taking a gap year

Guest Post By Marie Schwartz, CEO, TeenLife Media

If you’ve even thought about taking a gap year, you can already hear the objections from your parents in your head. Maybe it goes something like this:

“What?!? You going to spend senior year filling out college applications, gathering financial information, tracking down scholarships, writing essays, sweating test prep, and then you’re not going to go???”

Take a breath. This is going to be OK. 

For starters, it’s not that you don’t want to go to college; it’s that you don’t want to go to college yet. A gap year is a postponement, not a cancellation. It’s a break from traditional academics, a way to push the reset button and get smarter about yourself before you go to college. Your parents may see it as a year “off,” but it’s a really a year “on,” just not in a traditional classroom. A gap offers time to explore a possible major or to explore the world. It can include travel, work, community service, and/or adventure. It’s a chance to learn a new language or meet new people or become braver. It gives you time to practice the independence you’ll need to succeed at college, and gives your brain and emotions some breathing room before your next round of academics.

But first, of course, you have to convince your parents.

So, let’s talk about what you might say to counter their arguments, a discussion that might go something like this:

  1. “If you take a gap year, all this time applying to college is a waste.” Let’s get this one out of the way first. You are still going to apply to colleges and you are going to get those applications in on time! But you are going to research college deferment policies for any schools on your application list, and understand the impact, if any, that taking a gap year might have on financial aid. Do this early, because the financial aid question could affect how you shape your gap year, or even the schools where you apply.
  2. “If you take a gap year, you’ll never go to college.” The American Gap Association, which accredits structured gap programs, estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 students participate in these programs for at least a semester every year—and that 90 percent of them go on to college. Some colleges, in fact, are encouraging gap years or semesters because those experiences have been shown to make college students more focused.
  3. “If you take a gap year, you’ll be behind academically and never catch up.” A survey of gap-year alumni by the Gap Association showed that gap-year students were likely to finish college in four years and have GPAs of 3.0 or higher. Gap years help with motivation, according to research.
  4. “If you take a gap year, you’ll be in debt. Gap years are for rich kids.” There are all kinds of ways to fund a gap year. You could work for part of the time, or use a crowdfunding site (particularly if you want to do community service) or contract with your parents to share the costs. Some gap programs offer scholarships. Others may offer college credit and qualify for 529 college savings plans. You can apply to a college like Princeton that offers a gap or “bridge” year program, or apply to a college like Florida State that offers gap fellowships. There are gap opportunities to match all budgets.
  5. “If you take a gap year, you put yourself at risk.” Without being a smart-aleck, point out that “risk” is the point. Whether you spend your gap year in Africa or working a mile from your house, the point is to spend the time discovering new things about the world and yourself. Taking a gap year doesn’t just mean backpacking alone in exotic places. If you want to travel, gap programs provide safety and expertise. But you can also discover the wider world on your own in your hometown by combining a job with, say, community service or language classes. The “risk” is getting out of the cocoon of school. That said, you need to reassure your parents that you have the maturity to keep yourself safe on a gap year and that you aren’t just looking for an opportunity to be in a country with a lower legal drinking age.
  6. “If you take a gap year, it will be one more thing on the to-do list that I have to nag you about.” Ok, this is where you have to do your homework. You need to think about what you want to do during a gap year, where you want to go and how to pay for it before you start talking to your parents. And, you need to be very, very realistic about your ability to take care of yourself and your need for structure. Your parents know you better than anyone (I know it doesn’t feel that way during senior year, but it’s likely true). So, honor their skepticism. If you are the type of kid who can’t get your college essays done in time, it’s going to take some convincing that you can spend a month in France without losing your ATM card. So you need to show them now you are responsible and resourceful enough to solve problems that come up, and that you’re humble enough to ask for help when you need it. Rest easy that they don’t expect you to be perfect, but they want to know you’re trying. And their tone might start to change to something like this:
  7. “Ok, let’s talk about a gap year.” Exploring the possibility of a gap year doesn’t commit you to anything. You can talk to your guidance counselor; browse gap semester or year programs on TeenLife.com or in our annual Guide to Gap Programs; or even talk with a Gap Year Advisor. In the meantime, keep up with your college applications so that you have all options on the table. After you’ve done your gap homework, set a time to talk to your parents when there’s nothing else going on (not in the heat of an argument about your screen time). You might be surprised at their reaction. After all, who knows you better?

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Written by Marie Schwartz
Marie Schwartz is the CEO and Founder of TeenLife Media. She launched TeenLife in 2007 after moving to Boston with her family and discovering that there were no information resources for families with teenagers. Now, TeenLife's award-winning website lists thousands of summer, performing arts, therapeutic and gap year programs; schools; college-admission resources and volunteer opportunities for teens throughout the world.