Should I let my high school senior take a gap year before college?
My daughter is a senior in high school and is thinking of taking a gap year before college. My husband and I actually think it’s a good idea. She seems anxious about going directly to college, and we think a year off to “find herself” would suit her; she’s curious and independent and has always learned better by doing. But what if she goes out into the world, decides higher ed isn’t for her, and never even goes to college? I’ve heard of structured gap year programs, but the prices seem steep. What’s the right way to do this?
—Jen K., Portland, Ore.
There are a many different motivations behind taking a gap year. Some students want to pursue a passion or see more of the world, others might want to take time to mature. Some want to work and save up money for college. Gap year experiences can look very different, too—from application-based programs (like the ones you mentioned) to self-study or full-time work. But the common denominator is that, by definition, students return to school.
It’s great that you and your wife are on board. However, your first priority is to emphasize to your daughter that she’s expected to go to college after the year is through. College counselors generally suggest students get accepted to a school before taking their gap year. “It’s really hard to go back and ask for teacher recommendations and the other materials you might need after a year has passed,” former Dartmouth admissions officer Michelle Hernández told The New York Times. So have your daughter apply her senior year as usual. Once she is accepted into a university, she can then contact the admissions office to request to defer for a year before she matriculates. To be approved for a deferral, students usually must send their chosen school an outline of their plans for the gap year.
Which brings me to my second piece of advice: Make sure her gap year is focused and structured. That doesn’t mean that you need to shell out for an expensive program—a number of companies offer gap year “experiences” that can run up to $30,000, out of reach for many families. But it does mean your daughter needs a plan. That can take many forms: working on a political campaign, doing conservation work at a state park, filming a documentary while living abroad—the list goes on. One idea I like is serving with AmeriCorps in an area of her interest, which would qualify her for a reward of up to $6,095 to use toward college at the end of her service. Basically, you want to encourage your daughter to think about her interests and goals, and how she can structure a gap year to complement them.
Of course, you’ll need to answer the question: Can we (and she) afford it? Maybe your daughter will have to work to help fund her gap year, or volunteer in programs that provide free housing in exchange for work (such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF). Or maybe she’ll dip into her savings to backpack on the cheap. Sorting out your financial plan is just as important as planning the gap year itself.
Ultimately, a gap year can be an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience for your kid, one that pays off a year later. “The feedback from students almost all the time has been that this experience was transformative,” William Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard University, told U.S. News & World Report. “The more life experience you bring, the better off you are in school.” There’s even some research that suggests links between taking time off and superior grades upon return to the classroom.
And while there are no formal numbers on how many students take gap years, the Associated Press estimates 30,000 to 40,000 students take one every year. Malia Obama famously took one before heading to Harvard in the fall of 2017 having interned at a U.S. embassy, traveled and volunteered in Bolivia and Peru, and interned at a film production company. Her experience—while obviously rarefied—is a perfect example of how a gap year can be used to explore all kinds of diverse interests, making for an unforgettable year of self-discovery.