Are you a high school senior uncertain about attending college after graduation, or perhaps a current undergrad feeling aimless with your studies? Maybe you’re a seasoned professional experiencing major burnout with untapped interests outside of your job? If so, you are not alone.
As a college and career counselor with twenty years of experience in the field, I have noticed a large increase in requests from students, parents, and seasoned professionals seeking advice about these same scenarios. Always on the lookout for inspiring and expert information to help my clients develop career focus and life skills, I reached out to Jane Sarouhan, Vice-President of The Center for Interim Programs in Northampton, to discuss one of the best ways students and professionals can gain real-world experience while preparing for the future or discovering a new direction.
Hi, Jane! We’ve known each other for a few years now and have collaborated on helping students develop their interests and focus. Many people describe gap year as "taking time off" from high school or college. Knowing your group as I do, I'd hardly call gap year a break from education! What's the best way to describe gap year to students considering a year off?
What we call a gap year is known by different names in communities and cultures all over the world: a rite of passage, a pilgrimage, a walkabout, a sabbatical, a year out, time on and more. Fundamentally, and globally, it’s a chance to explore the self in the world while considering: Who am I? What’s important to me? What do I want to do with my life?
There are a few elements that we at Interim see as key to successful gap time, resulting in our following definition: a gap year is a defined period of time in which a person takes an intentional break from his/her current academic or professional career to pursue other interests or skills. This definition stresses that 1.) it is a defined period of time, 2.) taken with intention, 3.) in order to explore the self and the world through deliberately chosen experiences.
I see my gap students work just as hard as their college-bound counterparts as they develop and implement their gap years. Once they manage to get through the logistics of planning their gap years, they then spend a year engaging with very big personal and global questions, often quite far from home, and in very different environments. While there will (and should!) be vacation-like moments, and while this may indeed be a break from traditional education, the gap year is certainly not a break from life or learning.
What are some of the reasons why students seek a gap year? Is there a recommended time to take the experience?
Students take gap years for many and equally valid reasons. First and foremost students tend to want, and frankly need, a break from school; most have been in some level of formal schooling for 12 or so years, and burn-out is a phrase I hear a lot. Due to the academic demands of high school, and the pressure to bolster transcripts for college applications, students often have had to forego previous hobbies or interests in order to manage their increased work load, so a gap year allows students to pick those interests back up, or even pursue new ones. Some high school seniors do not feel excited about their college process or prospects; others do not get into their schools of choice. Many students get into their top schools but are worried that they ‘aren’t ready’ and don’t know what they want to study or major in. Additionally, many students express a desire to see the world, to be of service, to gain maturity and independence, to have adventures, and to apply some of their classroom learning (like a language) in a real world setting. I see every single one of these examples as a valid reason to consider a gap year.
While the majority of people with whom we work are taking a year off between high school and college (which is a very natural break), we truly believe that creative risk-taking and personal expansion is equally relevant to all adults, at any stage of life! We have worked with young teens planning summer experiences, and retirees looking for meaningful placements. I would say that anyone who is finding him/herself at a crossroads, feeling confused about the next step in life, is probably a great candidate for some structured gap experience(s).
What kinds of programs are available? Can a student take a gap year and remain in the US?
It is amazing how much is available now for students to pursue. There are group travel programs, volunteer opportunities, internship placements, language schools, wilderness courses, academic semesters, research trips, work exchange options and much more. There are gap opportunities in the US, and all over the world. Some experiences may be 3-day workshops, and others may be 9-month programs. Some students will engage in one program, and others may piece together 4 or 5 over the course of a year. Again, working from our broad definition explained above, we have seen that an individual who spends nearly any amount of time, anywhere in the world, devoted to some particular focus, will come away with a satisfying and expansive next step along his/ her inquiry of: what’s next for me?
How should a student go about choosing a program? Is there a matching process?
Before even thinking about choosing a program, I urge students to get out their laptops (or pens and paper!) and start ‘the list’. They need to be able to articulate what it is they want before just looking through websites. Start by dreaming big: it is essential for students, and their passions, to drive the process, and I don’t want students to rule something out before even investigating if it could really be a possibility. Gradually as the list takes shape we can bring things down to reality and practicality if need be. ‘The list’ should start with some of these initial questions: Why do I want to take a gap year? Where do I want to go? What kinds of things do I want to do? What do I want to learn? How important is it to be with peers? What is my timeframe? What is my budget? What are my parents’ criteria? Together, the initial answers will provide an important starting point.
Next up is starting the real work of finding programs that will be a match. It’s important once landing on a few appealing programs on-line to get off of a website and get onto the phone. Call the organization and have some questions ready, such as: How long have you been running this program/ placement? Can you describe a day in the life? What kinds of things will I be doing? How much support is available if I need it? Always ask for references, and be sure to follow up with those alumni to learn more about their experiences. Trust your gut, and don’t be afraid to ask tough questions.
There are more and more websites that provide listings of programs, and others still where programs can be reviewed by former participants. While it’s exciting to see the gap opportunities gain such visibility and accessibility on-line, this level of saturation demands that families be more discerning than ever before. Websites with program listings do not guarantee their reputability, just as a positive review does not guarantee satisfaction. It takes time, research and a lot of question-asking to find not just what is interesting, but what is reputable and a good fit.
The growth of the field has certainly changed what we do as gap year counselors. Whereas 35 years ago at Interim we were more of the gatekeepers of many of these options, now we are the filters, directing overwhelmed families to the vetted placements that we feel best match all of their perimeters.
I always advise high school clients contemplating gap year to continue with the college application process. Would you agree with that advice?
Absolutely. Even if a student feels lukewarm about applying and thinks that s/he may (re)apply during the gap year, applying during one’s senior year is a great ‘trial run’. In the best of scenarios students will get acceptances they like, those schools will grant deferrals, and the gap year can be enjoyed without a thought to college. Equally positive however is the experience of having gone through the motions of applying to college alongside peers, with the added support of parents and college counselors. Then, if a student applies again during a gap year, s/he has a great foundation to refer back to, and the process will be that much easier the second time around.
Are colleges and universities supportive of students taking a gap year before college?
It’s been so exciting to see colleges become increasingly supportive of the gap year. Those of us who have been in this field of experiential education for a few decades know anecdotally how powerful these experiences are for students. Clearly colleges are also now identifying the benefits of students taking a break after high school, and reporting that students who have taken gap time are coming on campus more mature and focused.
Furthermore, Bob Clagett, former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, stated in a September 2010 Time magazine article that while crunching numbers he found that a single gap semester was the strongest predictor of academic success at Middlebury College. Mary Lou Bates, Dean of Admissions at Skidmore College, also independently relayed that freshmen who had previously taken a gap year had GPAs that were invariably several points higher than their non–gap time peers.
What are the known benefits of gap year? Do students return better equipped for the college transition or to continue their studies?
I could go on and on about the benefits of the gap year, but perhaps for this question I will cite a 10-year study (conducted from 1997 to 2006) of North American gap year students by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, which illustrates some of the dramatic benefits of taking gap time.
Haigler and Nelson found the highest three rated outcomes of gap years, as reported by the students, to be: "a better sense of who I am as a person and what is important to me", "a better understanding of other countries, people, cultures, and ways of living" and "additional skills and knowledge that contributed to my career or academic major."
What about students who feel burned out? Can gap year provide respite and valuable experience?
Burn-out is among the top reasons students report wanting to take a gap year, and I can certainly attest to the fact that students return from their gap years reinvigorated, both emotionally and academically. The gap year allows students to simply engage with new routines and experiences, which is bound to be thought-provoking. It stretches students beyond what they thought they were capable of, and that vastly grows their sense of confidence and curiosity in what’s possible. Furthermore, having the opportunity to apply previous schooling directly to the gap year helps students connect the relevancy of school to the ‘real world’, and suddenly those language, science, history and even math classes seem pertinent, and important. By the end of their gap years, students are often chomping at the bit to get to college.
I receive a lot of calls from parents concerned about college readiness; they believe a gap year may be the best choice for their son/daughter. What do you say to parents reaching out to you asking the same?
Gap programs and placements will demand a great deal of students, who will be held to high standards. Given the right combination of people, place and purpose, gap students are compelled, in a way they may never have been before, to live up to those expectations. The idea of ‘getting as much out of something as you put into it’ rings true for these students, who tend to throw themselves into the presented opportunities. Students tend to also develop invaluable and applicable life skills (cooking, doing laundry, managing a budget, showing up on time, developing communication skills and more). I hear new levels of maturity and accountability in their emails even a few months into their gap years, and parents remark to me all the time how much more mature, involved, engaged and focused their children are when they come home. All of these new insights and skills translate into the gap student’s success in the college environment.
I recently met a young woman who failed to get into two colleges of her choice due to a tough junior and senior year. She is eager to demonstrate that she is capable of performing college-level work. Can a gap year program help her as she reapplies?
I do think a gap year can be a great way for a student to take stock on his/ her college applications, as well as bring new content to them. Colleges look favorably upon gap years, and a productive fall gap semester can and should certainly be incorporated into an application. That being said, I do caution students from taking gap years for the sole purpose of improving their college acceptances.
Let's talk about cost. What kind of cost is involved? Are scholarships available? Do any programs qualify for college credit?
A gap year can run the gamut in terms of cost. More structured programs can cost $8,000 - $15,000 a semester. Lower cost volunteer placements could cost about $200 to $400 a week. It’s important to review closely what program fees include (lodging, meals, airport pick up, insurance, lectures, entry fees, etc.) and to be sure to budget for additional expenses that are not going to be included (flights, passport, visas, immunizations, gear, etc.) Have a budget in advance and make a strategy so that you can create a year’s worth of fulfilling experiences. We encourage students to work during vacations, summers, and even part of the gap year to help with costs. Instead of birthday, holiday, or graduation presents, ask for contributions to the gap year. Ask programs if they have financial aid. While many programs do offer college credit, we often find it is not relevant to most gap students, as the colleges where they are ultimately headed do not accept those college credits from incoming freshmen.
If someone is thinking about gap year, when should they contact you?
Anytime! Ideally high school students who have an inkling that they may want to take a gap year should get in touch with us in the fall of their senior year, and certainly by the winter. We remind students to consider a gap year among their college options, and that speaking with us may help with some important decisions along the way. That being said we have had recently graduated high school seniors call us in late August when they were taken off of a waitlist for a January admission. We are ready to have a conversation whenever they are!
For more information about gap year programs and to reach Jane, please visit: www.interimprograms.com
Counselor. Mentor. Dream Developer. I am a veteran college and career consultant helping clients of all ages prepare and perform for success!