So You Want to Take a Gap Year

“You need to go to college.”

This phrase has become a mantra of sorts to teens and young adults everywhere. Without college, you won’t succeed or find a job. Without college, you won’t be prepared to make it on your own. Jumping right into college after high school, however, isn’t the only choice. Many students nowadays have taken gap years. Instead of entering a post-secondary school right after graduation, they take a year off. This could be to travel, volunteer, work, or pursue other interests. But taking a gap year isn’t just for those graduating high school. Students should know that taking time off after completing a semester or two of college is always possible.

In America especially, there is some hesitancy over the value of the gap year. Some parents fear that if their child takes a year sabbatical, they will never return to school. Others fear that their child’s GPA will fall. While there may be some truth in these reservations, using a gap year can also be positive. Teens and young adults may need this time to re-collect themselves. The pressure to be the best, receive the highest grade marks and participate in every extracurricular possible, can be very tolling. Instead of entering college burnt out, they can take a short break to catch their breath and do something that they really want to do rather than something for the sole purpose of looking good on an application.

Of course, this pressure doesn’t end once college begins. If students feel like they’re not at their best, then maybe thinking about a gap year would be smart. Others may also feel as though they’re not ready for college. They don’t know exactly what they want to do or where they want to go and students often remain undecided even after a year of post-secondary education. Taking the time to really think about this is beneficial. It also gives you an opportunity to mature and become more independent.

There are many gap year programs available, including The Pioneer Project—an organization striving to nurture a sense of purpose, empowerment and independence in young adults through a community-oriented educational experience that focuses on sustainable living and leadership skills—and InnerPathWorks, a self-discovery leadership training program.

Some of these programs, however, are expensive and those taking the year off for financial reasons may feel like they don’t have many options. But some programs, such as AmeriCorps and City Year, are low-cost. AmeriCorps is a program under the Corporation for National and Community Service which places young adults into service positions where they learn valuable work skills, earn money for school and develop an appreciation for community. City Year is an organization with AmeriCorps that places volunteers at schools that have a high drop-out rate. Volunteers work with at-risk students to help establish a positive learning environment where students can achieve their highest potential. And of course, the option to work part- or full-time still remains.

Deciding whether or not to take a gap year is something teens should think about very carefully with their parents or guardians. You shouldn’t go into it thinking that you can laze around or that it’ll be fun. Instead, you should create a plan. One strategy for high school students is to apply to college regardless. The student could then defer enrollment, but leave knowing they have something solid to fall back on. There are actually several post-secondary schools, such as Harvard and Tufts, that support gap year programs.

The second step for all those thinking about a gap year, regardless of age, should be to make a structured plan about what you’ll be doing during this time off. Will you apply to a specific program? Will you work? Will you travel? Having a structured path to follow will help make the gap year meaningful.

The third step is to ensure you have a personal investment in the decision. This could be in terms of a financial investment or a deep passion for the chosen activity.

All of this is not to say that a student needs to take a gap year. Everyone has their own timeline. Some may be ready to head directly into college and others may not. Making this choice depends not on what other people say you should do, but on what you feel, after careful deliberation, is best for you.

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