Colleges across the country are increasingly becoming aware of and even encouraging students to take a gap year. But the definition of a gap year is broad, and figuring out how to make the most of the experience can be challenging.
According to the American Gap Association, a gap year is typically taken between high school and college to “deepen practical, professional and personal awareness.” Colleges are adopting deferral policies with hopes that students will later arrive on campus with more focus and direction for their futures.
But achieving greater awareness and college readiness won’t come simply from taking a year off to play video games or backpack through Europe. Consider the following steps to help plan for the best gap year possible.
The AGA’s 2015 National Alumni Survey reports the greatest motivations for taking a gap year are to gain life experiences, to travel and to take a break from academics. Within these motivators, it’s important to set actionable goals.
“What does the student want to do? Do they want to work with people, or do they want to learn a language? Do they want to earn money?” asked Matthew Redman, vice president of high school abroad programs at the Council on International Educational Exchange. “These are fundamental questions that need to be answered in a goal-setting conversation with a student.”
This type of conversation can be guided by a parent, high school or college admissions counselor, or a gap-year counselor.
“Gap-year counselors are often overlooked,” said Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the AGA. “They provide life coaching and logistics.” He added that a list of professional gap-year counselors is available on the AGA website.
Whether you participate in a gap year program or chart your own course, try to surround yourself with people who can help hold you accountable to your goals.
“Make a cohort of peers who are going to hold you accountable and share the experience with you,” advised Abby Falik, founder and chief executive of Global Citizen Year. “You can connect online or in person.”
Global Citizen Year is a gap-year fellowship program that provides training, home stays and apprenticeships worldwide.
Finding peers with common goals can also help ease fears of missing out as others head straight to college.
“Kids’ biggest barrier (to taking a gap year) is a fear of missing out,” Falik said. “They’re worried about being a year older or getting behind their peers.”
“I predict one day the fear of missing out will not be about taking the year but about not taking the year,” she added.
Explore a career
Knight of the American Gap Association said every gap year should include career exploration or an internship.
“A gap year should inform what you want to do for the rest of your life,” he said.
Oftentimes, after taking the time to work in a field, students change their minds about what they want to study in college, Falik said.
“A student can go in thinking they want to be a doctor, and after a year working in a health clinic, they realize they don’t want to be a doctor,” she said. “We’re helping them try on things that they thought were preset decisions, and they arrive at college knowing what they want and why they want it.”
A side benefit to working abroad is gaining fluency in another language, as well as “cultural competency,” as Redman said.
“Mastering another language in a workplace provides a better concept of relating to someone else,” said Pierre Le Gall, a marketing manager at the CIEE, a nonprofit study-abroad organization with ties to more than 300 colleges and 1,000 U.S. high schools. “Even though you might not use Spanish every day in your next job, you take the capacity to have empathy for others.”
Leave room to say yes
Going into the year with a plan is essential, but be sure to leave room for the unknown.
“Leave some space for the free radical,” Knight said. “New things will arise. You may never have known your dream job was out there. You have to leave space for that to be explored.”
A little freedom to explore may be exactly what a student needs during a gap year.
“High school has become this high-stakes game to get into college,” Falik said. “Kids are so focused on this singular goal that they’re lacking opportunities to explore their own interests.”
Amar Hussain, editor of travel website GapYearEscape.com, added: “Those that make the most of their gap years are the ones who put themselves out of their comfort zone. It’s in those situations where you really learn about yourself.”
Emily Perschbacher is a freelancer.