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Why a gap year is more than just a break

By Ariana Crisafulli 2019-01-04 10:32:11

When I was in high school and was considering university, I had one thing on my mind: get the heck out of Dodge. This is not to say that where I grew up was a terrible place or that I had an unpleasant childhood. Quite the opposite, in fact. I grew up in a lovely beach town in Southern California with creative and caring parents. But, as a restless soul with ambition, I saw bigger things for myself than what my small, adorable beach town had to offer. When I was that age, I saw university as the only gateway to the big, wide world.

I had a wonderful time at university. The classes were intriguing, and I was able to explore subjects and activities that were not available to me in high school. However, I was also scattered. I went into university as a communications major, but I wavered many times. I took a geology class at one point and decided that rocks and dirt were my new passion. I started learning about space and buried my nose in library books on astrophysics, and even envisioned myself as Dr. Crisafulli, Ph.D. Never mind that I can hardly do simple addition and subtraction. For my required internship, I worked on a farm because I was caught up in a frenzy of sustainability that week.

I graduated as a communications major with a fantastic GPA but without much real-world experience in communications. Although I now make a living writing and editing, it was not an easy path to get there. I could hardly show a magazine or newspaper my agricultural internship experience. You don’t grow readership by watering it, after all.

When I look back now, I realize that I could’ve suffered a whole lot less confusion and academic heartbreak had I had a clearer vision of my interests and talents before entering into university life and an American-sized student loan package. I might have also avoided living in the leaky San Francisco basement room after graduation, attempting to get a practical job at the age of 23 with a questionable resume. But hey, c’est la vie, right?

Today, young people are discovering that there is actually a way to get all this experimentation out of the way before starting at university. It’s called a gap year, and it’s a year-long break (usually between high school and university) where students can travel, intern, work, and overall gain real-world experiences that will help them discover or nurture interests and talents.

Why take a gap year?

After high school, students may feel a touch of the burn-out blues. By the time graduation rolls around, students are looking at a track record of nearly 18 years of structured education. While school is undoubtedly an exciting time for exploration, it also adds up to years of exams, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities. Students who want to end up in good universities work hard to get the grades and scores that will open all the prestigious university doors for them. But by the time they get there, they may need a teensy break.

While they’re taking a breather, they may also get the chance to stop, take a look around, and discover the things that interest them the most. Although not everyone is as scatterbrained as yours truly, it’s conceivable that 17 or 18-year-olds may not have it all quite figure out yet. A gap year creates breathing room for those young people to explore what interests them in a real-world setting and to take advantage of opportunities that were perhaps unavailable to them in high school.

Michelle Klar, a guidance counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai, says that this is the number one reason that students choose to take a gap year. “Students want to have life experiences and explore areas of interest or service - gaining skills, abilities and knowledge that were not fully available in a structured high school experience.”

The Gap Year Association, an organization that facilitates gap years, gives us an even clearer idea of why students choose to take a break. They report that 92% of gap year participants want to gain new experiences, 85% want to explore new cultures, 81% want a break from academics, 48% want to do volunteer work, 44% want to explore possible career paths, and 41% want to learn a language. In fact, calling a gap year a “year off” may be misleading. Most young people want to take a “year on”.

With a pocketful of real-world experiences, many students enter university with a sharpened idea of themselves and of what they want out of life.

  • 98% of students say their gap years helped them develop as a person.
  • 84% say it helped them acquire skills to be successful in future careers.
  • 97% of gap year students report increased maturity.
  • 73% say the gap year experience increased their college readiness.
  • 96% say a gap year increased their self confidence.
  • 60% of gap year participants said their experience influenced their choice of college major.

You could even look at a gap year as a way to prepare for university. With the crazy schedules that our young students keep nowadays, their focus is most likely on getting into university. A gap year gives them the time to think about what they want to do once they’re there. After all, the focus should not be on getting into university, but on how they use their time there. This will not only make their time at university more enjoyable (and less confusing) but will help them take the necessary steps to landing their dream job after graduation.

Perhaps the most important thing that a gap year offers is the confidence young people gain from the experience. While university is certainly a time to discover and try new things, those four walls of academia are still in place. A gap year experience is a unique moment in time when those four walls are down, and yet young people still have the chance to test drive the real world without real world consequences.

Even so, many students and their families may feel a twinge of concern when it comes to considering a gap year. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the path less traveled, and that can always be a bit scary. Most commonly, families express the concern that the gap year student will fall behind or “slack off” if they take a year break from academic study.

Michelle says that she often runs into this concern with parents of Concordia students who are considering a gap year. The underlying question is, is a gap year worth the risk? With a student’s future on the line, a gap year can seem like a frivolous decision. However, Michelle says that in her experience, she has seen just the opposite of reduced drive. “A gap year can help the student clarify what is important to him/her and pursue university with focus and renewed commitment,” she says.

And if you consider the impressive list of influential figures who have graduated from this school of life, so to speak, you can hardly call a gap year a bad decision. Ever heard of Elon Musk? This brilliant entrepreneur took a gap year before going on to co-found PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. What about Steve Jobs? This technology visionary who started Apple first took a gap year living in India where he meditated and learned how to tap into what was important to him. Malia Obama also adds her name to this list. Before attending Harvard, she did homestays in Bolivia and Peru where she learned Spanish and had the chance to see how other cultures live.

I’m not saying your kid will be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs (or daughter of Barack Obama?) if they decide to defer university. But taking a gap year certainly gives a young person the chance to see how the rest of the world lives, and to discover what things are most dear to them.

What does a gap year look like?

Gap years can be as varied and diverse as the students who opt for them. Some students choose to backpack across the globe while some decide to volunteer. Some gap yearers even get a job or an internship, helping to narrow down their interests and giving them something concrete to show a future potential employer. Other than important factors such as the interests of the student and the family’s resources and comfort level, a gap year is only limited by the imagination.

Students can commit to one project or spend their year trying all the things that interest them, like Alma Chelouche did. This former student of Shanghai American School who now attends Goldsmiths University of London planned her gap year to incorporate travel and practical experience. Alma spent her year interning in Shanghai for the media company GTB, volunteering with refugee children and working as a waitress in Israel, and serving as a camp counselor in the Berkshires in the United States.

While some students prefer working and interning, others choose to spend their time simply exploring the world with nothing but a backpack to keep them company. While this may sound like a recipe for disaster or an excuse to slack off, it’s anything but. Imagine the challenges that arise when traveling alone as someone who has always had the safety net of their family and school. The logistics alone of getting from point A to point B, maybe in a country where you don’t speak the language, teaches young people a mountain of self-sufficiency, confidence, problem-solving, and even finance management. After all, when they have to budget their way around a foreign country without an allowance, they might think twice about buying that beer if it means forfeiting a night in a cozy hostel.

However, plenty of students choose to sign up for a gap year program on their year break to ensure that they have a clear plan to follow. Organizations such as Gap Year Association and Global Citizen Year provide students with the opportunity to live with a host family, volunteer, intern, work, and more. Programs are tailored to the interests and talents of each candidate and to the kind of experience they want to have. Students can choose to focus on one project and stay in one place, or they can move around and get a feel for different things that might ignite their curiosity.

Things to consider

Don’t delay, defer

Although there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to a gap year, there are certainly a few things worth considering before the decision is made. One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that, even if a student is 110% sure that a gap year is just what the doctor ordered, they should absolutely not delay university applications. While all their peers are going through the university application process in high school, your gap-yearer-to-be should be doing the same. Once they’ve had the excitement of being accepted to the university (or universities) of their choice, they can then choose to defer.

Look into university and financial requirements

While many universities these days open their arms wide to gap year students, there are some that do not offer the deferral option that a gap year necessitates, so be sure to check university deferral policies before applying. Universities that do accept deferrals may have different limitions. Some may only accept a deferral of a few months, while others allow students to defer for up to two years. If your child wants to take a full year break, make sure that the university they’re applying to allows it.

If your family is depending on financial aid to see your kids through university, it’s important to keep in mind that some scholarships and financial aid packages have “no deferral” limitations. If that’s the case, a gap year may not be the best option.

Plan ahead

Whether your child wants to spend their year working or backpacking, it’s a good idea to first figure out what they want to get out of their experience. If they’re working or interning, do they have a clear idea of the kind of work they want to do, or would it be better to try different projects? If they’re backpacking, do they know where they want to go? Would they like to volunteer? Are they prepared for independence without a safety net and are they able to budget? Asking these kinds of questions in preparation for a gap year will help students remain focused so they can get the most out of their experience.

Final thoughts

In the twilight zone of a gap year, young people have the chance to discover themselves in ways that we rarely get to in our whole lives, and they can do so in relative safety before the pressures of the “real world” become front and center. So, as you prepare your teens for their eventual leap out of the nest, consider what a gap year might look like for them. You never know, they could become the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs! Kidding. Sort of.

 

Good to Know

• Apply to universities first, and defer upon university acceptance. This will bring peace of mind that there is a plan at the end of the gap year.

• Make sure the universities your child is applying to accept deferrals.

• If your family is relying on scholarships and grants to see your child through university, make sure that the scholarship allows a deferral.

• Sit down with your child and help them plan their gap year long before it arrives so that they get the most out of their year.

Michelle Klar

“A gap year can help the student clarify what is important to him/her and pursue university with focus and renewed commitment.”

Alma Chelouche

Alma Chelouche spent her gap year waitressing and volunteering in Israel, interning in Shanghai, and working as a camp counselor in the United States.