Have you heard of students taking a gap year between high school and college? It’s a growing trend at competitive colleges and is becoming mainstream before attending college. Even former President Obama’s daughter took a gap year before starting Harvard.  You may have wondered exactly what a gap year entails and why students are taking them? Gap year means exactly what it sounds like – taking a year off before starting college.

98% of students taking a gap year self-report that they further developed as a person and allowed time for personal reflection. 77% report the gap year had or will impact career decisions and helped them find purpose in life. And 73% said it increased their readiness for college. (http://www.americangap.org/research.php) Colleges collecting data on students taking gap years support these findings as well as students being more likely to graduate in four years.

Not all gap years are the same, evidenced by the increased number of companies planning gap years. There is even a gap college fair, like the college fair but focused on experiences for the year before college. The broad categories of gap year experiences are:

Academic – Students focus on learning new languages, research projects, and developing talents such as music. Some programs offer college credit and programs range from weeks to months.

Adventure/Travel – Students travel to see new cultures and deepen their perspective about the world. Some programs combine travel with challenging skills such as mountain climbing and canyoneering to gain self-confidence and reliance.

Community Service – Students develop a sense of place in the world by giving assistance to communities in need. They learn about global challenges and discover how their actions make a difference.

Environmental Conservation – Students learn skills to become ecological leaders. Mixing travel with educational perspectives of geography, animal conservation, and sustainability skills, students develop their vision of how to make the world a better place.

Internship & Work Experience – Students are immersed in experiences that allow them to experience the world of work and responsibilities of adulthood. In addition to the actual work experience, students develop leadership skills to gain confidence about college and career readiness.

Travel/Cultural – This mixed group focuses on allowing students to expand who they are by traveling and experiencing different cultures. The focus may be on sailing, art, cultural immersion, music or other areas.

Some programs have a religious focus while others are secular. Hybrids combine aspects of different categories. As programs vary in length, a structured year could involve several courses.

Critics bemoan the elitism required for parents to fund an additional year prior to college, and with the rising prices of higher education, make gap years only available for higher income families. Also, voluntourism can perpetuate cycles of learned helplessness when agencies don’t develop models of sustainability in the counties served. By far, the largest criticism is that participating countries may exploit students as they use their services/labor to extend government budgets while denying jobs to residents living in poverty.

As with all investments of time and money, it’s best for families to carefully consider what works for their needs. If taking a gap year is determined to be an advantage, then investigate the history and service of any organization offering gap programs. Talk with those who have completed gap programs. Ask what they learned? Seek out independent reviews of companies offering services. Explore the options and the focuses of different companies. Determine the needs of the person who will participate to determine if companies meet specified goals for the gap year.



Kira J. Holt, M.A.H.S. blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Her books on college planning – common sense planning for the 98% can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2. Kira works as an Independent College Consultant and can be reached at KiraJaneneHolt@gmail.com.