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What You Really Need to Know About the Pros and Cons of a Gap Year

By Vonda J. Sines

If the idea of heading off to college two months after you graduate feels uncomfortable, you might want to consider taking a gap year. There are many reasons why you might want a break from a traditional classroom setting. And there are lots of things to consider before deciding if a gap year is right for you.

Are You Sick of School?

Your parents might be expecting you to enroll at a certain school. Maybe you already have a few acceptance letters. But if you're just plain fed up with classroom learning, a break might be helpful.

A gap year is any structured activity between two academic years. One way to regain your enthusiasm about school is by taking some non-traditional classes. Find out if one of the colleges on your list offers a couple of distance education classes you can take over the Internet.

The most popular gap year choice is study that includes travel. This could be your chance to study anthropology on a dig and to recharge your batteries, so to speak.

The most negative factor for kids fed up with the classroom is the potential cost associated with travel. However, if a gap year helps you avoid academic burnout and possibly even dropping out of college, it could save you several years of tuition and housing costs.

Are You Short of Funds?

Has your family recently experienced a job loss? If so, the cost of college might be overwhelming at the moment. The more you can earn and stash during a gap year, the less you'll have to borrow later.

There are two potential problems associated with working during a gap year. For a full-time job, you'll face questions about whether you intend to stay on the job long-term. If you go for a part-time, unusual job, convincing colleges that your gap year made you more ready for college could be difficult.

Do You Feel Unsettled or Need Focus?

You can have plenty of maturity and still feel unsettled. Take the case of Lillian Kivel, who was highlighted in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Her high school academic and community service credentials dazzled reviewers. However, her focus was so blurry that she applied to 38 colleges. She ultimately decided to take a gap year before going to Harvard.

The down side of being so unsettled as you approach a gap year is that it may be hard finding something that is both structured and allows you to explore a few interests at the same time. Give it some thought. Can you design a gap year that lets you explore veterinary medicine, try your hand at being a poet, or feel out being an accountant? If not, then you may want to reconsider.

For many grads, however, a gap year heads can solidify their decision to pursue a certain career path or save them tens of thousands of dollars on classes whose subject matter would ultimately have little appeal.

How About a Great Adventure?

The opportunities for travel are nearly endless. You can study marine biology in Australia or work in the ape house at a zoo. Or you might choose to spend a year just doing volunteer work.

The positive side to an adventure beyond fun is that it will make you a more attractive college candidate to many schools. In 2009, Princeton launched its Bridge Year program, which provides financial assistance for some admitted freshmen who want to take a gap year.

On the other hand, certain schools may view a year of pure adventure as a sign that you lack academic commitment. Some colleges and universities will allow you to defer your admission for a year. Others require you to re-apply. The biggest negative is probably cost: travel, accommodations, daily living expenses and anything else the adventure requires. It can all add up.

Do You Have a Plan?

Without one, you can't really determine whether taking a gap year is a good choice. Having a plan helps ensure that your gap year is productive. It'll also help you avoid getting into an unsafe situation abroad. A well-thought-out plan will also make it easier to measure what you learned or achieved, a big plus if you'll be applying to colleges after the gap year. One thing's for certain: The effort of planning and funding a gap year is in itself a learning experience.

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