A gap year is not a vacation
The term “gap year” traditionally applies to the year between high school graduation and college matriculation. For many students, the gap year is a time for adventure and personal exploration. While the gap year has long been an accepted tradition in other parts of the world, it is still growing in popularity in the United States. The reasons that a student might opt for a gap year are various: he or she might feel burned out after more than ten years of school, or he or she might desire a change of scenery and routine. Some students may simply feel uncertain about which direction to take after high school.
A well-structured gap year can inform your college and career path, and it can educate you in ways you might not have imagined. But the gap year you see on television is not always the gap year that you find in reality. Here are three gap year myths that stand in the way of honestly evaluating whether a gap year is right for you. Debunked, they may make your decision process much clearer:
1. A gap year is like a vacation
Your gap year is whatever you make of it. Certain students choose to work, while others complete internships. Some students volunteer, or they travel while pursuing a self-directed education. But each of these options involves effort. A gap year is not a week at the beach.
For instance, consider City Year, an AmeriCorps project that places individuals between the ages of 17 and 24 in high-needs communities across the United States. While you gain a stipend, real-world experience, health care, and access to scholarship money, you do so through completing long hours of challenging – and rewarding – work.
Internships and self-directed education also involve concentrated effort. Internships are like a work-learning hybrid, and they can be an excellent way to explore a potential career field. If you choose to participate in a gap year internship, be sure to do your research first. Look for internships that offer training in specific skills, as well as a reasonable number of hours per week. Beware of “internships” that are actually commission-based sales positions – or schemes that take advantage of your labor and savings.
Finally, websites like Coursera and Udacity offer free or low-cost education around which you can design a gap year. If you are undecided about what you would like to study in college, it makes a great deal of sense to explore various subjects before you begin to pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition. Self-directed education can also help you improve a weak academic portfolio. You can even develop marketable skills via programs like Codecademy. If possible, select those options that offer certificates of completion (or another way of tracking your progress) so you will have demonstrable proof of what you learned during your gap year.
2. A gap year can harm your admissions chances
The effect a gap year has on your college applications depends entirely on how you spend that year. A 12-month gap in your education and/or work history could be a significant warning sign for a prospective school, but if you instead participate in meaningful experiences, your gap year can serve as a significant admissions boon. A gap year can enable you to start college refreshed and eager, and for students with less impressive high school records, it can also be a chance to demonstrate your maturity and dedication to your personal growth.
Some schools, such as Princeton University, have even developed programs that allow admitted students to pursue a year of volunteer work before beginning their traditional college educations. In other words, prospective freshmen submit their applications in their senior year of high school, but they delay starting classes in order to complete a gap year project. Inquire with the admissions departments at your top-choice schools to determine if such a plan exists, or if they have advice for students who are interested in the gap year experience.
3. A gap year is expensive
Certain gap year programs require a significant monetary investment, but there are many opportunities for students who wish to spend less on this experience. For example, if you live at home and work part-time, you can participate in a volunteer project in your free hours. You can also further your education with the (mostly) free resources mentioned above. Delaying college for a year can seem like a daunting opportunity cost (as it also delays your entry into the workforce by a year), but a gap year can ultimately become an excellent long-term investment.
While deciding whether or not to pursue a gap year, work with your high school guidance counselor, as well as the admissions and financial aid departments at your top-choice colleges, to identify the best possible option for you and your goals.
Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.