A “gap year” typically refers to a year off between high school and college or university. It may also indicate a break before entering graduate school. Although the custom is common in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, it remains the exception in countries such as the United States, where the number of students that waited a year to enter college was about 1.2% in 2010.
There are many reasons to take advantage of a gap year, but some of the most significant influences include gaining life experiences and growing personally, travelling and experiencing other cultures, taking a break from academics, and exploring study options. Although some people find the concept of young students taking a year off to “find themselves” humorous, students who took a gap year felt that it had a strong impact on them as a person. For example, it allowed them time for personal reflection, helped them to develop as a person, increase maturity and self-confidence, interact with people from different backgrounds, and develop communication skills.
Just like entering a postsecondary institution, a gap year requires considerable planning, time, and resources. Before taking a gap year, consider the following three steps to ensure your year is worthwhile.
APPLY TO COLLEGE AND THEN DEFER ENROLLMENT
This gives you a hard end-date for your gap year and can motivate you to achieve your goals. Some students may be hesitant to defer enrollment, thinking that universities frown on the practice. Many well-known schools in fact encourage taking a gap year. Princeton, the University of North Carolina, and other colleges offer scholarships and fellowships to freshmen who take a gap year. For more than 40 years, Harvard has encouraged admitted students to take a gap year to travel, pursue a project, work, or spend time in another meaningful way. Middlebury College in Vermont found that students who take a gap year end up doing better than their classmates who didn’t. Don’t be surprised that the schools you are applying to understand, or even encourage, your decision to take a year off from school. If you are worried whether you’ll actually end up going back to school, research has found that 90% of students who take a year off return to school within a year.
MAKE A STRUCTURED PLAN
A gap year can’t be just killing time in your parents’ basement until you go back to school. If you, or more likely your parents, have enough money, you can participate in a commercial gap year program, which will cover most of the logistics of the gap year. In the United States, about 60% of students who take a gap year choose this option. The other 40% design their own gap year. For example, one way to plan your year is to divide it into segments of work, travel, and study. And remember that your gap year doesn’t have to be a year. The American Gap Association found that 70% of students that take time off from school only take a semester off.
FUND YOUR GAP YEAR YOURSELF
Gap years can be expensive. With costs as high as US$30,000, a gap year can seem like an upper-middle-class privilege. If you plan your own gap year, it may be wise to include some months to earn some money. You may work in your hometown for six months and then travel for six months. You can try to get a job in a country that offers a working holiday visa so that you can pay your way while living there. If you don’t have the time or money to fund your gap year, you can choose cheaper alternatives, such as volunteer organizations that offer room, board, meals, transportation, and other benefits instead of a salary.
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Also published on Medium.