Should Your High School Graduate Consider Taking a Gap Year?

The coronavirus pandemic has some teens wanting to take a year off before going to college. Here's what parents and kids should know about taking a gap year.

Teen girl taking a photo in a city

Working through 13 years of school and then jumping right into college or trade school is somewhat expected of our high school graduates, but it can be quite tough, too.

Some students need a break in between to figure things out, which is why the idea of a “gap year” is so enticing under normal circumstances —and the coronavirus pandemic has kicked the desire for a little time off into high gear.

Ethan Knight, the executive director of the Gap Year Association, says that web traffic and students inquiring about taking a gap year has increased 45% compared to the same week last year.

Why now?

During the pandemic, we all lost some of the control that we had over our lives. As schools and the economy began to shut down, parents were laid off from jobs and teens missed out on some of their “normal” milestones.

It’s only natural that they’d want to take back what control they had of their lives, which is why the idea of a gap year is so popular this year in particular.

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“In the uncertainty of this present time and that of the future, the one certainty we can invest in is ourselves: investing in self-awareness, expanded perspectives, and gaining clarity about what we’re good at and how we want to contribute to the planet and its peoples,” Knight says.

“The dream is still that what you love to do could be what you’re paid to do, and for most of us, it takes a lot of time and experiments to land somewhere solid. When the rest of the world is slightly off-kilter, seems like a great time go inside and invest in something that will pay decades of dividends.”

The benefits of taking a gap year

Apart from the time to think about what he or she really wants to do in life, some studies have proven that gap years – or taking a year off from school to travel, engage in volunteer opportunities or work to save money – may improve a student’s academic performance in college.

Though there is some uncertainty about what gapping this year will look like, students that choose to take a gap year in 2020 may reap even more benefits, Knight says.

“Right now, there’s likely some deals to be had as organizations are eager to continue operating where they’re able.I suspect organizations will offer lower-cost programming and work to be innovative with unique offerings that may not repeat,” he says. “I’m hearing of collaborations, for instance, between domestic backcountry organizations and international front-country organizations to offer a coronavirus-conscious program.”

In addition, he says that a student that chooses to take a gap year may be looked at as someone who looks for opportunity to do good, even in the darkest of times.

Is a gap year right for your student?

Anyone can take and would benefit from a gap year, Knight says.

“We think everyone should invest more into self-awareness and personal-leadership, and taking a gap year seems to have a fairly consistent, significantly beneficial outcome here,” Knight says.

However, students should take their comfort levels, financial and personalsituations and mental health into account before making the decision.

“Students who received a significant financial aid award that might not be there if you delay” might not want to take a gap year, Knight explains.

Likewise, students who don’t feel comfortable traveling, meeting new people and those who struggle with mental health challenges while away from their loved ones might also choose to forgo a gap year.

For students that that are considering a gap year, there’s still plenty of time to make it happen, according to Knight.

“Colleges are generally being more flexible with their admissions deadlines, and the old deadline of May 1 as the drop-dead date has now gone out the window — so generally, if a student has already committed to the college and are interested in taking a gap year instead, they should contact their admissions officer and ask to take a deferral,” he says.

“I’m being told that deferring ‘for the reason of coronavirus’ may be denied as colleges are afraid they won’t be able to fill their class. However, deferring ‘for the reason of wanting to take a gap year’ is generally being upheld.”

Tips to taking a gap year in 2020

If your student has decided to take a gap year in 2020, Knight suggests he or she start planning a gap year using the Gap Year Association’s planning guide and gathering college application materials for when the time comes.

Beyond that, he suggests that students set an “intention” for their gap year, what they want to gain and the perspectives they want to explore —even if your top choice country is not available in the fall.

“Traditionally we’ve tried to suggest more structure in the fall and more independence in the spring so students have some training on how to be independent out there,” Knight explains. “For this year’s cohort of gappers, the reverse may be more helpfulifthis fall proves challenging still to leave the home.”

In the event that a student can’t travel in the fall, there are plenty of domestic and at-home gap year options, along with virtual opportunities as well. You can work with a gap year consultant to spec out these opportunities and decide what’s right for you.

“Fundamentally, every job interview will spend time asking about your accomplishments, and inevitably a well-purposed gap year will dominate that conversation,” Knight says. “Whether Yale, or Chico State, college grades matter but life experience matters at least as much.”