Most college-bound high school seniors have been itching to head to campus for months, but some savvy new graduates are waiting until next fall to move into the dorms. Gap years, a break between high school and college or other formal education, are fairly common overseas and growing in popularity among U.S. students.
It’s easy to assume that delaying the start of college is primarily a financial decision or the chance to take some extra vacation time before getting out there into the “real world,” but The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explains that a gap year generally provides the opportunity to travel or explore different interests while gaining life experience.
Some parents understandably gasp at the thought of their child waiting to go to college, fearing that formal education will stop at the high school level. Why? Many jump to the conclusion that taking a break from formal education translates into not learning anything.
In reality, though, the real-world wisdom gained during the time “off” is usually invaluable and the majority of students who pursue a gap year do return to school. They also have a tendency to mature faster than those who immerse themselves in the “academic” world, which often consists of frat parties and College Nights. Students learn how to think for themselves and see how others live.
Many students opt for structured gap year programs, such as those planned through groups like Thinking Beyond Borders and AFS. These often involve overseas travel along with volunteering or working in developing countries.
A problem with organized programs is that they can be relatively expensive for budget-conscious students and families. Scholarships and other financial aid programs are sometimes available, but cannot be guaranteed. For that reason some students opt to “create” their own gap year experience by working or volunteering for personal development in their own community or elsewhere in the United States, which can cost considerably less than traveling overseas.
Research on gap years has been fairly limited in the U.S., where the number of students who defer college for a year after high school is estimated to be between two and ten percent. Comparatively, more than half of students in Norway, Denmark, and Turkey take a yearlong break between high school and college, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education.
Tina Hoe, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, is studying the effects that gap years have on students here in the U.S. “This has the potential to be a very, very important part of our understanding of college readiness and success,” she told USA Today.
The American Gap Association, an accrediting and standards-setting organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, even reports that gap year students are much more likely to be happy or satisfied with their post-college careers. Over half of survey respondents felt that completing a gap year either helped confirm or choose their choice of college major or career.
There are often other multiple benefits, too. Most gap year students:
Before you decide to drop everything and fly to another country before the fall semester, there are plenty of things to consider. US News presents these and other relevant questions:
Should you apply to colleges before or after your gap year? It’s generally recommended to apply while you are still in high school. Your grades and test scores are current and it may be difficult to communicate with a college if you are overseas. Most colleges and universities will allow a one-year deferment after acceptance if a structured gap year plan is presented.
Will you be able to get financial aid for college after taking time off? If you qualify for financial aid but decide to wait another year before beginning your college education, you will have to fill out the FAFSA again the following year—something that is required annually anyway. Assuming your family’s financial situation hasn’t changed dramatically, your eligibility should remain about the same.
Can you financially afford a gap year? There are affordable options out there, if you know where to look and how to plan. Some programs provide food and lodging in exchange and possibly even stipends for living expenses for volunteer work.
It’s not ideal for everyone and it takes a lot of planning and effort, but taking a break between high school and college can help prevent academic “burnout” while seeing how other people live and improving communication skills. The experience and the skills you gain may even help your resume stand out from the crowd.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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