Have a Goal
First, start with purpose. According to Handel, gap years can be “highly individualized” and it’s important that a student uses the time effectively to focus on something. “If you’re going to do a gap year, make it count, have a plan and make sure it’s in line with your goals for life,” Handel says. Does your student want to travel abroad? Are they trying to make some money before heading off to college? Or do they need some time to explore their interests through volunteer work? Make sure your student has a productive reason for wanting to take a gap year.
It’s also worth considering if a gap year is the best route to achieve those goals. Sevier suggests doing additional research to see if their reasoning for taking a gap year, such as having an opportunity to travel or saving money, can be met while enrolled in college through study abroad programs, community service projects, or on-campus jobs. While this may not be a traditional gap year, these opportunities still provide the chance to engage in meaningful experiences.
Make a Plan
Once they’ve established their objective for taking a gap year, students should begin mapping out their course of action. Plans may look different, depending on what they’re aiming to achieve. For example, some students may be deferring enrollment for a year, which means they plan to attend their school of choice a year after they’ve been accepted. If this is your student, they’ll need to ensure they understand the college’s policy on students deferring enrollment. “Students need to reach out to the school and see what their options are, because they may need to reapply the following year, which means there’s no guarantee they’ll be admitted again, as they’ll be competing against a new pool of applicants,” Handel says. He also cautions, even if a student has their school’s approval, they need to make sure it’s in writing. “Also, if they’ve been offered scholarship money or financial aid, they’ll want to check to see if this will be affected by deferring enrollment,” Sevier adds.
If there’s a financial component to your student’s gap year, they’ll want to ensure they get a job beforehand and lay out how they plan to save. If it’s about avoiding burnout, they should seek out experiences that could change their perspective on the world. If they’re looking to be involved in a program, they’ll have to be aware of potential application deadlines.
For those whose student’s only plan is to “wing it,” Sevier has three words of advice for parents: “Just say no.” The more research and planning a student puts in prior to their gap year, the more they’ll end up getting out of it. However, accurate preparation isn’t limited to making a list, or checking a few boxes. “For possibly the first time in their lives, students taking a gap year will be pursuing an alternative path from their peers, and they should be ready to ask themselves how that might make them feel,” Handel advises.
While a gap year is a student’s personal experience, they don’t have to do it alone. “School counselors are an excellent resource to help guide the transition,” Rock says. School counselors specialize in supporting students in academics, social and emotional development, and college and career readiness. Because of this, they have a comprehensive understanding of the individual student, their needs, and how to best meet them. They may also have some additional insight on what a student can do during their gap year, and whether it’s a good option for them. Students could also contact campus counselors at the college they plan on attending to explore how to best utilize their time, given their intended major, and how it’ll translate to their overall career.
Find Your Story
Every student has their own reason for taking a gap year, but what matters is what they learn from it. While Handel warns that taking a gap year may not always make a student more “academically competitive,” it can speak well on an individual’s character, curiosity, and ambition. If a student intends on applying to schools following their gap year, they should develop their narrative by reflecting on how taking a gap year enabled them to grow and contribute to the world.