By this point in early summer you’re probably thinking that, as the parent of a newly-graduated high school senior, you’re home free. Your student has committed to a college for the fall and all the stress and indecision of the past year is behind both of you (although who suffered more remains to be seen). I hate to say it, but this might not be the case. Your daughter or son may walk up to you, just as you are kicking back with a relaxed sigh, and utter nine words which will reignite the panic of uncertainty: “I think I want to take a gap year.”
It’s a bombshell (according to my own parents). To help you navigate your emotions if and when this happens in your own household, I’ve compiled a handy list of DOs and DON’Ts.
- Take a deep breath. This doesn’t mean they never intend to go to college. In fact, a study on the benefits of gap years revealed that “Taking a 1-year break between high school and university allows ‘motivation for and interest in study to be renewed.’”
- Encourage them to research their college’s deferral policy and to apply by the deadline. Most colleges want to be notified by July or August, and fortunately almost all deferral requests are approved.
- Task them with formulating a concrete plan for their gap year, including researching possible internships or gap year programs abroad.
- Sit down to discuss anticipated expenses and how they plan to fund their gap year. Make it clear whether or not you will be contributing and how much they should expect. Depending on their current savings and if they are planning to work for the summer, they may need to adjust their plan to make it more financially viable.
- Forbid them to do it. Prohibiting something will only make them more intent to go against your will, and as your student is or will soon be a legal adult, they have this ability whether you like it or not. In addition, it might put a strain on your relationship and make their last few months at home less pleasant for the both of you.
- Ask them if they’ve “really thought about this.” They have likely thought about it for weeks or even months before telling you, and feeling supported by you during this crossroads in their life is crucial. Doubting their judgment may cause them to become defensive and more reluctant to let you in on the process.
- Assume that they want to do this out of laziness. In recent studies, 92% of gap year participants stated that their main motivation for taking a year off was to “gain life experience/grow personally.” Additionally, 97% of gap year participants stated that their gap year had increased their maturity, while 96% reported that it had increased their self-confidence. Although it may not be a strictly academic experience, gap years have been proven to help students learn and grow in a variety of ways.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised that cost is really not going to be an issue. Grace is working hard at three jobs this summer to pay for rent, living costs and travel and has already paid for her own airline ticket. I will supplement what she earns a little (mostly so I don’t have to worry!) but only by the same amount as I would have used for home or college living expenses. She plans to work while overseas and is already collecting references and asking her Norwegian friends to make job enquiries.
Both of us expect her to support herself while she is abroad and she even hopes to have money left over to put towards college expenses. My bigger financial concern has been the fear of losing scholarships or paying higher tuition. The University has assured us that all merit aid will roll over and financial aid is likely to be very similar as FAFSA is changing to a new system based on previous years taxes. Grace has said that she will pay the cost for any difference in the cost of tuition caused by deferring which only underlines her determination.
The biggest thing this gap year decision has taught me is that at some point, whether before or after college, we all have to step back and trust our kids to make their own decisions. After all, it’s their future — not ours.
I myself took a gap year living and working abroad in France and England. It was a positive and memorable experience as, like Grace, I was ready for a break and eager for some new horizons and independence. So I was open to the gap year idea but wanted to make sure she had her own good reasons and a definite and productive plan. We’ve discussed all the concerns openly and I am convinced that taking a gap year will only make her more enthusiastic, mature and committed when she does enter college in 2017.
The biggest concern for me (and I would guess most parents) is that their child may never come back from their gap year — or delay entering college indefinitely. It’s tempting to just keep funneling them towards one goal and then the next out of control, fear or our own expectations. Committing to a college that she felt good about and then deferring the place helped reduce those fears for me.
Grace gets the final word:
I haven’t had any regrets about my decision to take a gap year. While I’m greatly looking forward to living in Norway and traveling throughout Europe, the thing I’m most excited for is a little time off! Sometimes we all need to step back from the daily grind of work or school to truly figure out who and what is most important to us, and my gap year will let me do this.
Grace wrote this essay following her high school graduation in May 2016. She has had a passion for writing since she was little. Her own experience applying to ten universities the fall of her senior year gave her an enlightened perspective on the college process and the ups and downs that go with it. After a gap year in Norway, she is now a first-year student at George Washington University where she plans to major in International Relations.
Click here to read the sequel: “For Mom, With Gratitude and Love.” For her mother’s perspective, be sure to read “What my daughter’s gap year taught me.”