Imagine your kid is a senior in high school. He’s got 13 years of schooling behind him. Thirteen years of teachers, and homework, and pressure, and testing. It’s a lot. And with all that accomplished, now he’s facing four years of college without a break. To take a year off for a gap year would be giving up, folding under the pressure and setting him up for failure… right?

Not in the least, says Anthony Tasso, chair and associate professor of psychology and counseling at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. "Sometimes both parents and students have this image that they must go to college right after high school no matter what, or they’ve somehow failed. That's not true."

The idea of taking a "gap year" between high school and college—to travel, work or volunteer—is common in places like Europe and it's catching on in the U.S., experts say.  Here’s why taking time off  before college might be right for your kid.

They Can Figure Stuff Out (and Maybe Work)

Tasso sees a big difference in some students who wait a year before entering college, including an increase in focus. "It can be a time to say ‘Okay, let me gather my thoughts. Let me think about what I want to do. Let me work for a bit. Let me try different things.'" He remembers one student in particular who took a gap year  to work and decide if he even wanted to go to college—something it's important to be sure of. He decided he did. "Sometimes there’s that refreshing vigor," Tasso says. "Even though they’re only a year older
than the traditional freshman student, they come in with a different mindset." 

West Orange resident Tamara Sofair-Fisch, whose two sons both took a gap year in Israel, agrees. "Working is wonderful. Even if it’s entry level, you learn so much," she says. "If nothing else, you learn, 'Wow, I really want to do more than work at this entry-level job all my life.' But it depends on your kid."

“If you have a student who really knows themselves and what they want to do, then going right to college makes sense,” explains Sofair-Fisch, who works as a psychologist.  "But for a whole lot of kids, they don’t know what they want to do. They get into the college scene and they drift off, because they want to be accepted and liked.  It’s a very scary thing to be away from home for the first time.  Sometimes their first year is totally wasted.”

Take a Gap Year to Give Back 

Many teens spend their year out of school helping others, either abroad or in the United States. Companies like ARCC Gap arrange gap year trips that take kids to help needy communities around the world. Students spend their time helping villages build clean water filters, for instance, or learning about how to prevent rhino poaching in East Africa. "They’re doing hands-on projects," says ARCC Gap Director Sophia Weeks. "And they’re also getting a really rich cultural experience."

Weeks took a gap year before college herself with AmeriCorps’ City Year Program, working as a teacher’s assistant in an inner-city Philadelphia school. "I grew up a ton, and it put my life into perspective," she says.  "The little issues that we think are significant back home in our high school days become quite insignificant when we have the opportunity to see the bigger world. I was really ready to go back to school. I had much more of a sense of direction.  My gap year totally spelled out my trajectory from then on out."

Abby Klionsky, who ultimately went to Princeton, chose a 10-month leadership training program in Israel for her time off. "By the time I returned to the States, I was fluent in Hebrew. More than that, I came into college prepared for the level of independence expected of students, and had a head-start constructing a healthy balance of work, play, sleep and food."

How Do Colleges See Gap Years?

Of course, you still have to consider how a gap year is going to affect college admission. Check with the schools you’re interested in and research their policies, suggests Peggy Richmond, director of admissions at Keene State College in New Hampshire. "Some institutions might defer the student’s enrollment, while others may require students to complete another application after the gap year." 

You'll find that many schools whole-heartedly support a gap year—even the ultra-competitive Ivies. "Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way, provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college," according to Harvard's website, noting that between 80 and 110 students defer their enrollment each year. 

Princeton even funds a nine-month tuition-free program, called a "bridge year" for several dozen incoming freshmen at five different locations around the world. These students team up with international organizations and help tackle problems facing communities around the globe.

What’s the Downside?    

Cost: Traveling around the world to volunteer can be pricey. ARCC Gap’s programs run between $12,500 and $13,500 per semester, not including airfare. CIEE, a non-profit organization that arranges travel abroad programs, offers trips ranging from $12,500 for six months in Chile to almost $26,000 for eight months in Japan, not including airfare. Student assistance and scholarships are available, but in most cases these programs do not give educational credit and are not eligible for aid.

Financial Aid Reduction: While merit scholarships may still carry over to eventual college enrollment, the amount of financial aid may dip after a gap year. “There’s no guarantee students will get the same financial aid package, because their income could change. All need-based financial aid is based on income,” says Richmond. Families may need to reapply for financial aid packages after a year off.

Changed Plans: There’s also the relatively small possibility that after a gap year, the student will decide not to attend college. According to the American Gap Association, a non-profit group that accredits gap year programs, 90 percent of students who take time off end up going to college.

Insurance: Most companies that run gap year programs provide insurance in case there’s a medical emergency, but that doesn't apply if your kid is traveling alone.  Some opt to pack a backpack, buy a Eurail pass and head out on an unscripted adventure. And while that may be a good choice for those students, parents should look into contingency plans for emergency medical care and evacuations.

Wasted Time: Some students don’t use their gap year wisely. Sleeping in and watching TV for 12 months isn’t the way you'd want your kid spending his time out of school. 

A gap year can be life-changing. Make sure your kid knows all the options and has done all the research to have the best experience.

Helpful Planning Sites

American Gap Association: A non-profit organization that sets standards for gap-year programs. A great place to start.

National Association of Independent Schools: Offers a comprehensive list of gap year programs.

USA Gap Year Fairs: Hosts dozens of gap-year fairs across the country that can help connect you with programs and information.

Gap Year A social network and travel advice website that includes great planning resources.

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