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What Is A Gap Year And Should You Take One?
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What Is A Gap Year And Should You Take One?

If you’re graduating from high school this year but don’t feel like now is the right time to start college, you’re part of a growing trend. The Higher Education Research Institute reported that approximately 3% of all high school graduates take a year off from school before attending college, based on a 2018 survey. During a gap year—the time you take before enrolling in college—you might travel the world, volunteer or gain work experience.

There’s evidence that students’ interest in gap years has increased because of the coronavirus pandemic. With many colleges still using remote or hybrid models, many students are opting to delay enrollment and are instead focusing on personal or professional development.

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What Is a Gap Year?

The majority of college-bound high school graduates start school right away. However, a growing number of students are opting for some time off from school in the form of a gap year.

A gap year gives you time to pursue other goals before returning to the formal structure of school. It can be an appealing option in the following scenarios:

  • You’re worried about the pandemic. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, you may be concerned about how your intended college is handling safety measures. Or, you may want to delay going to school so that you can get the full college experience once the pandemic is under control.
  • You want to boost your savings. If you want to avoid student loan debt as much as possible, taking a year off from school can allow you to get a job and save. By tucking your earnings away, you can boost your college fund and reduce the need for loans.
  • You feel burnt out. With standardized tests, college admissions essays and end-of-year requirements, your senior year of high school can be exhausting. If you feel drained, taking some time off before enrolling can be a smart idea. You’ll have time to rest and recover so you can go to college refreshed and ready to learn.
  • You want to travel. The time before you start college is the perfect time to travel; it’s one of the freest periods of your life. You have relatively few responsibilities, so you’re able to pack up and go abroad for weeks or even months at a time if you have the funds to do so.
  • You want to try out a certain field. If you’re not sure which major to choose, a gap year can be helpful. It gives you a chance to work or volunteer in your chosen field. That experience can be invaluable; you can find out if that career path is right for you before you start paying tuition.

How Gap Years Affect College Acceptance and Financial Aid

When you share your plan for taking a gap year with your family, high school counselors or teachers, a frequent concern is that you won’t end up going to college or that it will affect your admission. However, those are common misconceptions; 90% of gap year students return to college within one year, according to a report from the Gap Year Association, and many schools have formal admission deferment programs.

For example, Harvard University encourages students to take a gap year. Its department of career services will even meet with students to discuss their options and make plans for the gap year. There is also the Harvard Gap Year Society, an on-campus organization that connects current Harvard students who completed gap years with incoming students taking time off from school.

Gap Years and Enrollment

If a college has accepted you as an incoming student, you can typically defer your enrollment for a semester or an entire academic year. You may be required to put down a deposit and submit a written plan for how you’ll use the gap year. During the gap year, you generally cannot take college classes at another school, or you’ll forfeit your place as a student.

Impact on Financial Aid

While colleges will often hold your spot for a year, financial aid is handled differently. Because some scholarships and grants are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, you may have to relinquish those forms of financial aid and reapply when you’re ready to enroll.

If you completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a high school senior and decide to take a gap year, you’d have to submit it again before you enroll in college to qualify for federal financial aid, including student loans.

Pros and Cons of Taking a Gap Year

While a gap year can be advantageous for some students, it’s not a good idea for everyone. Here are some things to consider before making your decision:

Pros

  • You can gain valuable work experience. During a gap year, you can get a full- or part-time job and gain experience. In college, that can give you an edge as you compete for internships and other opportunities.
  • You can try out certain professions. A gap year gives you time to work in your selected field before committing to a particular major—and before spending money on related classes.
  • You can travel. If you decide to travel during your gap year, you can see landmarks around the world, become immersed in other cultures and develop your foreign language skills.

Cons

  • It can be expensive. Depending on how you spend your gap year, it can be expensive. For example, traveling overseas can be costly, and you’ll still have to pay for college when you return.
  • It may not add value. A gap year can be valuable, but only if you have a plan in place. Otherwise, you may end up spending your time on activities that don’t contribute to your goals.
  • It changes your college timeline. While it may not impact you right now, keep in mind that a gap year will put you a year behind your classmates who enroll right away. It might be challenging later on when they’re graduating from college while you’re still in school.

5 Tips for Taking a Gap Year

If you decide to take a year after graduating from high school, here are some tips to help you plan.

1. Plan Out How to Pay for Your Gap Year Experience

If you plan on delaying enrollment, you may have some added expenses you didn’t consider. You may have to pay for your room and board, as well as transportation. If you intend to travel to see the world or to volunteer, you will likely have to cover the costs of plane tickets, hotel stays and other extras. Those expenses can add up, so you need to create a budget and a plan for how to pay for it.

You have a few options for financing your gap year:

  • Scholarships. Some organizations offer scholarships and grants to students planning gap years. You can use the awards to pay for a specific program or to offset your other expenses. Visit the Gap Year Association, EF Gap Year and Go Overseas to find potential opportunities.
  • 529 savings. If you have money set aside for your education in a 529 savings account, you may be able to use a portion of your account to cover some of your gap year costs. However, 529 plan funds can only be used to pay for formal gap year programs that allow you to earn academic credits.
  • Part-time jobs. Taking on a part-time job in high school and during the first part of your gap year can be an excellent way to gain work experience and build up your savings.

2. Divide the Year Into Segments

To use a gap year wisely, you need to develop a plan for how you’ll spend your time off from school. You may find it helpful to divide the year into segments or semesters to give yourself structure and deadlines.

For example, this is one way to structure gap year:

  • August 2021 through December 2021: Volunteer building houses in South America
  • January 2022 through May 2022: Internship with a local marketing company
  • June 2022 through August 2022: Summer job to save money
  • September 2022: Begin college

3. Talk to Your College’s Admissions Office

Contact your chosen school’s admissions office to inform them of your plans and to ask about their gap year policies. While some schools will hold your place for a year, others won’t, so it’s important to keep that in mind.

If your school allows you to defer enrollment, the admissions office may ask for a deposit and a written proposal on how you’ll spend the gap year. In your proposal, be as specific as possible about your plans. Emphasize how the gap year will affect your personal and intellectual growth and how it relates to your selected major.

4. Consider a Structured Gap Year Program

While you can design your own gap year, you may find a structured gap year program more beneficial. Companies and universities create their own gap-year programs. Depending on the program, you could spend weeks or months overseas, learn a new language or complete a rigorous leadership skills program.

The Gap Year Association and Outward Bound have several structured gap year options.

5. Look For Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteering can be an excellent way to broaden your worldview and push yourself out of your comfort zone. With gap year volunteer programs, you can build schools overseas, provide disaster relief in your own state or participate in animal conservation.

Americorps, CityYear, WWOOF and UnitedPlanet are all resources for gap year volunteer opportunities.

Is a Gap Year Right for Me?

A gap year can be a chance to decompress after high school, gain real-world experience and broaden your perspective. However, gap years aren’t a good solution for everyone. When deciding if it makes sense to take time off from school, consider your goals, budget and your college’s admissions policy.

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