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Why A Gap Year May Be the Best Answer For Your College Bound Teen

Julia Rogers is a professional gap year counselor and the founder of Enroute Consulting Gap Year and Travel Planning. She has 11 years of experience coaching students through gap year planning. In addition to individual consultations with families, Julie also offers a variety of webinars and short courses to help parents and students through gap year planning. Learn more at

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The circumstances are so uncertain as to what college will look like in the fall. Let’s explore about  four different scenarios since we have no idea what the end of August and September will look like.

#1 A Return to Normal

Q: In our favorite scenario, the world goes back to close to what normal was, and business as usual for colleges, but your high school senior feels transformed by this experience and less sure of what they want to do if the plans that they currently have are the ones that they want to have in the fall.

Rogers: Even before COVID-19, the gap year option was growing as more students decided to take one. Some students take it because they don’t really know what they want to study in college and they want to use this time to explore their interests. Some students have had mental health challenges or other personal challenges in high school and need a little bit of time to heal and grow on their own terms. Other students are simply not mature enough or independent enough to really thrive on a college campus and take ownership over their college education.

So you have to look at the motivations for taking gap time. And that will then lead you to some goals and priorities on how to spend that gap year. And really no matter what our situation ends up being over the next year, if you start with a couple personal, practical, and professional goals and work off of those to create experiences, that’s going to be a great gap year for that student.

A personal goal could be something like “I want to learn how to surf,” or something that you’ve never gotten a chance to do or an interest that you want to delve deeper into, just for the fun of it. A practical goal would be something along the lines of a skill or a life skill that you need to build on: taking initiative to wake up in the morning, get to somewhere on time, organizational skills, all that executive functioning and soft skills type of thing. Professional goals would be along the lines of career exploration. Doing things like interning or job shadowing, or volunteering with that eye towards what you might want to study in college. Whether you confirm or deny what that is because deciding what you don’t want to do is just as important as finding your passion.

On average, it takes American students six years to graduate with their undergrad degree. So the more that you can do on the front end to understand what your major is going to be, the more money you will save in the long run.

We have we have some studies done by Middlebury and UNC Chapel Hill that showed that gap your students perform better academically once they start college compared to traditional students. And then we also have some self-surveys done by gap year students that say that 60% of students who took their gap year confirmed their choice of career or college major. And 88% of gap year students say they’re more employable because of their gap year. Even in totally normal times, it’s a great investment and if done meaningfully and productively, has some great outcomes for students.

#2 Limited Movement

Q: Our second scenario is that we’re given the green light for limited movement so, and this is only speculative, colleges may start in January of 2021. What are the options?

Rogers: If we’re looking at a scenario where international travel is not advisable, but we’re allowed to move between our communities or regions or states, then you still can look back on those goals that you’ve set out for yourself and say, “Okay, what does my community need? Or what do I have to give in these places and can build off of that?” There are probably going to be domestic gap year programs up and running in that scenario.

You can look at structured gap year programs that run in the States. We often see programs that explore outdoor education, play space programs that do things like sustainable agriculture work, volunteer programs, internship programs. We’re even going to see some service learning programs that traditionally went internationally turning their gaze towards domestic programs for the fall, if that’s the case. There will still be a lot of gap year programs out there for you.

You’re also going to be able to Build Your Own Adventure if you have that initiative as well. For instance, you can go to a program and explore journalism. If you’re not able to go to New York for your gap year, you can also email your hometown newspaper and say, “I would like to write a column for your newspaper about what it’s like to be an 18 year old in the time of COVID-19.” Or you can keep a blog, or you can build up your YouTube channel.

There are many, many ways to take your interest and build on it through your gap time and use your experiences as fodder for your writing or for your video work. And that creates a portfolio for yourself. There’s a real spectrum of gap year program opportunities, from very structured and supported where you have staff and mentors and people who are teaching you experientially to some independence or self-starting to doing it yourself and creating the meaning in your own way. And there are opportunities in every shade of that rainbow.

A gap year is about thinking outside the box. It’s hard right now for people to think creatively, innovatively, because we’re in this moment of fear. And I think that people just kind of want to get back to normal and to stay the course and do the thing that they wanted to do. But we’re living in unprecedented times. And we need to be thinking about how we can capitalize on this moment, and ask how might we be able to get an even better result, than had it been the normal everyday year of 2020?

#3 Still on Lockdown (or Second Lockdown)

Q: What if we’re still on lockdown? Or we’re on a second lockdown. How would a gap year work?

Rogers: We might see a second round of quarantine over the next year. For students who decide to roll the dice with college and then get sent home or never get to start, that’s going to be a whole other disappointment on top of losing out on their senior year and on top of having to start college possibly virtually or these kinds of things.

A gap year student is going to start their gap year with a flexible mindset. They’re going to be building resilience over the course of learning and growing. And if they get called back home or have to cancel plans because of COVID, then opportunities will be waiting for them that are virtual. There will be skill building programs that are online virtual internships, there is even virtual volunteering that international organizations are starting to put online now. You do have get over the fact that it’s all going to be virtual, which is not ideal, but there will still be ways to grow and learn that are productive and useful for that individual. So that’s what’s exciting.

For instance, a grassroots nonprofit in Rwanda might say, “We want English speaking volunteers to help us create worksheets for our young people over here.” You might be able to actually interact with people across borders that way, or you might just be building capacity for organizations that need it.

#4 Financial Insecurity

Q: Families have financial insecurity right now. They were on one path where their kid was going to go to a particular college and they can no longer afford that. What could a gap year offer them?

Rogers: One of the best opportunities for a student in that category would be to investigate national service opportunities through AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is kind of the domestic arm of the Peace Corps. There are lawmakers right now are asking for it to be funded even more in anticipation that young people maybe not be college bound this fall. So there already are loads of opportunities to work in communities.

And now there are going to possibly be service opportunities in contact tracing and other types of opportunities that work in communities that have been severely impacted by COVID. Or to help people who are vulnerable to the disease who still may be on lockdown even if the rest of us are free to move around. The great thing about AmeriCorps opportunities is they range from three months to nine months, sometimes a full year. You apply to them, you get in, you get a stipend while you’re doing them. And then you get an education award at the end of your service that you can then put towards college. So it ends up being a cost neutral, but actually financial positive at the end of the day.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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