Back when I graduated from high school, a gap year seemed to be largely a foreign concept. You either were going to college, or you weren’t. If you said you were planning to take a year off from school, everyone figured it meant you weren’t college material — you just weren’t ready to admit it yet.
Oh, how times have changed. Today, there are numerous organizations committed to promoting the virtues of a gap year, even going so far as to arrange it for you. It’s hard to track the number of students who take gap years because many do so informally, but the Higher Education Research Institute reportedly estimated that 1.2 percent of college students, roughly 35,000 of them, deferred admission in 2011 to take a gap year.
If you’re in high school or are the parent of a soon-to-be graduate, keep reading for more on what a gap year entails and whether it’s a smart choice for you.
The mainstreaming of the gap year
A gap year is just what it sounds like. It’s a gap in your formal education, typically taken between your high school senior year and your college freshman year. However, students may take gap years between undergraduate and graduate studies.
I imagine in the “olden days” hippie high-school graduates may have hitchhiked across the country or backpacked across Europe in a quest to find themselves, but maybe I’m stereotyping. Today, graduates on a gap year may be more likely to sign up for an organized program that has the potential to be just as rigorous as a year in school.
What I find particularly interesting about gap years is how they are now being embraced by schools like Harvard. These colleges and universities accept high school students through the traditional application process and then let them defer enrolling for a year, or up to two if military service is involved.
But is it a good idea?
If you ask any of the organizations committed to promoting gap years, the answer is a resounding yes. Of course, you have to keep in mind that some of these groups make their money by selling travel and other services to gap-year students. They have a vested interest in persuading people to take a year off.
Still they can provide a long list of studies that support their assertion that a gap year has positive benefits. These benefits include the possibility of avoiding burnout, broadening cross-cultural understanding and confirming an intended career path.
Yet, another study found little difference in the outcomes of students who took a gap year compared to those who didn’t, except that the gap year students were more likely drop out. However, in all fairness, the number of dropouts could be related to the fact many kids take a gap year because they’re uncertain about the future of their education. That uncertainty could lead some to eventually throw up their hands and walk away from a degree.
The conflicting studies make it hard to decide, right?
What to do during a gap year
It may be there is no definitive answer to whether a gap year is a wise move. Like so many things in life, it could depend largely on the student and his or her goals. If you decide to go the gap year route, sleeping until noon and binge-watching Netflix each night might be setting yourself up to become a future dropout.
Do one of these five things instead:
1. Volunteer your time
Volunteering is a great way to get out of the house, gain some real-world experience and have something extra to slap on your resume. Even better, you can volunteer for work related to practically any interest and cause. Check out these sites for opportunities:
2. Travel abroad
Seeing the world is a popular way to spend a gap year, but it can turn into a money pit or a nonstop party if you don’t give yourself some direction. Combining travel with volunteerism can be one way to get a cross-cultural experience without wandering aimlessly. Like volunteering domestically, there are plenty of organizations ready to help you volunteer abroad:
- Peace Corps (requires a two-year commitment)
- Volunteer Africa
- International Volunteer Programs Association
- Projects Abroad
Some of these programs don’t come cheap. The Global Gap option through Projects Abroad has a $30,000 price tag, for instance. So you’ll definitely want to do a little due diligence before signing up and forking over any cash.
3. Start a business
Rather than spending money, you could be making money during your gap year. The year between high school and college might be a good time to stretch your entrepreneurial muscles. Assuming you have no family to support, you may feel free to take the plunge and risk failing spectacularly without ruining your life forever.
But no one wants to set out to fail. Check in with your local branch of SCORE, a nonprofit that provides mentorship to entrepreneurs, to see if your plans pass muster. If money is in short supply, you could give crowdfunding a try.
4. Intern in your chosen industry
Maybe you’re not the small-business type. In fact, maybe you don’t know your type, period. In that case, an internship might be the perfect way to test the waters of a potential career path. Since you have a full year, you don’t have to limit yourself to only one; you could try several over the course of the year.
An internship could be something you set up for yourself or you could go through an established program. Here are a couple of places to find them.
5. Find your purpose
The last thing you should do during your gap year is hopefully something supported by all the above items. It’s finding your purpose in your life.
Yes, it’s a bit too ambitious to think you’ll discover the meaning of life during a year off, but you should at least scratch the surface. Having a year between classes – a rare period in life of relative freedom and few responsibilities – is a gift that shouldn’t be squandered.
Finding your purpose doesn’t have to be limited to finding your employment vocation. It can also mean looking deeper into your inner principles. That could mean personal study in an area of interest to you, a religious pilgrimage or a year spent in service. The point is that you don’t want to come to the end of your gap year and have nothing emotionally, intellectually or physically to show for it.
As a final note on a gap year, make sure you apply for college and defer enrollment if the option is available. Time has a way of slipping through our fingers. Don’t assume you’ll apply for school during your gap year; you may find the year is over before you start your first essay. Instead, apply while you have momentum in high school and then you’ll have a clear end date to your gap year and the start of your postsecondary education.
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