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What Is A Gap Year: What To Know Before They Go

A gap year, usually defined as taking a year off before going to college, has increased in popularity in recent years–in part because so many colleges recognize their value in helping students to grow and mature.

Traditionally, a gap year involves taking time to pursue a structured series of experiences devoted to self-discovery. It might include working for pay, interning, volunteer work, travel abroad, or outdoor adventures–or even a combination. The best gap years involve intentional planning and purpose, even if part of the year includes unstructured adventuring.

The Numbers

How many people take a gap year? According to the Gap Year Association, the number of American students who have taken gap years hasn’t been quantified, but 77 percent who take one do it between high school and college, while 16 percent take it between college years. Of those taking a post-high school break, 90 percent return to college within a year.

Unfounded Parental Concerns

The largest concern parents have: Their student will opt out of higher education. But according to Nancy Bean, Associate Director of College Counseling at The Westminster School in Atlanta and immediate past president of National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), opting out is an unfounded concern for the majority of students.

“What we have found is that the students who take a gap year are much more ready to go to college,” says Bean. “If students don’t take time off before they go to college, they often take time off during their college experience, which can more disruptive to their class sequences.”

Making the Most Out of the Year

Gap year experts say that students who take a break arrive back at college more confident, self-assured, and focused. They also graduate in four years more often than their non-gapper peers, according to data gathered by the Gap Year Association

But if a student isn’t excited about the idea or doesn’t have any specific idea of what they would do during a gap year, they might be choosing it for the wrong reasons. Is your student motivated? Does your student have ideas about what they’d like to pursue? Is your student likely to spend time researching a plan? For a student burned out from the academic treadmill, planning a productive year doesn’t have to be exhausting but it should be directed.

“The front-end question that students and families need to address is: How can this year be time well-spent?” says Kerry Kincanon, director of Exploratory Advising and Advising Initiatives for the Office of Academic Success and Student Transitions and Oregon State University. He suggests families outline a set of desired outcomes that could be gained taking a gap year. If a student wants to take a gap year but has no clear vision, he recommends helping them outline a productive list of choices as a starting point.

Many parents assume a gap year is reserved for wealthy families. While some programs can be costly, many offer work options and financial aid to help fund the experience. And a successful gap year doesn’t have to mean a pricey plane ticket to go abroad; experience can be gained in a nearby city, through volunteer opportunities, and by interning. There’s no one right way to do it, and students should focus on experiences that are right for them. Ready to explore options?

Joanna Nesbit

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She writes frequently about parenting and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Fun, Parenting, and elsewhere.