Gap year

Is a Gap Year the Right Choice for My Student?

Although most of our At The Core parents are looking for information about college, other post high school paths — like a career or the military — are just as important. No one path is suitable for every child. Sometimes the best choice is a “break” from the path. A gap year is a semester or year-long pause between high school and college. As parents, we may struggle with the concept of a gap year. Does this mean my child won’t go to college? What will they do during this year? How is a gap year beneficial?

What are some good clues that it’s time to look into a gap year?

Students take gap years when they:

  • are burnt out from high school academics
  • are unsure of the best next steps to take
  • need to earn some money
  • need time to build their skills or perhaps learn a new language
  • want to have new experiences
  • want to make a difference

One of our favorite authors, Jeff J. Selingo, said in his book There Is Life After College:

“For a gap year to have a significant impact on success in college, and later in the working world, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything a student has experienced before—a meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world…It should also be designed to help students acquire the skills and attributes that colleges and employers are looking for: maturity, confidence, problem solving, communication skills, and independence.”

Before we dig into the specifics of gap year programs, here’s one key thing to keep in mind. The planning of a gap year needs to be driven by your student. You are there step-by-step to provide support as needed, but one benefit of the experience is the responsibility and the growth a student gains by driving this conversation.

How does the process work?

Ideally, students apply to college in their senior year with the other students in their class. While you can choose to apply to college after high school graduation in the midst of the gap year, you will have less support and likely more stress. Generally, students can apply and request that their college start date be deferred by one year. If the student is accepted, the college agrees to hold a spot in the following year’s freshman class. (You can find a sample of college deferral policies here. Click the orange “Deferral Policies for Gap Years” button and find your state from their list.)

Students who take a gap year will be a year older than their freshman peers. The extra experience and maturity can be a benefit. They are more confident and prepared as they enter college.

If you didn’t apply to college during high school…

Perhaps your student really had no sense of why they are going to college and thus need a gap year, you may not be ready to apply during high school. That’s Ok, too. The process of applying to college during or after your gap year will be more complex, but still completely doable.

Will you need an ACT or SAT score? (They are good for five years.) Letters of recommendation will not be saved by your high school, and they will need to be sent privately from the letter’s author to the college. Transcripts will need to be requested from the high school, and they’ll have a different process for graduates as compared to the process used for high school seniors. The application essay will be a great place to tell colleges about your gap year experience and how that impacted your journey/growth.

What types of gap year programs are there?

Gap year programs can be structured or unstructured and can include:

  • Paid employment
  • Unpaid internships
  • Volunteering
  • Travel
  • Part-time college coursework or simply learning something new (Be careful about earning college credit. The student’s intended college may prohibit the earning of credit while on deferred status.)

Structured programs

Structured programs offered by outside companies are a popular way to plan a gap year. They have many different choices for many different interests. Be sure they are trusted programs. The Gap Year Association maintains a list of accredited GYA members. Many more programs exist. Programs like these are perfect to explore a passion, travel, and get hands-on experiential learning not available in school.

These programs can be costly, so careful planning is required. Explore scholarship opportunities and weigh the impact on your family’s budget. This article from Capstone Wealth Partners has some other financial considerations.

Unstructured programs

Unstructured programs are the plans you and your student make together. Does your student want to get a job to earn some money? Do they want to volunteer or explore the world? Creating your own plan allows you to craft a unique strategy to fit your child and your family. However, you won’t have the benefit of the experienced professionals to guide you and the security of a structured program.

Know your student’s goals

Why are they taking a gap year? What do they want to learn, experience, and achieve? Be sure the plan fulfills those needs. Click here for a great planning guide: Gap Year Planning Guide from GYA.

A gap year requires careful thought and planning, but it can be truly one of those life changing moments. While the costs require careful consideration, the options are endless, and the potential benefits are enormous.

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