After 18 years in a classroom, you might be ready for a break.
Taking a gap year between high school and college gives you an opportunity to recharge your batteries. That’s why some of the best schools in the country, including Harvard and MIT, encourage admitted students to defer enrollment for a year.
Whether you work, volunteer, or travel the globe, taking time away from school could give you a fresh sense of purpose. According to the American Gap Year Association, 81 percent of “gappers” would recommend the experience.
Of course, there are also gap year disadvantages you should know about. Before committing, make sure to consider all the gap year pros and cons.
4 common benefits of taking a gap year
1. Recharge after years of schooling
Being a student comes with a lot of pressure. High school can get especially intense as you balance school work, clubs, sports, college applications, and the SAT. A gap year can be a refreshing break from academic demands.
“The pros of a gap year … come into focus after several years of intense pressure to get good grades and study hard in high school,” said traveler Maggie Hayes of Totally Teen Travel. “Taking a year off prior to college allows the gap year participant to relieve that intense pressure valve.”
Although some parents warn that a gap year can make you lose academic momentum, Art Corriveau, head of marketing and communications for EF Gap Year, suggests the opposite is true.
“Recent studies show that gap students actually perform better in college, get better grades, and take on more leadership roles,” said Corriveau. “Strong evidence suggests that over 90 percent of gap students enroll in college the very next year.”
Rather than distracting you from your course, a gap year could re-energize your commitment to the classroom.
2. Clarify your goals for school and work
The cost of college has been steadily rising. According to College Board, one year at a private school costs $32,410. If you have no idea what you want to study, a gap year could give you much-needed time to clarify your goals before shelling out that kind of money.
“College is a big expense in both time and money, and sometimes a graduating senior just doesn’t know where they want to go and what they want to study, or if they’re ready for college at all,” said Jane Stine, managing director of Loop Abroad.
“In this case,” she continued, “a gap year can be a great way to refocus, recharge, and learn more about some educational paths and options.”
You might even find unexpected opportunities, like Josh Shephard of The Lost Passport did after taking time off both before and after college. “I explored Asia for nine months by motorcycle,” said Shephard. “At the end of the journey, I landed a job in the solar industry in Bangkok where I lived and worked for the next five years.”
Although Shephard wasn’t planning to live in Thailand, his experience led him to professional success. He’s now a project manager who builds solar farms and runs a travel blog on the side. “Neither of these would have been possible without [the] gap years I had taken,” he said.
By taking time to learn about majors and careers, you can gain a much stronger sense of direction.
3. Save up money for college
Although some students spend money during their gap year on travel programs, others take this time to work and save money. With the average Class of 2016 grad leaving college with $37,172 in debt, it could be a smart move to build up your savings first.
You might work in a restaurant or store, or you can offer freelance services online. Another option is to join a government program. City Year, for instance, is an Americorps program that places high school graduates in schools around the country. You’ll gain teaching experience, along with a monthly stipend.
By working and saving now, you won’t be so burdened by student loan debt later.
4. Gain a new perspective on yourself and others
Gap years come in different shapes and sizes, but they all offer the chance for you to learn more about the world and your role in it.
“Taking a gap year is a chance to step off the treadmill, leave your comfort zone, explore your values, and test your assumptions,” said Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year. “It’s a chance to figure out what gets you out of bed when there’s no alarm clock, and to practice becoming your best self when you’re a world away from home.”
Falik traveled to South America, where she expanded her perspective on the world. “The year I spent outside the classroom, living and working in Brazil and Nicaragua, was the most formative part of my education,” she said. “I learned to speak to people in their own language, and to see the world — and our country — through their eyes.”
Corriveau echoes this idea. “Gap students grow more self-confident, self-reliant, and mature while they are away,” he said. “They become better independent thinkers, communicators, and problem-solvers with finely tuned cross-cultural awareness.”
Of course, you don’t need to travel to experience personal growth during your gap year. Whether you work, intern, or volunteer, your year off offers a chance to mature and broaden your horizons.
4 potential gap year disadvantages
Along with all the benefits, there are also gap year disadvantages to be aware of. These are a few possible downsides to taking time away from school.
1. Extra planning is required
Without careful planning, you might not get much out of taking a gap year. But designing a year of your life is challenging, especially if it’s the first time you’ve ever had this freedom. The stress of planning can be one of the major gap year disadvantages, especially if it falls at the same time you’re applying to colleges.
“In general, lack of planning is what causes a gap year to go from helpful to hurtful,” said Stine. “Doing your research, making a plan, and communicating with college admissions offices can help you ensure that your year off invigorates, recharges, and informs your educational path instead of derailing it.”
Stine warns students against spending the year lying around on their parents’ couch. “If you aren’t confident that you can keep yourself to a schedule and take on new challenges, but still want to take a gap year, you might look for an organized program that can help ensure you are held accountable and stick to your goals,” she said.
If you’re struggling to plan your gap year, a program could help you structure your time.
2. Programs come with high costs
Although programs can help with planning your gap year, they can also be pricey. Volunteer programs, for instance, are rarely free. They often cost thousands of dollars, especially if they involve international travel.
With college just around the corner, you might not have money for this additional expense. That being said, some scholarship organizations provide financial assistance for gap years. Grants and scholarships could help bring these experiences within reach.
3. You might be totally on your own
Although a gap year offers the chance for personal development, you might have growing pains along the way. Whether you work or travel, you’ll have to deal with the challenges of branching out on your own.
You might live away from friends and family for the first time. If you travel, you could get homesick as you struggle to adapt to a new culture. Plus, you might feel like you’re a year behind your peers who went straight from high school to college.
All these feelings are natural when making a big life transition, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Since a gap year is still an uncommon practice in the U.S., you might feel stress and uncertainty about your decision to take one.
4. Getting financial aid could require more work
More and more colleges allow admitted students to defer enrollment for a year. But you likely won’t carry over the same financial aid package. To get financial aid, you might have to submit the FAFSA again for the following year.
“Some scholarships may not allow you to take a gap year, and you’ll need to reapply for financial aid,” said career advisor Geoff Scott of CareerMetis.com. That being said, you might not have to worry about your financial aid package changing.
“Reapplying for financial aid won’t be an issue … as long as your financial situation hasn’t changed much from when you applied originally,” said Scott. “This would be a huge con if not for the fact it has minimal impact on most aspiring college students.”
Even though reapplying for financial aid might be a hassle, your financial aid package should look similar to the original, assuming your family’s financial picture hasn’t changed drastically.
Consider all the gap year pros and cons before deciding
Taking a gap year between high school and college has long been a popular practice in other countries, but in recent years, gap years have become more popular among American students.
Although we don’t know exactly how many students take time off, the American Gap Year Association noted a 294 percent increase in gap year fair attendance since 2010.
Students spend their gap years in a variety of ways, but the best approach is to have a plan and set goals for yourself so you don’t feel like you’re wasting time. By setting goals and tracking your progress, you can make the most of your gap year.
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