How (and Why!) You Should Help Your Child Take a Gap Year After High School

How (and Why!) You Should Help Your Child Take a Gap Year After High School

Joan Halawi said, “A common misconception in modern American society is that education can only happen within four walls of a classroom.”

Oh, wow. How true is that? It certainly makes the case for heavily considering a gap year.

A gap year — a year off from college to gain perspective and develop occupational skills — is a great option if your child needs an extra year of growth. Taking a gap year is popular in Europe. I remember asking, “Gap year? What’s that?” when I studied in England and heard that almost all people take one. I literally had no idea what it meant.

I originally thought it was such a bad idea to take a gap year or deferral between high school and college. The worry is that a student might never go to college at all. However, in the context of COVID-19, my thoughts have shifted, particularly if you have a high-risk student or a high achiever who wants to spend the year diving deep into something significant.

A gap year can be a great opportunity for your child to slow down and consider what he or she wants out of life (don’t we all need that?!). Your child may want to work (and save money for college), tap into rich experiences, grow more introspective and/or develop new skills. 

Here are a couple of examples: 

Katie is nervous about going off to college during the coronavirus pandemic. She’s not sure that the college she’s planning to attend has the best policy regarding campus safety and she’d rather take some time off from college to see how the school she’s planning to attend will handle the virus. She’s also always wanted to spend time composing and developing her piano skills. She really wants to continue lessons with her current teacher. 

Jake, on the other hand, isn’t sure what he wants his major to be. He hasn’t applied for college yet and he’s going to take a year to “find himself” and determine what he wants his future to look like. In the meantime, he’s going to work at his dad’s accounting firm to decide whether he’s interested in taking over the business someday (though he’s really doubtful). He’s also going to hike and do some backcountry camping in Alaska next summer with a friend (his ultimate passion!).

A deferral is when a student decides to delay his or her start date by a semester or two. It’s different from a gap year, which is a full-year deferral and often involves enrichment, fellowship or other such program.

Here’s how to help your child take a gap year or deferral — successfully.

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1. Help your child understand what he or she will do during gap year.

First of all, why does your child want to take a gap year? A gap year or deferral should involve accomplishing specific tasks or doing something with purpose.  

There are lots of ways to use a gap year or deferral. Is there something your child wants to study on his own? Does she want to start a new venture? Get some work hours under her belt so she has more money for college? Here’s a great list of things your student can do during a gap year or deferral:

  • Learn a new language
  • Complete independent research on a topic
  • Launch an entrepreneurial adventure
  • Make money and save for college
  • Learn how to invest
  • Attack a project that’s been sitting on the backburner (restore a Model T, write a book, etc.)
  • Write, compose, practice whatever skills your child wants to tackle
  • Learn new problem-solving skills
  • Travel
  • Complete an experiential learning program/hands-on learning program
  • Do an internship 
  • Volunteer
  • Do a mission trip (or several)

Needless to say, it’s important to make it clear to your child that taking a gap year isn’t an excuse to sit around playing video games for a year. 

Explore those deeper reasons for wanting to take a gap year together, because any college is going to want to hear why your child’s planning to do a gap year or plans to defer enrollment. Your child is going to need to have a very focused, careful answer.

2. Explain how a gap year might be challenging.

It’s important to convey to your child that since most other kids your child’s age aren’t taking a gap year (at least, in the U.S.) he or she might feel like a fish out of water. How will your child feel when his friends are going off to college? How will your child feel when high school friends are posting about fun times at their respective schools and he’s tinkering with science experiments in the basement or working the late shift at the grocery store?

If he’s got entrepreneurial ambitions, how will he feel if his business isn’t going as well as he thought it would? (Protecting that young confidence can be important.)

A gap year might not be the shiny offering that your child thought it was — and it’s important to share with your child that it might be difficult. Adapting to change might be a great thing to talk about prior to this major decision.

However, it could be the best thing ever. Sometimes change can be monumental! 

There’s evidence that a gap year has specific reported outcomes. A gap year, and in some cases, deferred enrollment, can: 

  • Boost a resume. Who can deny how an internship as a page at the Capitol or implementing a program for the homeless can look amazing on the ol’ resume?
  • Lead to increased job satisfaction. A gap year with real-world experience can clue your child into what he wants to do for the rest of his life (or even what he doesn’t want to do). Our college president always used to tell students at visit days that an internship where you learn exactly what you don’t want to do is just as valuable as an internship that you love.
  • Increase confidence and maturity. Learning how to get along in the world at a young age can make your child feel like he’s got the world at his feet. 
  • Allow time for personal reflection and growth.
  • Help develop communication skills.
  • Increase a student’s desire to learn about various people and cultures.

However, the experience might not end up getting your child all of those things, and that’s okay. It might just be meh — but it might still be a good learning experience.

3. Get admitted, then defer enrollment.

Where is your student in the search process? As a rising senior, your child may be planning to take a gap year after this year.

It’s a great idea to work to get admitted to college starting now. Determine when a college’s applications are due, whether standardized tests are needed and more.

How to Communicate to Admission Offices About Gap Year or Deferred Enrollment

Your child will need to make a good case for a gap year decision. A gap year or deferred enrollment won’t hurt your child’s admission prospects at all as long as your child thinks carefully about how the experience will intentionally help him grow. Here are the steps your child will need to take:

  1. Make sure your student applies to college before the gap year.
  2. Get accepted at that college.
  3. Next, your child will need to send an email or letter to the director of admission at that college to explain exactly what he or she plans to do during gap year. Check out the Gap Year Association for college and university policies concerning gap years. Double-check for the most updated policies at your child’s school.
  4. Submit the enrollment deposit. This amount will be different at every school.
  5. Determine the effects deferral will have on your child’s financial aid or scholarships. Every school is different! Many schools will allow you to keep the same financial aid and scholarships but it could change year to year. Check with the admission office at your child’s school.
  6. Have your child find out whether the institution offers some form of gap year fellowship or subsidy program. Yep, it’s possible to get funded for a gap year!
  7. Note that the school has the right to deny your gap year. If that happens, your child has a few options:
    • Your child can decide to attend the college as scheduled and not take the gap year. 
    • Your student could wait and reapply to college until after the gap year. The downside is that your child may not be able to start college for another two years, which could end up making the transition a bit more difficult. Transcripts, test scores and letters of recommendation may also be more difficult to come by.
    • It may make sense to apply to multiple colleges and ask about gap year policies at each one. 

The process for deferring enrollment is largely the same. Just make sure you ask careful questions about deferment policies at each school where your child has applied.

4. Set targets way before (and during) gap year.

Stephen Kellogg said it best: “The moment you put a deadline on a dream, it becomes a goal.”

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if your child started to launch those dreams during gap year? Why not now? 

You know a year dedicated to watching Netflix won’t help your student, so it’s time to put some specific goals in writing organized by target date. For example, let’s say your daughter wants to take a stab at freelance writing during a deferment. She may want to consult with a freelance writer and map out the year in a nutshell:

  • September: Talk to three freelance writers about their craft. Learn to write a good pitch and send five pitches per day.
  • October: Create a website and social media channels for advertising freelance skills. Pitch to marketing agencies.
  • November: Write successful stories based on pitch results. Continue to pitch.

… and so on. Whatever those goals may be, make sure your child writes them down and has someone who will hold her accountable to those goals. Maybe it’s you and maybe it’s better if it’s someone else.

5. Make sure certain skills aren’t lost.

Your child may be planning to be a math major in college, but what happens if she isn’t taking math classes during gap year? Those calculus skills could slip right through your kid’s fingertips. It’s a great idea to add a benchmark to keep with those skills in some way.

However, know that your student may not be able to take classes, enroll in a degree-granting program at another institution or apply to other colleges during gap year or deferment. Your child could lose his spot in the class if he does. Ask about institutional policies concerning gap year or deferment.

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Is it Too Late to Ask for a Gap Year for this Fall?

The only thing you can do is ask. In some cases, the door’s still wide open! Here’s an example: Dickinson College’s gap year or deferral program request is due via its online form by July 20. There’s still time!

Whether your child has ambitious dreams to transform the world or just wants to earn some money before she spends four years in a lecture hall, being out in the real world can be a transformational experience.

I’ve changed my opinion about gap year. I think it can be a great option for driven students who know they’ll be going off to college! Heavily consider pros and cons, goals and what your student wants to achieve prior to opting for a gap year or deferment. Make sure your child will head off to college after a year. The worst thing that could happen is that your child decides never to go at all.

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