Photograph by ©UBER IMAGES /stock.adobe.com
A college degree is one of the largest expenses a family faces. As the cost of higher education continues to skyrocket, parents and students are wise to put considerable thought into this lifetime investment. As a result, more and more families are evaluating the benefits of a gap year. Long a staple in the U.K., the concept of taking a year between high school and college to work, travel and volunteer is developing a following here in America. (Perhaps helping the trend is that former President’s daughter, Malia Obama, took a gap year prior to beginning her freshman year at Harvard.)
Recognizing the benefits of having incoming freshmen who arrive more mature and prepared, most colleges allow students to defer their start by a year and some have gap year programs for accepted students.
Elon Freshman Annabel Lindh took a gap year. “I think taking a gap year was one of the best decisions I ever made. It taught me so many important life lessons that students who went directly into university missed,” says the Greenwich High School grad. “I could tell when I arrived at Elon that I had more experience and maturity than some of my other classmates. The professors noticed, and it helped me get on-campus jobs right off the bat. A lot of my friends have told me that their greatest regret is not taking a gap year. ”
Here, we list some things students and families interested in a gap year should do before deciding.
1. Do the Research
Area parents who have gone through the process agree that the best place to start is at a local Gap Year Fair. USA Gap Year hosts fairs across the country, stopping annually in January at Scarsdale High School and in New York City at the United Nations International School. It gives families the opportunity to gather information and speak to program providers; it is also a great first step in considering the options—ranging from service projects to real-world work experience, to travel and language immersion programs.
Another approach is to hire a professional gap year consultant. Agencies that consult in private, boarding and college application processes often provide guidance in gap years as well.
2. Visit Your High School Counselor
When considering a gap year, talk to your high school’s college advisor. They will likely have great advice on programs that former students have enjoyed. At Greenwich High School, College and Career Counselor Alison Lochridge cautions students against taking a costly gap year with the primary hope of reapplying to a school that he or she was not initially accepted into. She also strongly suggests moving forward with the college application process, even if the student is committed to a gap year.
Many colleges have thoroughly embraced the concept of a gap year. Harvard routinely sends out a deferment form with its acceptance letter making them aware of the option. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a fund earmarked for students taking a gap year. Its Global Gap Year Fellowship allows students to design their own experience with the support and guidance of the UNC staff. American University’s program provides participants residency on campus and an internship three days a week in the D.C. area in addition to seven credits of college-level classes. Princeton offers a tuition-free program allowing select incoming freshman to begin their college experience by engaging in a nine-month university sponsored service program at one of five international locations. At Tufts, The Tisch College’s innovative program provides accepted students the opportunity to learn from a year of full-time community service and offers needs-based support to help defray the cost of the program.
These programs are an additional application process after a student has been accepted for admittance. If a gap year is a priority for students, then doing the research ahead of time to determine what universities provide programs may help students in their college selection choice.
4. Keep Your Options Open
Annabel’s mother, Sandy, points out that Annabel’s plans evolved as opportunities presented themselves during her year. She points out that it was key for Annabel to plan much of her own travel and work experiences and leave room for spontaneity. “I think it’s important that we don’t plan the whole thing in advance,” she says of planning for her second daughter, Sophie’s gap year. “Just like Annabel, Sophie is going to mature and change her passions so she might want to do different things than she thought when she was in high school. Flexibility is key.”