4 Ways to Make the Most of Your Gap Year Away From School

gap year

After spending so much time, money, and effort into getting accepted to a college, it might seem crazy to put off attending.

But about 30,000 to 40,000 students — including President Obama’s older daughter in 2016 — do it annually, according to the American Gap Association (AGA). Some universities encourage or even help freshman fund time off campus.

If you’re considering a gap year between high school and college, you’ll want to make it worthwhile.

How a gap year works

First of all, it doesn’t have to be a full year. Many students take a gap year — also known as a bridge or launch year — for a single semester.

Typically, students accepted into college elect to defer enrollment to a later date with their gap-year plans in mind. Some schools, including Harvard University, push students to take a break before beginning their college career. The prestigious Ivy League school estimated on its website that 80 to 110 of its freshman do so each year.

Other universities offer specific gap-year programs. Florida State University, for example, rewards some of its freshmen with as much as $5,000 of support for service-oriented gap-year ideas. Other school offerings include:

Gap years aren’t specific to undergraduates. About 60 percent of Northwestern University’s medical students, for example, take time off before applying for more schooling.

It’s wise to check with your school about its stance on gap years before making plans for your own. Some institutions aren’t exactly on board with the idea.

4 ways to have a productive gap year

According to the AGA National Alumni Survey, students who take a gap year end up with higher GPAs than peers who attend college straight from high school. But not everyone thinks “gapping” is a good idea. Detractors say it’s an expensive interruption and only for students from wealthier families like the Obamas.

To ensure your gap-year ideas are worth your time (and money), consider these four ways to be productive.

1. Broaden your horizons via gap-year programs

The strongest argument for taking a gap year is also the simplest. As a pre-college teenager, this is the one time in your life when you can travel the world without worrying about the responsibilities that most adults fret over.

You’ll just have to figure out how to pay for it.

Thankfully, learning a language and embracing a new culture might not be as expensive as you think. As part of some gap-year programs, you could exchange your time for room and board, especially if you’re placed with a host family in another country.

It might be worth attending a gap year fair to learn about programs in your price range. Consider the following programs:

  • Global Citizen Year: Tuition costs $32,500, though 80 percent of its students receive at least partial scholarships based on merit or their FAFSA.
  • Omprakash: Volunteer overseas and receive support and mentorship. Omprakash can even help you crowdfund your adventure.
  • Service Year: Find gap-year programs that pay a monthly allowance and offer academic credit and student loan forbearance in exchange for your time.

You might also consider AGA’s list of accredited gap-year programs. You can also sign up for BootsnAll’s 30-day email series to flesh out your gap-year ideas.

2. Find your future major

If you’re not sure what you want to study in college, let alone what profession you’ll seek after you graduate, you could use your gap year to narrow your focus.

After all, choosing the wrong major could cost you thousands of dollars.

Give business and economics a test drive in Madrid, Spain, via the Council on International Educational Exchange. Take teaching for a spin by finding related gap-year programs on GoOverseas.com.

You could also pursue less formal training by asking for an apprenticeship. If you’re a high school senior interested in journalism, for example, stop by your local newsroom. If you could imagine taking on your parent’s career, shadow them.

Offer your time for free and observe everything the jobs entail.

Any work experience you can gain before college will not just inform your choice of major — it will also improve your resume as you move toward finding in-school internships. You might even find that you enjoy a trade career that doesn’t require taking out student loans.

3. Establish roots and in-state residency status

Establishing residency in your school’s state to score a lower tuition rate is easier said than done. It can take up to one or two years of living in a state before you can even apply.

But the time and effort could be worth the significant savings. Out-of-state tuition at a four-year public school is about $14,480 more expensive than that it is for residents, according to The College Board.

If you’re an independent student, for example, you could spend your gap year checking the boxes of your school’s residency requirements:

  • Finding a place to live
  • Holding down a job
  • Opening a local bank account
  • Registering to vote

Consult your school’s financial aid office to review its specific requirements before deciding to pursue in-state tuition.

If you take a gap year to move, make sure your financial aid award won’t change by the time you enroll. Your school might have more or less scholarship money to offer you depending on its annual allotment.

4. Save up for school

When you’re admitted to school and find it’s too costly for you in the short term, it might also be too costly to travel to a remote part of the world or even relocate.

But a gap year gives you time to finance your next four years of college. Use the months off to find and apply for scholarships. Take on a job or two to start saving for tuition.

Living at home and eating home-cooked meals, if possible, could help you maximize your savings even further.

And you don’t necessarily have to sell out and work retail. You could volunteer for AmeriCorps, for example, to score thousands of dollars for your college education.

Preparing for your own gap year

No matter how productive you are during your gap year, don’t expect to suddenly be able to gain admittance to a much better school. Colleges are most concerned with your academic record, and it’s unlikely that even high-tuition, gap-year programs can change that.

What a healthy and happy gap year can do is put you in a better position to excel in school.

The AGA survey also found that “gappers” were more likely to be satisfied with their post-college jobs than peers who never took a temporary leave. Maybe that’s because they were afforded the opportunity to stop and take a breath before tackling a higher education.

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