The gap year is still a relatively new phenomenon for most Americans, so it’s not surprising that many families find themselves navigating unfamiliar territory as they approach the gap year planning process. First off, it is important that the student be an active and willing partner in the decision to pursue a gap year. Like so many growth experiences, one gets out of a gap year what one is willing to put into it.
To guide the gap year planning process, I generally recommend that students come up with some goals for their gap year, ie. become more independent, improve language skills, gain professional experience through an internship or work experience. Gap year goals will help to give a clear vision of what the intentions are for a student’s gap year. Remember, a gap year is intended to be a year of growth and development, not a year of aimless wandering. Next they’ll want to determine how long the gap year last. Will it be a full year? 14 months? 1 semester? The choice is yours. It is recommended that you have a planned start / end date for your gap experience before it begins.
Once you have determined gap year goals and length of experience you’ll need to come up with a budget. How much money do you have to work with? Good gap years do not need to cost $30,000+ (though some do). It is possible to have a transformative gap experience on a budget. (See Paying for a Gap Year). Be realistic with your budget. If you are a Sophomore or Junior, you might consider getting a summer job to help pay for it. You might also consider imbedding some work experience into your gap experience to help fund travel later during your gap year.
Once you have determined your budget for your gap experience, you can begin looking at programs that match your gap year goals and budget. Keep in mind that your gap year does not have to consist of one single experience. Many gappers participate in 2-3+ experiences during their gap year. I generally recommend that students begin with a more highly structured and supported experience and transition into more independent ones. There are thousands of gap year opportunities, both experiences that are specifically tailored and marketed as gap year experiences, as well as experiences that might be suitable for a gap year, yet do not specifically market themselves as such.
When evaluating gap year programs you can consider online reviews, but don’t hesitate to reach out to the organization directly to ask questions or even request to speak with a former participant or parent. Glossy photos and marketable buzz words do not make up for quality programs and demonstrated experience. If you have any medical conditions or severe allergies, inquire if they are able to, or how they might support someone with those needs. Ensure you are clear about what type / level of support is offered and that it matches your needs. Will there be someone checking in with you each day, weekly, monthly? What happens if you need to visit a doctor? Will someone be available to assist you, or are you capable and comfortable navigating this on your own? Be honest with yourself about your capabilities and areas where you need more support. Clear, honest communication and appropriate expectations are critical for a positive gap experience.
You might be wondering where college fits into the gap year planning process. It is different for everyone. Generally I recommend that students apply to college their senior year, while they have the support of their college counselors. After receiving offers of admission and determining where you’ll attend college, you should contact your admissions office to request a deferral. You’ll want to demonstrate that you have a solid plan and intend to use your gap year to become an even more qualified candidate. You might not have your gap year plans firmed up by this point, but you should at least be able to articulate why you want to take a gap year and some goals you have for your time. More and more colleges and universities are embracing and even encouraging students to take advantage of the gap year, so you should not let fear of losing your spot deter you from taking a gap year. Be aware of how a deferral might affect any scholarships or financial aid you may have been awarded, as well as any restrictions on earning college credit during your gap year.
For students who may need to apply to college during their gap year, you’ll want to ensure that you dedicate sufficient time during your gap year to completing those applications and admissions essays. Whether it be having a summer experience and then returning home to work on applying to colleges, or having college applications prepared before you depart for a fall gap experience, be sure to plan in advance.
Feeling overwhelmed with gap year planning or having difficulty finding the right fit? Students or parents might wish to schedule a no obligation exploratory conversation to answer questions or clarify what a gap year might entail.