The news that Malia Obama is taking a hiatus from classrooms before she enters Harvard University in 2017 makes this a perfect time to talk to students about a gap year.  

For students like Malia, all the late nights of studying, the hours of sports and community service and extra-curriculars, the essays and creative portfolios have culminated in one intense moment of judgment: the college acceptance.

Talk about pressure. And, to quote Harvard University’s posting to incoming students, stressed-out students can morph into professionals who seem to be “dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp.”

So this is the time to talk with students about not going to college right away, to discuss how experience outside of a traditional classroom and away from parents, teachers, and coaches might make them more successful in college and beyond.

In fact, an upcoming episode of Upgraded by Hobsons features a segment exploring how gap years can help students discover a new path, gain an extra year of maturity, add depth to an existing interest, or even prevent a costly mistake, like picking the wrong major or school. The full podcast episode launches June 7, 2016 but you can get a sneak peek of the gap year story here:

It’s important to think of this time not as a hole that a student falls into but a bridge to the next step, or, as the gap program Global Citizen Year calls it, a launching pad. Taking a gap year is becoming an increasingly popular choice for students who want an adventure or a meaningful experience that helps focus their goals.

The stats support gaps

Researchers from Sydney University in Australia found that taking time out from school helped with motivation once students got to college. The benefits of gaps even outweighed other variables for college success, such as gender and socio-economic status. And the newest gap year research from the American Gap Association shows that students who took a gap year or semester not only tended to graduate within four years, but to do it with a GPA of 3.0 or above.

Gap years used to be only for students who could afford to take a year off to travel or pay for an expensive program. But gap programs are becoming more accessible, with students taking advantage of scholarships or financial aid; some even use crowdfunding to pay for gap programs. Some gap programs offer college credit and qualify as an educational expense that can be paid for through 529 college savings plans. And colleges ranging from Harvard to California Baptist University are making it easier for students to defer enrollment for gap experiences, sometimes without reapplying for financial aid, according to the AGA.

Some students work with a gap counselor; others do their own research on work, travel, and volunteer options. As a general rule, the more structured the program, the more expensive it is.

What to do during a gap semester or year?

The best part about a gap is that it can be anything and of any duration, based on budget, interests, and students’ maturity. Some students go overseas; some across town. The only requirement is to make a plan! It shouldn’t be considered a year “off” but a year “on” to do something different.

Ideas to consider:

  • Structured programs such as Global Citizen Year, Winterline, Thinking Beyond Borders, and UnCollege offer a combination of community service, work, travel, or homestays. Applications are required. A few offer scholarships.
  • Some colleges like Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer their own “bridge year” programs or gap fellowships.
  • Overseas programs are a chance to become fluent in a language before college.
  • Several nonprofits, including City Year, offer one-year paid experiences that are suitable for gap students. The U.S. government also offers jobs and internships in national parks.
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) matches students with farms in countries throughout the world where students volunteer for four to six hours a day in exchange for room and board.
  • Sites such as Volunteermatch.org or Idealist.org allow students 18 and older to explore community service opportunities close to home or on the other side of the world.
  • Some gap programs are faith-based. Others concentrate on mindfulness or exploring spirituality.
  • Students on a gap year or semester can shadow professionals or complete internships through programs like American University’s Washington Experience or Gap Medics.
  • Websites such as WorkAway and HelpX offer volunteer programs, many of which offer options for working in exchange for room and board.

With so many opportunities available, it may be worth encouraging students to take a moment to breath before racing to college. A gap or bridge year can help students discover a new path, gain an extra year of maturity, add depth to an existing interest, or even prevent a costly mistake, like picking the wrong major or school. It might seem like a meandering road to college, but after they graduate from college, they will say it was the best thing they ever did.

TeenLife is a longtime Naviance partner. Naviance users can find 2,500 of our gap, post-graduate year, and summer programs listed in the Enrichment Program section in the College tab of Family Connection. Be sure to activate this free feature so that students can see these listings.

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