It’s a familiar script that millions of students follow each year: Graduate high school and then immediately start college.
But more and more students are embracing the “gap year” — a year of volunteering and working before heading to campus.
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“In the beginning of senior year I was really stressed out with homework and extracurricular activities and everything that goes along with it in high school,” says Elizabeth Campbell, a 19-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas. “And I decided, ‘Hey, maybe I want to take some time off and travel and learn another language.’”
Campbell decided to defer her admission to Furman University for a year and moved to Seville, Spain, as part of a gap year program with the Council on International Educational Exchange.
“I lived with a host family and went to an intensive language study,” explains Campbell, who also spent a significant amount of time volunteering as an English tutor at two local schools, one of which served the children of the Ecuadorian immigrants. She says that in many ways, her year away gave her a leg up when it came time to start college.
“It definitely made me a more open-minded person,” she says. “I was just so stressed out senior year [of high school] and the gap year really gave me a break from that academic pressure and that pressure to succeed and make really great grades. I definitely think that I’m really fresh for college now.”
In many ways, Campbell’s story is typical of students who take gap years, says Jay Bacrania, the CEO of Signet Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bacrania and his colleague Sheila Akbar often help plan gap years for the students they work with, which they stress isn’t a yearlong vacation.
“They are going to be challenged,” he says, adding that planning is key. “It’s not really a way to disguise a year off.”
Students weighing whether to take a gap year should ask themselves these questions:
What do you want to accomplish? “Think about what your goals are,” advises Bacrania. “Is there a project you want to work on?” He suggests that high school seniors talk with their families or other mentors about things they’d like to achieve during the year and to come up with a realistic plan reach those goals.
Are you taking time off for the right reasons? Sometimes students who didn’t get into their dream college think that a gap year can help bolster their college applications and get them to the next level. “We don’t encourage that,” says Bacrania, noting that some students flirt with the idea of the gap year quite late into their senior years when they feel like they aren’t getting into the schools they want. Both Akbar and Bacrania say they usually suggest that students complete the college application process and defer admission for a year.
How much structure do you need? Some students, like Campbell, want to focus on developing a skill or learning a language during their gap years. Akbar recalls working on a plan for a student who was interested in exploring careers in fashion. “We researched summer programs and said, ‘These are the pros and these are the cons.’”
Can you build in time for reflection? The gap year isn’t just about cramming your resume full of volunteer projects or filling your passport with stamps. Can you write a paper or a blog about what you’ve learned? “You want the student to reflect on their experience and find ways to share that experience with others,” says Bacrania.
Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.