Should I take a gap year?

If you aren’t quite ready for college, make the most of your time before you go

Not every teen goes directly to college after high school. Many students decide to take time off for what is often referred to as a gap year.

“There are so many options for how to fill your gap year — from volunteering and AmeriCorps to military service or full-time employment,” said Pamela Carr, assistant principal at Seacoast School of Technology in Exeter.

She said other considerations include attending a trade school or taking an apprenticeship for a year. “Learning a trade through a formalized program like a trade school or apprenticeship allows you to truly experience a career and allows you to see what it takes to be successful in that profession,” she added.

Additional possibilities include programs like Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFing) or Work Away, although there are costs involved. Andrea Badger, director, College and Career Advising at High Mowing School in Wilton, said programs like AmeriCorps or Student Conservation Association, however, are tuition-free.

“They offer wonderful possibilities for personal growth and for having an impact on the world,” she said. “There are also programs where students can earn college credit for their gap year experience.”

The benefits of taking a gap year

Zanna Blaney, dean of student services at Bedford High School, cited numerous benefits to taking a gap year, including time to save money and to grow both personally and academically.

“Some young adults just aren’t ready for the full or typical college experience when they are 18,” she said. “Some students need time to mature a bit and discover what it is they want to devote themselves to in the next phase of life.”

For those who may need to improve their academic record, she said New Hampshire’s community colleges offer substantial value.

“Students can take a few ‘gen eds’ each semester to strengthen their academic skills and ‘portfolio,’ while still living in the comfort of home with that familiar support and most likely at a fraction of the cost,” she said.

For those who live in a small town, Jennifer Chapman, school counselor at Moultonborough Academy, said a gap year can provide an eye-opening experience to expand their world-view. “It can help a student narrow in on what they want to study in college, or it can help a student define their plan,” she said. “Students who do a gap year can really learn a lot about themselves, because it is a break from the more prescribed, traditional path they have been on.”

The pitfalls of taking a gap year

Carr said it is important that students consider the long-term implications should they elect to take a gap year. “For some,” she cautioned, “it can lead them down the path to full-time work without a plan for more education, so it is important for anyone considering a gap year to truly contemplate their reason for it.”

Blaney agreed and noted the short-term goal to save money in a gap year often does not exactly pan out.

“When considering the cost of tuition and room and board at most New England colleges, one more year of saving from a job paying minimum wage may not be worth the sacrifice of interrupting their academic path,” she said.

Blaney said another possible pitfall is keeping a gap year to one year, as she noted many students become overwhelmed trying to apply to college on their own.

“When they are seniors in high school, all of their peers are writing college essays and filling out applications,” she said. “They are surrounded by teachers willing to write a letter of recommendation and a school counselor who can easily send out several transcripts.”

She said when students are away from that environment, however, time can sometimes slip away. For students who feel a gap year is in their best interest, she said she always encourages them to apply to college along with their peers.

“This way, the student may have the option to defer for a year,” she said. “They can send a deposit to the college they plan to attend and the institution will hold a spot for matriculation in the year after.”

Blaney said gap years sometimes yield unanticipated results, as she cited two cases where students traveled around the world only to return and “completely change their path in life.”

“They decided to no longer attend their original school,” she said. “In these cases, the students lose the deposit, but can still apply to colleges that are better suited for what they decided is their new path today — nothing is lost.”

The plan

According to Chapman, the key is to have a plan. “If you want to work, where are you going to work?” she said. “Getting a job that is more in line with your interests will be much more beneficial than continuing to work at a fast-food restaurant, for example.”

In advising students, Chapman said she asks them to remain open to meeting people and learning from others.

“I have had some students say they want to travel for the year,” she said. “In this instance, we usually need to talk about finances, and students will end up working part of the year and traveling for a short time. A few students have also looked into the WWOOF program or other more defined travel programs so they have some structure.”

Carr agreed and added, “If you experience [the gap year] ‘on the fly,’ you may just find yourself hanging on the couch when you could be volunteering, traveling, or learning a trade. In order to make your gap year productive and meaningful, you need to plan and carefully plot how you are going to spend your time. How this time is spent will lead you on the career path of your dreams.”

Rob Levey is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

Categories: Advice