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Choosing the Right Gap Year Program

Kimberly Yavorski

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Though gap years have been around for decades, many parents are just recently hearing about them. Once thought of as a perk for the wealthy, today a gap year is available to anyone.

The American Gap Association (AGA), an accreditation organization formed in 2012 which lists programs and financial aid opportunities on its website, reports that up to 40,000 U.S. students annually choose this path and the number is increasing. USA Gap Year Fairs holds over 40 events each year that help connect students with programs and counselors; this organization also awards gap year scholarships.

Something to know: all gap year experiences aren’t created equal.

While students who participate in a structured gap year program between high school and college tend to have higher college GPAs than those who go straight to college, the AGA emphasizes that a gap year should involve “increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers.”

Students need to look at why they want to take a gap year and what they hope to gain from it. If the goal is to learn a new language or to test out work experience to help determine a major course of study, they’ll consider different programs than if the goal is to learn to be more independent, to test personal limits in the outdoors, and/or to gain leadership experience.

Step 1 — Contact the college or university.

If your student is a current high school senior who has paid the deposit to enroll at a college or university this fall, they need to contact the admissions office immediately to ask about the school’s deferral policy. Schools that grant deferrals for students taking gap years may offer suggestions and guidelines — certainly there will be paperwork to do.

Not all universities permit gap year deferrals; in many cases, students taking gap years need to reapply for admission the following year.

Was your student awarded financial aid? They should ask about this as well. Will they keep their award? Will it automatically adjust if tuition rises? Some gap year programs completed for credit may affect your student’s status and potentially impact their financial aid package.

Step 2 — Sit down together.

  • Encourage your student to outline their goals for a gap year.
  • Next, make a budget. How much can you afford to contribute to their gap year and/or how much will they contribute? Will they work for part of the year to save money? Apply for scholarships? Do they need to design a gap year plan that involves paid work?

Step 3 — Find (or build) the perfect program.

School-sponsored programs

The first place to look when searching for gap year programs is the college or university your student plans to attend. Some colleges (primarily elite private institutions) have their own programs which are partially or fully funded. Princeton University’s nine-month Bridge Year Program matches students with worldwide community service projects, tuition-free. American University’s Gap Year Program, designed for business and politics students, combines college courses with an internship. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill offers scholarships through their highly selective Global Gap Year Fellowship. Middlebury College and Harvard University are both proponents of gap years and offer suggestions on their websites which may be of interest to your student even if they won’t attend or apply to these schools.

Internships and fellowships

Internships have almost become a necessity as college students prep for the job market, and are a part of many college major requirements. For those unsure what they want to study, a gap year is a way to “try on” a job or field before committing to a major.

Recognizing that internships can be tough to find, some schools, such as Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, provide students with a list of suggestions for gap year programs and/or post-graduate fellowships. Most of these are not college-specific, so it is worth checking out the websites of colleges in your area even if your student will attend another school. American University’s Gap Program provides accepted students with resources to secure an internship, including a database of over 3,000 available internships in the Washington D.C. area.

Service/volunteer programs

Americorps and City Year are government-sponsored volunteer organizations that not only provide service opportunities, but also a possible education award to be used toward college tuition. Students interested in working outdoors should look into the Student Conservation Association, where in addition to experience, they may earn a stipend or academic credit. The Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) has an intensive gap year program that works with community development organizations to help find, develop and implement solutions.

Volunteering has the obvious benefit of making the world a better place, but also often provides students with interpersonal skills and hands-on experience that will certainly prove useful later in life.

Adventure/outdoor programs

For some, spending time outdoors provides the best opportunity to find themselves. Perhaps your outdoor-loving student is struggling with what they want to do when they grow up and craving a break from the classroom environment. Several months or a year living and working outdoors may be just what they need. National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound both offer gap year options. Students in these programs gain real-life experience as well as confidence and leadership skills. Students pursuing any discipline can benefit from the self-discovery and interpersonal skills gained; some will discover unexpected career opportunities.

Do It Yourself

DIY is a more challenging option, but students who either can't find or can't afford a more structured program can make it work. A job in another country (such as an au pair or English language teacher) will enable your student to improve their foreign language skills while experiencing a new culture. Backpacking —a lower cost/less structured option to packaged travel plans — can be done domestically or overseas.

Perhaps your student needs to sharpen their academic skills before starting college, or is unsure what path to follow. Taking individual courses can help set them up for later success as a full-time student. Or maybe they need to raise more money to cover college costs. Working will provide an income and also real-life experience.

Keep in mind that a gap year should be a time for reflection and growth — not just a year to travel and play, or to work at the same job they had through high school.

Step 4 — Ensure a good fit.

As when choosing a college, gap year “fit” is important. For your student to be successful, the program must match their needs and interests. With so many options, you need to do some research to ensure a program is useful, reputable and safe. Seek out program “alumni” and ask them what was best and worst about their experience. Reputable programs will be happy to provide references who can attest to the value added both to college readiness and post-graduation networking.

Here are questions to ask (many of which also apply to self-designed programs where planning should be more extensive and safety concerns may be more important):

  1. Does the price include housing, meals and transportation? Are necessary books and equipment covered? What do students do in their downtime and how much do they typically spend on “extras”? Make sure you understand all costs and what is included.
  2. Does the program have educational or organizational partners? Some programs work with established non-profits or other organizations with clearly stated missions. Do their values align with your student's?
  3. If the program will take your student out of the country, look for connections with the locals. Is the community involved in any volunteer projects? If there are language and/or cultural differences, is there an orientation plus ongoing support to help bridge the gap?
  4. Are support staff in place to help with the transition and any issues that may arise? The program should have a system in place to handle conflicts and emergencies. If a problem comes up, for example with a student's living situation, how will it be handled?
  5. If the program is in a specialized field, what is their reputation within the profession? A program in medicine, for example, should have relationships with established medical organizations. Does the program boast about ties with noted agencies or establishments? What do professionals in the field have to say about the program?

A gap year isn’t right for everyone, but for many teens it provides increased maturity, confidence and appreciation for people and places outside the familiar world of their childhood. Students report improved communication skills and a deeper understanding of global events and cultures. Some go so far as to say a gap year helped them “find purpose in life.” This won’t happen for every student! But asking the right questions ahead of time along with careful planning can help ensure your student’s gap year will be the best it can be.

Younger students who think they might want to take a gap year after high school graduation should gather information from the admissions offices of schools they’re considering. The Gap Year Association organizes university deferral policies by state — a good place to start your research.
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Kimberly Yavorski is a freelancer and mom of four who writes frequently on the topics of parenting, education, social issues, travel and the outdoors. Her work has been published in Grown & Flown, Your Teen, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Her View From Home, Pacific Standard, The Progressive, Racked, and Reader’s Digest.
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