Gap Year before College

When 21-year-old Jeremy showed up at his family home in the middle of a semester, his parents thought he was there for a surprise weekend visit. It took him several hours to admit that he’d dropped out of college and had stashed most of his stuff at a friend’s apartment. He told his parents he’d already been staying there for a week and had landed a job working in construction nearby.

For weeks, his parents tried to figure what might have gone wrong. He graduated near the top of his high school class and won a coveted spot at one of the highest-ranked public Ivies in the country. He was on two athletic teams in college and had a big scholarship as a result.

According to WashingtonParent, less than half – 43 percent – of students attending public universities graduate within five years. Only a little more than half – 55 percent – in private schools finish within that period.

Long before a student reaches high school, parents have made their expectations clear. Either they expect their child to go to college or find some type of meaningful adult work. Sometimes “college” carries with it the assumption of a medical, law or other advanced degree.

With a college expectation comes the assumption that it must automatically start two or three months after high school graduation. However, some kids aren’t ready for college then.

Especially in times of economic uncertainty, when the popularity of community colleges and trade schools soars, a family’s expectations are often challenged. Students who might not be able to attend the school of their choice sometimes flounder, wandering what to do instead. Others simply lack the maturity or perspective to head off to college right after high school.

The so-called gap year – a break between secondary school and college or university – has been popular for many years in England, Australia and New Zealand. Parents and educators view it as a time for increased self-esteem and maturity, one that adds value to the college years. Students who have chosen gap years have emerged more mature, more active in their college experience and more likely to succeed afterward.

There is no specific definition of gap year beyond when it occurs. However, it typically represents a structured activity like community service, travel or work. In deciding whether to take advantage of a gap year, students have to ask themselves three things: where would they like to go, in which activities they would have an interest and how long would they like the experience to be.

A gap year might include working on a construction crew, rehabilitating wolves in Canada or volunteering in a prison literacy program. It might take the student a state, a country or a continent away from home.

It’s important that teens take the lead on finding the programs of interest and making the placement work. Otherwise, they’re merely slipping into a slot created by their parents. Successful gap years should have structure built into them. This helps assure safety and makes the experience more productive. Just planning a gap year is a learning experience.

For many kids, the gap year is their first chance to discover a passion. Some of them have simply continued to swim alongside their peers all through school in terms of choosing activities, interests, social alliances and even elective courses. Students who have listened to their inner yearnings and have discovered their passions during a gap year often return from the experience with radically different ideas of where they want to go to college and what they have in mind for making a living.

Gap years aren’t for everyone. For some kids, following their friends directly from high school to college is the only thing that feels comfortable. Even though many students work the summer after they graduate from high school or during the fall semester following it, gap years can be expensive. Sometimes attending two or three partial-year programs can be cheaper than picking one that lasts an entire year. Choosing a program that offers academic credit or at least a small wage or accommodations can help offset the cost of college later.