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Taking a Gap Year: The Benefits of Working Before College

Taking a gap year before college is an increasingly popular option for many teenagers. In fact, these days, many colleges are happy to defer enrollment for students participating in a gap yearYour Teen caught up with Dr. Tim Elmore, founder and president of the not-for-profit Growing Leaders to find out why a working gap year may be just the ticket for your teenager.

Q: You advocate for a working gap year? What do you mean by that?

Elmore: Often, teens move from one pressurized environment (high school) to another (college) and don’t have time to think or reflect on who they are and what they want to do. In fact, each level of school often merely prepares them for more school—not the world that awaits them after graduation. Taking a gap year between high school and college to work and experience different adult realities is an opportunity to gain life experience, work experimentation, and college preparedness. This time equips them to find and further explore their strengths through internships and jobs, rather than jumping from one thing to the other without exploration. While this practice is a growing phenomenon in the U.S., it has been a tried and true method in other countries, especially in Europe, helping young adults better assess and create their future plans.

Q: Why is working before college worth considering for our teenagers?

Elmore: Someone once said, “Education is wasted on the young.” Work experience enables a student to mature, acquire experience, and gain wisdom while working. High school graduates who participate in a working gap year are often better prepared for college and a potential career. During this time, they begin to see the bigger picture and how they fit in. They ask better questions. They see how life really works. They get a heavy dose of reality while still having a safety net from mom and dad. It’s important to be very clear on the timing as well. Taking a gap year before college is a year, not an open-ended invitation to stick around. Approach this project with defined parameters so that it is successful and has purpose.

Q: Are there other benefits? 

Elmore: Realistically, your teens will be earning some form of income as they work. This will help them learn how to manage their money and a bank account. Good things happen when a young adult identifies their gifts, learns to utilize them in service to others and is compensated in the process. There is only value to be gained with a gap year, especially as many of the people they meet during this time can become mentors—which could potentially lead to jobs, or at least invaluable insight about the working world and their career trajectory.

Q: Is it expensive?

Elmore: Because a working gap year equips your teen with job experience, there is virtually no cost for parents. You may decide to pay living expenses, allowing your teen to build up savings. You can also have them contribute to some of the expenses as a learning opportunity. It’s up to each family to decide the details of the arrangement.

Taking a gap year helps parents (and students) avoid unnecessary expenses. About half of students don’t finish college, and those that do graduate take six years rather than four. Taking a gap year enables a student to enter college more wisely. They approach college with more clarity about their identity, interests, and passion. And they are less likely to change areas of study (40 percent of students today change their major multiple times) which will keep them on track for the four-year plan and allow them to fully leverage scholarships that have time restrictions.

Q: Your own children took a gap year. How did that work out?

Elmore: Both my daughter and son took a gap year prior to college and worked with us at Growing Leaders for 12 months. I noticed three outcomes from their gap year experiences: they had opportunities to travel and visit more potential colleges; they had a lot of time for self-reflection and self-assessment; and they got to experience good, old-fashioned work and learn that it isn’t easy. I witnessed them really grow up during this time. I’m grateful that under our team’s supervision in a real work environment, they learned some lifelong lessons.

Q: How can parents and teenagers find gap year opportunities?

Elmore: Students can find opportunities by applying for internships, apprenticeships, and jobs related to areas of interest. If your family members, friends, neighbors, etc. own companies, your teen should showcase the desire to learn and ask for an internship. Similarly, if you are a parent who owns a business where you can employ kids during that time, try it out with your student. If successful, you can begin instituting a yearly gap year program for other teens. Gap years don’t necessarily need to take place in a professional environment. Perhaps it means traveling and working on an environmental project or community mission. There are all kinds of opportunities to put in front of your child, but the first step is a conversation about where their interests really lie. Keep this one truth in mind: the further out you can see—the better the decision you make.

Tim Elmore is a best-selling author of more than 25 books, including Generation iYArtificial Maturity, and the Habitudes® series. He is founder and president of Growing Leaders, an organization dedicated to mentoring today’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow. Learn more at or @GrowingLeaders @TimElmore.

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