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Is a Gap Year Right for You?

Taking a gap year before college is becoming a popular choice for young adults. Learn about the pros and cons of this alternative path, and what it could mean for your future.

By Derek Moran | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

7 Min Read | October 28, 2020 in Life

 

At-A-Glance

More and more young people are choosing to take a gap year between high school and college.

Research shows that a gap year can help young people improve their academics, graduate sooner than the average, and even lead to enhanced job satisfaction in their future careers.

Planning can help create a successful gap year experience.

The “gap year” is a somewhat vague concept. It can mean many different things to those considering this alternative road. But what is a gap year? Essentially it is some time off – which could be a few months or over a year – between high school graduation and the first semester of college. 

 

All that time not in school? There’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to taking a year off before college, but that notion can be a misconception. Done well, taking a gap year can broaden your horizons and help you mature in ways that can make you a better college student – all while experiencing something completely new and different in your life. 

 

With the world at your fingertips, there’s a lot to choose from and decide when considering a college gap year. That’s why your initial planning is often crucial.

 

What to Do in a Gap Year?

The Pros and Cons of a Gap Year Before College

Pros Cons
Gain maturity and independence Fall a year behind peers
Broaden your horizons Can be harder to apply for college
Learn new skills Financial aid rules can change
Improve academics Some schools don’t allow gap years
Future job satisfaction Can lose academic momentum
Some colleges consider it a plus  

 

It’s unlikely any two gap year experiences are going to be the same, but there are a few things they generally have in common. For example, the main goal of your gap year may be personal growth. Consider making an outline of things you would like to try, see, or experience, and then think about what on your list could help you learn more about the world and/or yourself. 

 

Whether you plan to travel and work abroad, volunteer locally, take on an internship, or simply explore the unknown, a gap year can help you gain new skills and experience. Traveling to foreign countries can expose you to new cultures and new views on the world. If you’re looking for something more structured, there are many gap year programs available that offer experiences in everything from archaeology to zoology. Learning something new is the key, be it real-world, hands-on experience or just something you never realized about yourself.

 

What Is a Gap Year Program?

Gap year programs are structured programs that may be run by nonprofits, private companies, colleges, or even governments. They range from a few weeks to well over a year. Some coordinate volunteering efforts, some focus more on fun, and some are more like internships with on-location hands-on learning. 

 

Prices for these programs can vary as much as the activities. Depending on what you’re looking to do, they can range from a few hundred dollars to well over $60,000. That could be the difference between volunteering in a developing country compared to a globetrotting self-discovery adventure.1 Each program is different and may cover housing, food, travel, etc. Some only cover specific things, and some are all-inclusive. A few even give you a stipend for your work. It’s a good idea to look into college-sponsored gap year programs before you apply, as many private universities pay for part or all of the cost. 

 

It can be hard to narrow down your options, but a good tip is to find a few things you’re curious about, and then look for a gap year program that fits your interests and budget.

 

Benefits of Taking a Gap Year

Many students benefit from a change of pace or even just time to enjoy a less rigorous few months. This downtime from traditional learning can lead to many positive outcomes:

  • Maturity and independence: Whether you spend your gap year abroad or locally, getting a taste of “adult life” can help foster these two invaluable qualities for college and beyond.
  • Clearer future: A gap year can give you the time to explore personal and professional interests. Gaining a clearer picture of what you might like to pursue for a career could help you choose the right education track when you enter college.
  • Broaden perspectives: Learning about new cultures and ways of life assist in acquiring a fresh world view.
  • New experiences and skills: Many “gappers” often work full- or part-time, allowing them to save some money to help pay for their gap year. This can lead to acquiring new skills and experiences, which colleges and future employers value. Complete (or even partial) immersion in a different culture can lead to learning a new language, for example, or an appreciation for diverse ways of thinking.
  • Improved academics: According to a study by the Gap Year Association, gap year takers’ grades typically skew higher than the average college student and, compared with national averages, they have a significantly shorter graduation time – four years or less, compared to only 59% of students graduating within six years, on average.2 And 73% of the students surveyed attest that their time off helped ready them for college.
  • Job satisfaction: Also noted by the Gap Year Association, 86% of gap year participants surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.3 

Many top schools – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, to name a prestigious few – encourage taking some time off before your first semester. Countless other colleges offer easy enrollment deferrals. It’s best to check with each individual school, though, for some have stricter rules. If a gap year is done correctly, many colleges and universities are on board with this growing trend.4

 

Potential Downsides to Taking a Year Off Before College

Despite the potential advantages, there are some criticisms of taking a gap year:

  • Falling a year behind: Starting college later can make some people uncomfortable, but as the Gap Year Association research shows, many gap year participants make up the time by graduating sooner. But there is a flip side: You may lose academic momentum – in other words, it may be hard to get back into the swing of college life.
  • Difficulty applying to college: Most experts think applying during high school, per usual, is the smart choice. Once you’re out of high school, it may be harder to gather test scores, letters of recommendations, and transcripts. You might also lose contacts like teachers and counselors who have a whole new batch of students to help. Experts suggest that you should apply during high school, then request a deferral after you’re accepted and your tuition deposit is paid.5
  • Financial aid: There is no penalty for a gap year, but there is also no rule that a college has to give you the same aid you were awarded when originally accepted. Without careful planning, this can seriously affect many student’s choice in schools.

 

Logistics to Consider for Your Gap Year

If you plan to travel for your gap year, being away from home for the first time can be tricky. Some key things many agree can make the adjustment easier include:

  • Mobile phone: A phone with an international roaming plan is a good idea. Alternatively, after your trip is planned, you could investigate what providers cover the areas you will be in. You can choose to preorder local or international SIM cards depending on your phone’s configuration.
  • Credit card: A credit card with no foreign transaction fees and many international partners could also lighten your travel burdens, allowing you to carry less cash. Further, think about a card that doesn’t charge foreign ATM fees. Who knows when you might need a little local cash?

 

The Takeaway

The independence and maturity learned from a gap year can help young adults for the rest of their lives, improving their college academics as well as their future job satisfaction. But gap years aren’t for everyone. If you’re certain of your career path and want to get right to it, maybe heading straight to college is best for you. But maybe you’re a bit uncertain about where to head, and a well-thought-out gap year can help it all come together.

Derek Moran

Derek Moran is a freelance writer and researcher whose work focuses on digital marketing and financial services.

 

All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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