’ve been accepted. If this is your student, they’ll need to ensure they understand the college’s policy on students deferring enrollment. “Students need to reach out to the school and see what their options are, because they may need to reapply the following year, which means there’s no guarantee they’ll be admitted again, as they’ll be competing against a new pool of applicants,” Handel says. He also cautions, even if a student has their school’s approval, they need to make sure it’s in writing. “Also, if they’ve been offered scholarship money or financial aid, they’ll want to check to see if this will be affected by deferring enrollment,” Sevier adds.

If there’s a financial component to your student’s gap year, they’ll want to ensure they get a job beforehand and lay out how they plan to save. If it’s about avoiding burnout, they should seek out experiences that could change their perspective on the world. If they’re looking to be involved in a program, they’ll have to be aware of potential application deadlines.

For those whose student’s only plan is to “wing it,” Sevier has three words of advice for parents: “Just say no.” The more research and planning a student puts in prior to their gap year, the more they’ll end up getting out of it. However, accurate preparation isn’t limited to making a list, or checking a few boxes. “For possibly the first time in their lives, students taking a gap year will be pursuing an alternative path from their peers, and they should be ready to ask themselves how that might make them feel,” Handel advises.

Get support

While a gap year is a student’s personal experience, they don’t have to do it alone. “School counselors are an excellent resource to help guide the transition,” Rock says. School counselors specialize in supporting students in academics, social and emotional development, and college and career readiness. Because of this, they have a comprehensive understanding of the individual student, their needs, and how to best meet them. They may also have some additional insight on what a student can do during their gap year, and whether it’s a good option for them. Students could also contact campus counselors at the college they plan on attending to explore how to best utilize their time, given their intended major, and how it’ll translate to their overall career.

Find your story

Every student has their own reason for taking a gap year, but what matters is what they learn from it. While Handel warns that taking a gap year may not always make a student more “academically competitive,” it can speak well on an individual’s character, curiosity, and ambition. If a student intends on applying to schools following their gap year, they should develop their narrative by reflecting on how taking a gap year enabled them to grow and contribute to the world.