Should your child take a gap year?

Here’s what curious high school seniors and their perplexed parents need to know about taking a year off before starting college.

There is a growing trend for students to take a year off between their high school graduation and the start of their college career, which has been termed a “gap year.” Gap years are commonplace especially in Europe and other parts of the world, but they are getting increasingly popular in the U.S. The Associated Press estimates that 30,000-40,000 students participate in a gap year, with a 22% increase from 2014 to 2015. Top notch schools like Harvard, Yale, Georgia Tech, and Cornell even encourage their students to take these breaks between high school and college, with more schools adopting the practice every year.

As part of our Career Quest program, we often hear parents ask, “Should my son or daughter take a gap year?” A gap year is when a high school graduate, who has been admitted to college, formally asks the institution to delay their start date and the school agrees. Gaps do not have to be twelve months long; in fact, they usually aren’t. About 70 percent of “gappers” only take one semester off. Students may spend their time in multiple, varied pursuits — working, traveling, volunteering, interning.

What do teens do during their gap years?

Teens use their gap years in multiple ways, depending on their goals, their family’s needs, and their budget. If tuition funds are short, your teen can work and save money for school. If boosting your teen’s maturity is the goal, or they want to travel and learn more about themselves, there are service programs that relocate teens to domestic and international environments that demand independence, resilience, and fortitude. If your child wants to explore career directions, they can apply for local and international internships. Another option is to explore academic interests by taking a wide variety of classes at your local community college. Sampling* a few subjects of interest in an inexpensive, low-stakes environment is an excellent way to determine what major(s) to pursue at a pricier institution.

While there is no ideal gap year activity, Mike Devlin, Stanford University’s Acting Director of Admission, advises, “We believe a gap year should be fueled by activities, or exploration of an idea, about which students are passionate. That type of experience can be beneficial to the school and our greater campus community. Students who take a gap year arrive at Stanford with more maturity both socially and in the classroom.”

Here are a few things to keep in mind when talking with your child about a potential gap year:

Reasons to explore a gap year:

  • Prevents academic burn-out in students. Nationwide, almost 1/3  of first-year college students fail to return for the sophomore year.
  • Offers experiential educational opportunities and explore career interests
  • Students are more mature when they arrive at college and more confident and engaged in their education going forward
  • Can provide rewarding life experiences provided it is embedded in a strategic career and professional development plan
  • Potentially lowers college debt and save money in the long run; either by having a student work during their gap year or helping to clarify what major will fit best, thus prevent a student from switch colleges, majors, or taking extra classes to “find their fit.”

Reasons to avoid a gap year:

  • The most successful gap years are pre-planned.  Typically, students proposing a gap year have a plan in place, and they will need to share that plan with their future school when they ask for a delayed start.
  • Research is needed to make sure if you are sending your child to an organized program that the program is reputable, targeted towards your child’s goals, and cost effective
  • Don’t use a gap year purely as a means of biding time while holding out for admission or transfer to a better college

To learn more about JFCS’ Career Quest services and how they can be of help to your son or daughter, be it for a “Gap Year” or otherwise, contact Erin Heakin at 502 452 6341 ext. 246 or [email protected].

*If your teen wants to take classes during their gap year, there are two important caveats to keep in mind. First, make sure taking classes elsewhere doesn’t violate their college’s gap year policy. Second, find out how those classes — and grades — will be treated by your child’s accepted school.

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