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What is a Gap Year and Why It Might Be Good for You

You thought you were all set after submitting 10 admission applications last fall. However, you're not so sure now. Maybe years of more school to become an architect or a doctor has little appeal. Or paying $50,000 to go to any school—a lot of it in student loans—makes you feel queasy. A gap year might be the answer.

If your family programmed you for a slew of academic degrees, they'll probably suffer a shock when you talk about taking off a year. The shock will be a lot less if you've done at least some research toward a plan for the year after high school.

What Exactly Is a Gap Year?

A gap year is a break between secondary school and enrolling in a college or in a university. It's been an option for years in England, Australia and New Zealand. However, it's never been a popular option in the United States.

Some parents may worry that top colleges will look disparagingly at a gap year. And there's also the concern about losing coverage under a parent's health insurance plan.

How Do I Figure Out a Plan?

The place to start is figuring out why going to college right after high school just doesn't feel right. Maybe you were pressured into applying for schools that you know won't be a good fit. Is cost a concern?

Sometimes kids suddenly realize that their futures were built on their parents' dreams, not their own. If you weren't academically inclined in high school, it's unlikely that will change the minute you move into a college dorm. If your life has revolved around sports but you were recently injured, college might not even feel realistic.

Whatever your reason for wanting to delay, the outcome should be some sort of personal growth.

How Many Options Are Out There?

The short answer: Hundreds. In making a plan to discuss with your family, look at options related to your reason for delaying higher education.

Educational Worries

If college courses feel overwhelming, consider taking a few classes at a local community college or via distance education. Ideally, the credits should transfer to a four-year school, but the main idea is to try out college classes.

Finances

The easiest way to avoid borrowing money is to earn it and stash it. The more you earn from a job and save, the less you'll need to borrow later.

Travel

A number of commercial sites offer a combination of international travel and work/volunteer options for students at least 17 years old. Ask your guidance counselor for the names of the reputable sites. If your family has to pay for all your overseas travel and accommodations for you to study marine biology in Nassau or filmmaking in France, a gap year can cost a lot. Make sure you have international insurance while traveling.

Internships

A gap year is a great opportunity to try out various careers through a paid or unpaid internship. Most students aim for Federal or state jobs or internships with large companies, but you don't have to go far from home. Contact local government officials such as county supervisors, town council members or even the mayor for an opportunity to work. If you offer part-time hours, you'll still have time to earn cash elsewhere. You can also contact a local vet, medical doctor, engineer, public relations professional, or lawyer to check out these careers if interested.

Public Service

A great place to research is AmeriCorps, a Federal site devoted to matching individuals interested in public service with available spots. It now has several options, so be sure to investigate all of them to determine which is right for you.

Non-profit Urge

You might be the perfect person for a non-profit career. Take a peek at Idealist.org for jobs, volunteer opportunities and information about the non-profit world. Also consider volunteering locally, like teaching reading to adults.

The Result

Regardless of how you spend it, a gap year should have structure. Planning it - and funding it, if necessary - can be a learning experience. At the end of your gap year, chances are that many colleges will find you a more desirable and more focused applicant.


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