Adapted from the NACAC, Steps to College
What is a gap year?
Maybe you're tired of the academic grind. Maybe you're not sure why you're going to college or what you'll do when you get there. Maybe you yearn to explore far-away places or a career that interests you. If this sounds like you, perhaps now is the time to consider taking a year off between high school and college. While there is significant peer pressure, parental pressure, and school pressure to go right on to college, the adventurous few who take time off are richly rewarded, says David Rynick, executive director of Dynamy Internship Year (MA). Taking time off before college gives you the gift of time to learn about two essential things: yourself and the world around you. Of course, if your time off consists of nothing but watching soap operas and eating potato chips, all you'll have at the end is a wasted year. But with research and planning, you can design a semester or year that is both a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
Where Do I Start?
The essential component of successful time off is planning. There are plenty of resources for students, including books, Web sites, and your high school counselor (see below). At your school or public library, look through a guidebook or two on travel, internship, volunteer and other opportunities for high school students. What types of programs appeal to you? Once you have an idea of what opportunities are available, think about goals you should have for your time off. Do you want to travel abroad? Learn a new language or improve your foreign language skills? Help others, either at home or abroad? Explore career interests? Challenge yourself in the outdoors? Have something meaningful that you want to pursue, says Shaun McElroy, director of college counseling, Escuela Campo Alegre, The American School in Caracas Venezuela, who took a year off between high school and college.
What Are My Options?
There are thousands of options for time off, as well as infinite combinations of activities. Some students participate in year-long programs. Others may combine two or more short-term programs, or plan a trip on their own or with friends. Here are some common ways to spend your time off:
Travel: Many organizations offer programs with an emphasis on traveling or living abroad. Or, you may wish to plan your own adventure.
Internships: Spend some time working in a career field that interests you. If you enjoy it, you'll have even more incentive to succeed in your chosen college major. If it's not the field for you, you'll still have plenty of time to explore other career opportunities.
Volunteer work: You can find volunteer programs both in the U.S. and all over the world. You could build houses, work with children, work on environmental projects, or a host of other activities.
Academics: Students who are not pleased with their high school records might consider a postgraduate (PG) year. The goal for a PG year is to strengthen your academic record in the hope of gaining entry to a better college.
Work: Whether you find a job at home or away, a year of work can give you extra funds to pay for college, plus valuable, real-life experience.
What About College?
Once you've decided to take time off, it's tempting to chuck the whole college search until next year. But that's not a good idea, for a number of reasons. First, the college search and application process is much easier while you're still in high school. You have easy access to your school's college resources, your guidance counselor and teachers, and several modes of communication. You don't want to be filling out applications and trying to get counselor recommendations while you're working in the rainforests of South America. Second, having your college plans in place can go a long way toward convincing your parents that you will go back to school after your time off. My parents were scared that I would never go to college, but by applying I demonstrated my seriousness, remembers McElroy. So go ahead and complete the college admission process. Then contact the college you plan to attend and ask that your admission be deferred for a semester or a year. Most colleges are very receptive to students who want to defer their admission. Admission people across the country encourage the idea of time out before matriculation, says Bob Gilpin, owner of Time Out Associations (MA). All of this can make you even busier than your classmates senior year. Taking a year off is actually more work because you should apply and get accepted to college as well as figure out what you are doing for the next year, says McElroy.
What Factors Should I Consider?
Rynick lists these questions for students to consider when planning their time off:
- What do I want to learn?
- How much structure do I want or need?
- Where in the world do I want to be?
- What kinds of things do I want to do?
- What will I do when things get very difficult?
- What is my emergency plan?
Another big factor is your budget. Talk to your family about your plans and about what you can afford. Some programs cost very little; others can be very expensive. Don't forget to plan for living and travel expenses as well as program fees. Students on a limited budget could consider working full-time for a summer or semester to pay for a semester-long program later in the year. As you research and plan, don't limit yourself too much. Take a risk, says McElroy. Living outside of your comfort zone is an important factor in growth. A year off is an adventure, says Rynick. Don't expect it to be easy. Welcome the new challenges you encounter as you enter into the ongoing process of creating the life you want to lead. The real question of life is beyond college credit.