Advice on Taking a Gap Year Between High School and College

More high schoolers are toying with the idea of having a 'gap year' between their senior year and first year of college. What is it, exactly, and is it right for your student? Read on for the 101.

The old-school “how to prepare for life” blueprint goes something like this: Thirteen-plus classroom years (plus extracurriculars and athletics) lead to an enriching college experience followed by, of course, a successful career.

In growing numbers, though, teens are questioning this trajectory – especially the part about powering through senior year straight to higher ed. Instead, some are delaying college in favor of a “gap” or “bridge” year to travel, work, volunteer or learn in a non-academic environment. Perhaps most famously, Malia Obama elected to take one before starting at Harvard College this past fall. Structured programs offer experiences both here in the States and in farther-flung locales like Bolivia and Peru, where the former first daughter reportedly traveled.

Young adults in southeast Michigan are following suit – including my own kid. When Kit said he wanted to take a year off before college, I admired his ability to listen to what his mind and body needed. When he chose a program that involved global travel with an established volunteer organization in a developing nation, I admired his sense of adventure and altruism.

Kit reasoned this was his opportunity to be whomever he wanted for just one year, a prospect enviable even to adults.

“When you ask adults if there is something they should have done but didn’t, and that they regret, what do they say?” asks John Boshoven, counselor at Community High School in Ann Arbor Public Schools – and the district’s counseling department chair. “Most will say they wish they hadn’t grown up so fast.”

So what’s the rush? “College will wait for you,” Boshoven says.

Grab your student, learn about the gap year phenomenon together and make your own choice.

Carpe annum!

Cost considerations

It’s a myth that gap years are only for high-income families. Yes, they can be pricey. Extended immersive experiences can hit $30,000, and even three-month semester trips can top $14,000. But some programs are no- or low-cost or have substantial need-based aid. Troy High School grad Alisa Chen suggests full-scholarship programs from National Security Language Initiative for Youth, YES Abroad and Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange – or lower-cost Student Conservation Association programs. “If you really want to travel and can’t find an accommodating program or one within your budget, consider WWOOFing or a similar organization,” she says, referring to the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a global organic farm homestay network.

Why do it?

Here are three of the key factors that drive students’ decision to take a gap year.

1. Healing the burnout.

Kids focused on finishing high school don’t always recognize that college, above all else, means more school, Boshoven says. “Some kids are just worn out, and they go to college crawling, mental-health wise.” Focusing on something that excites them can provide welcome distance. “Maybe it’s a mission with church, or helping the poor, or building latrines, even learning the family’s language of origin with grandmother in the old country,” he says. “Can you get off the treadmill to do something important to you?”

2. More college ready.

Educators believe gap years positively impact a student’s experience once they do start college, says Alia Pialtos, director at USA Gap Year Fairs. “Developmentally, this age is when things really shift. Individuals begin to think about doing things because they are becoming an adult, not just because their parents want them to do something.” Chosen carefully, a gap year can provide exposure to challenges and diverse cultures, netting a real-world education that provides context to college coursework. “A gap year emphasizes the growth of soft skills, such as problem solving, and can offer a rise in vocational skills, too.”

3. A different education.

Kids gain valuable life experiences when living, working and negotiating in a new environment. From learning a new language to teaching disadvantaged kids, there’s no standard gap year, but students always gain something. That’s also true for those who work or volunteer close to home, says Monica Thompson, school counselor at Detroit School of Arts. Some of her graduates have participated in City Year Detroit and earned a monthly stipend. One, who struggled in school, learned discipline – ironically by working in an elementary school. “It really gave her time to realize her skills, to mature and learn that she needed to do something,” Thompson says. “A gap year really helped her figure it all out, and now she’s in college.”

  • 81% wanted a break from academics
  • 92% sought personal growth
  • 85% sought travel
  • 48% wanted to volunteer
  • 41% wanted to learn a new language
  • 63% participated in a commercial gap year program

What ‘gappers’ say

Insight from local students who have taken, are taking or are about to take one.

Kit Charlton
(Berkley High, 2016) worked with children in Nepal through AFSNext and Global Vision International.

“When I decided to take a gap year, I knew I wanted to travel and volunteer or work. I didn’t mind what I was doing. I was flexible. In Nepal, I worked with children at a boys’ home, a day care and an English language club. I also trekked the mountains, visited Chitwan National Park and went whitewater rafting. I made new friends from all over the world, and my appreciation for diversity increased. I’m at Kalamazoo College now, and I have the advantage of being just a little bit older than my classmates and have a better developed sense of who I am. Most of all, I learned that people all live differently, but we are much the same.”

Alisa Chen
(Troy High, 2017) is learning Mandarin in Taiwan through National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). Upon return, she will attend Reed College in Oregon.

“I went into senior year knowing I wanted to take a gap year. I did feel slightly burnt out after graduating, but I also knew that my gap year would not be particularly restful. I dislike the stereotype that gap years are just students traveling around and hanging out with friends. My NSLI-Y classmates and I have been in class from 9 a.m. to sometimes 5 p.m. every weekday. I’ve learned about Taiwanese and East Asian culture and how to be kind and compassionate across language barriers. I’ve learned how to be more articulate in both English and Mandarin – and also about the way our world works and my place in it.”

Sammy Saperstein
(Berkley High, 2017) worked with PeerCorps Detroit for five months and will depart this spring for a three-month wilderness program in the Pacific Northwest with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He has applied to several universities.

“This has been an experience unlike any I have had before. The fact that I don’t go to school every day is just wild. I’m much busier than I thought I’d be. I’m learning about how to wake up, make breakfast and be at work by 9 a.m. I’m also learning how nonprofits work behind the scenes and about educational and food justice at three sites in Detroit. My parents and I are splitting the cost of NOLS, where I’ll learn hiking, rock climbing, sea kayaking and sailing. I have no idea what I’m going to get from it all, and that’s what excites me so much. As stereotypical as it sounds, I want to become a more well-rounded person.”

Clarisa Russenberger
(Mercy High, Farmington Hills, 2018) will participate in work study in Italy through Focolare, a faith-based movement, and plans to attend Wayne State University or community college upon return.

“I need a break after so many years in school, and a gap year is an awesome way to learn about new cultures. I decided early on I wanted to do a gap year. I talked with my parents about it and they suggested this program. I’ll work part of the time to pay for my room and board, and I’ll study theology, anthropology and Italian language. My parents are really supportive. They are both from Europe, where it’s usual for students to take a gap year. There is so much more in the world you can learn, and not just from school. I always tell people I’m not going to let education get in the way of my learning. I want everyone to know this is an option.”

Where to go?

Some students know they want to backpack South America. Others know they just need a break. So … what to do? Read on.

Plan things out.

It’s a must – “and it should not include spending the time on the couch in your parents’ basement,” Boshoven says. Many students work half the year, then travel. Others combine travel with learning something they can’t in college, like first aid. In general, gap years can include adventure, pre-college academics or language, community service, environmental/conservation or internships/work, says Alia Pialtos with USA Gap Year Fairs. “They all embrace experiential learning.”

Tap into passions and service.

Think about your own specific interests or curiosity when deciding your path. “There are many community service-based programs, and service is a big theme for gap year,” Pialtos says. “Young people now have an interest in making a difference. To do a service project with peers impacts them and helps them utilize their time in college to make a big change on campus.”

Try something way different.

Some of the more unique programs include wilderness exploration in Patagonia, travel along the Mekong River in Asia or diversity study in Morocco with Where There Be Dragons. Winterline takes gappers to 10 countries in nine months and promises 100 new skills. Work in the hospitality industry and do community service in the Estes Valley of Colorado through YMCA of the Rockies. Sail from Antigua to Grenada, or from South Africa to the Caribbean with Sea|mester. Or combine travel, entrepreneurship and internship with UnCollege.

Make it ‘work.’

For the more practical student, an internship gap year experience builds career skills in a real-world environment. Create an opportunity close to home by searching the online database TeenLife, by contacting companies directly or by working with an organization like Dynamy, which places students in companies or nonprofits looking for interns in health care, government, marketing, IT, science, animal care and other fields.

How about college?

Yes, they should still apply! But plan ahead to hold that spot. Here’s the score.

Some colleges are strongly pro-gap year, even promoting the idea to incoming freshmen. Harvard (recall: where gapper Malia Obama is now) is among them, noting on its website that up to 110 students defer their start each year. Other Ivy League schools follow suit. Which is great, if that’s in the cards for your kid.

Other colleges aren’t quite as enthusiastic but are willing to consider a student’s request to defer when presented with a solid plan for the gap year.

Several Michigan schools do allow deferred admission, including Kalamazoo College, Michigan Tech, Oakland University, Aquinas College and Alma College, according to an informal survey by Gap Year Association. Learn selected schools’ gap year deferral policies by scouring their websites or contacting admissions.

In general, though, students should apply to a school widely based on academic goals – not on gap-year friendliness. Policies may be flexible or change. Even if they’re adamant about a gap year, students should apply for college during senior year.

“Please apply now, when you have the supports in place to do it,” Boshoven urges. “When you are on a camel in the desert, you won’t be thinking about teacher recommendations. You may not have electricity. Or teachers may have retired, and you may not know how to reach them.”

Students who know they want to take a gap year should research and select possible programs as they are applying for college. Don’t disclose gap year thoughts in the college app, though. “Your plans may change, and you may reignite that fire to go right to college,” Boshoven adds.

Scholarship deferrals are another matter and should be confirmed with the college financial aid department. Some are incentives based on what a school needs in a given year and may not be available the following year. Others are merit-based and won’t change.

Bottom line: Complete your college and financial aid applications during your last year of high school. When you’ve been admitted, present your gap year plan and ask about the possibility of a deferral for one year. Don’t forget to confirm that your scholarships and aid will defer, too.

Mind the deadlines

Every gap year program has a different application cycle. Many offer full year and semester adventures. Semester programs allow time to work, intern or study, but first find out your college’s rules on taking for-credit courses during a gap year (many won’t allow it). There’s still time to enroll for the 2018-19 school year. Some programs have rolling admissions, others accept applicants until they hit capacity while still others have specific cut-offs (for one we spotted, it was late April). Do your research and plan ahead.

Gap year resources

Think it might be right for your student? Here are some springboards, as well as contact info for several groups noted in this article.

Your school
Start with your high school counselor, who may be a wealth of knowledge, or can refer to other gappers from your district.

Faith community
Belong to one? Look into its mission programs.

USA Gap Year Fairs
Several are happening Feb. 1-March 4 in Texas, North Carolina, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Oregon, Washington and California. Or just visit its website for great info.

Gap Year Association
This pioneering nonprofit has developed accreditation standards and lists recommended programs.

Go Overseas
Explore programs by focus, activity or destination, and browse personal reviews, too.

Teen Life
This a searchable database lists volunteer programs and internships by location.

Cultural exchange orgs
Check out AFS-USA (study), EF (language), Youth for Understanding (study or volunteer) and Rotary chapters (youth exchange) – all established organizations with gap year offerings.

Nature and farming
Try the Student Conservation Association and World Wide Organization of Organic Farms.

Internships and work
Dynamy offers work-based gap year experiences; PeerCorps Detroit is a closer-to-home option.

City Year Detroit
This organization, one of 28 City Year AmeriCorps programs serving urban public schools, offers gap year experiences.

Extensive travel
For deeper immersion (and investment), explore Where There Be Dragons, Winterline Global Education, Sea|mester and Uncollege.

Post-college ‘gap’

Though it’s not technically a gap year, some students are completing college degrees, then taking a year to travel before launching an advanced degree or career. “There is certainly validity to the idea of momentum. You are in the habit, you are in the groove and your skills are fresh,” says Erica Empie, counselor at Hartland High School, where a gap year for an undecided student is more likely to resemble work than travel.

“I have noticed in the last year more inquiries from students who have earned an undergrad degree and want to take a gap year,” adds Alia Pialtos with USA Gap Year Fairs. “Just because you have a four-year degree doesn’t mean you have direction, and you can still be a little lost.”


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