Did your kid take a gap year?
September 24, 2016 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice on gap year experiences (between HS and college)

My daughter is pondering the idea of taking a gap year before entering college. I'd love to hear any advice from parents whose kids did a gap year, or from academic professionals - Admissions or otherwise. Pros, cons, how to structure etc?
posted by ecorrocio to Education (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My son went to what you could call a Gap-Year-Structuring institution (this was in the Netherlands, so it did cost a bit of money but not idiotically much). He says he got a lot out of it (and it provided a good soft start for living away from home). They let the scholars try out various skills etc. without too much pressure, while implementing a well-defined structure. I guess this principle could be replicated even in a quasi-homeschooling setting, if there's time for a grown-up to provide coaching.

My gut tells me, on the other hand, that 'just' a gap year with nothing planned to do isn't such a great idea, most of all because a year is so short. Before you know it you are at the same juncture again and nothing real has happened...
posted by Namlit at 9:07 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

What is the intended purpose of a gap year for your daughter? Why does she want a gap year? One of my three children did a gap year because he hated school so much he did not want to go to college. TL; DR, turns out he hated working long hours for little pay even more.

My son did a gap year two years ago. He is highly intelligent but not very motivated when it came to school. He approached his mother and me about not going to college right away, if at all. He had ridden his bike across the country with a group of 8 when he was 16, had spent a summer (17 yo) hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, and generally thrived in non academic environments. He just wanted to get a job and decide after a year if he wanted to go to college.

He got two jobs and continued his service as a volunteer fireman and worked with the big brothers program. Worked his tail off. Low paying jobs. After about 6 months, he, without telling me or his mother, applied to 5 schools and got into 4 of them. He is now in his sophomore year at college and thriving (except for the one emergency room visit/ 3 day hospitalization thing).
posted by AugustWest at 9:12 AM on September 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

High school teacher and parent of three young adults, one who took a gap year. I live in an academically-challenging town where something like 98% of grads go to college (many Ivies, many top-ranking places) and the high school is well-known for being a rigorous pressure cooker. However, I'm most definitely in the camp of emotional health being FAR more important than academic success and I've put very little academic pressure on my kids and tried to let them make their own choices.

This really all comes down to what she wants to do after high school. Does she eventually want to go to college? Leave home? Move far away? Does she have an area of passion she wants to learn more about? Does she generally enjoy school? Does she have non-academic activities like a job or volunteering she loves?

The biggest gap year pro I've seen is that it relieves massive pressure senior year and that in and of itself can be a good enough reason to put on the brakes as long as she is also getting help in learning how to deal with pressure and stress. A mistake I've seen is the gap year is an avoidance technique and the kid doesn't learn anxiety-reduction skills.

In my experience, a gap year has more cons than pros if a kid is emotionally healthy. It often ends up being an aimless year of mostly sitting on the couch, sometimes working a part-time job and possibly taking community college classes as their friends get a year ahead of them in college.

The biggest unexpected con my daughter found because all of her friends had moved and her automatic social school social network was gone, she really had nobody to hang with on a daily basis. When her friends returned home and they got together, the common conversation was about school and she was left out of that which ended up further distancing her from friends.

I've seen some gap year success, but it only happens when the kid has a genuine plan for that year like volunteering regularly (or an overseas program) and attending classes while also working. Otherwise it really does have a tendency to quickly downward spiral into a whole lot of nothing going on and no friends to talk to.

My kid (24) who took a gap year has now decided to finish college and says she wished she never took that year off, fwiw.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:28 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, there are many 13th grade/PG (post-graduate) programs and every single family I know who did this regretted it. They all felt it was a massive waste of money because most freshman are understandably nervous. Nobody knows what they want to do with their lives at this point.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:38 AM on September 24, 2016

I took a gap year to volunteer and study (not for credit) in a foreign country, and my parents have since called letting me go the best parenting decision they ever made by accident. I personally think the biggest benefit is one that nobody has mentioned: I started college already having A. already learned to live on my own and handle my own shit, and B. getting all of the "I'm on my own! Party time!" stuff out of the way before starting actual classes. These two factors meant that I was able to dive right in on my classes without having to also deal with adjusting to being on my own for the first time, and I think contributed a lot to me doing very well academically.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:41 AM on September 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

The biggest unexpected con my daughter found because all of her friends had moved and her automatic social school social network was gone, she really had nobody to hang with on a daily basis.

I should mention that several of my friends from high school were on my program with me, and I might have had a very different experience if they hadn't been.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:43 AM on September 24, 2016

I'm a professor and have a few students who have taken gap years for varying reasons. I am only seeing the subset of the gap year population who then actually do go on to college, but I will say that typically the gap year students I've had have a better handle on why they are at college from a career preparation standpoint (as opposed to a social or athletic one) than your average freshman.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:45 AM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

My niece was applying to colleges mostly on her own and missed various aid opportunities so I invited her to come and live with me for a year, to do volunteer work and generally get her act together away from her mom. It turned out to be a good move for my niece because she got to practice independence within a safe space. It's weird how Americans often refuse to give their kids real freedom to grow their ability to take on responsibility and then expect them To be totally mature at 18 and throw them into The challenging and often not particularly safe environment of college. In any case, my niece went on after nine months living with me to attend college. She graduated in three years because she didn't want to take on more debt than she needed to, and now she's got a professional job and is doing well. I have no idea how it will work for other people, but she wasn't really ready for college. And she discovered that by taking a couple of community college classes while she was with me and that helped her understand what she would need to change to be successful when she got to her four-year university.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:27 AM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know someone who's recently done this in New England, and her family was able to hire a "gap year consultant" who talked extensively with her about her goals, found structured programs that would help with those, and mediated some family dynamics to help them settle on a good plan. The family felt like it was worth the fee; if you've got a complicated situation/needs and adding a neutral a third party might help, this might be something to look for in your area.

If you're looking for something structured, there's a whole ecosystem of programs set up for this - some in exotic locations, with different focuses including science, service learning, language learning, physical, and so on. Obviously, some of them are pretty expensive - it could end up being as or more expensive than going to college for the year. If this is the kind of thing you're interested in, say the word and I can try to list some of the programs she looked at.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:32 AM on September 24, 2016

Also anecdotally, first year of college is a tough time, and a lot of students have trouble with it to varying degrees. The students I've known who did a gap year (or two) were generally much better able to handle it, since they'd already learned to be more independent and had a better sense of why they were coming to college. The flip side of that was a degree of distance from their first-year peers (since they were a little older and more experienced).
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:36 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I took a gap year way back before the term existed. Everybody thought I was crazy. I spent the year working as a typist at an insurance company. Working for a year made me appreciate going to school and I got much better grades in college than I did in high school.
posted by FencingGal at 10:43 AM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of my three children did a gap year because he hated school so much he did not want to go to college. TL; DR, turns out he hated working long hours for little pay even more.

I worked for two years after HS because I hated school, and thought I had a really cushy gig as basically an IT intern. It took me those two years, working retail, and my future wife's encouragement to get me to realize college was where I wanted to be. I was still a crappy student, but hella driven towards a real professional career -- I wouldn't have had that resolve had I gone straight to college.
posted by so fucking future at 10:54 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I did a gap year with City Year, an AmeriCorps program. I went ahead and applied to colleges my senior year of high school and then deferred my acceptance for a year. I think this was a good move because a) I might not have gone to college at the end of the year otherwise honestly, and b) it's easier to apply to colleges while everyone else is and you're in the same building/town/state as your references and transcripts.

It was a positive experience for me, I was able to get a little money to pay towards college, I got a whole lot of lot of perspective through the work I was doing and living in a big city for the first time in my life, and I learned a bunch of 'adult' things like how to cook and financial stuff ahead of college.

That said, I think I would have been fine just going straight to college too. I was a little burned out on school but I think college would have been different enough that it would have been okay.

I think continuing to live with my parents and just get a job while my friends went off to college would have been pretty depressing. I understand that's a financial necessity for some kids but I wouldn't choose it for any other reason. So I'm definitely on team structure and new experiences.
posted by geegollygosh at 11:15 AM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding AmeriCorps as a thing to look at. I did AmeriCorps (Maryland Conservation Corps) the year after graduating college and there were people in my program who were doing a gap year thing as well as people who came in out of high school not intending to go to college and people who were older in the age range (18-25) who had some college but hadn't finished. I think it was a valuable year's experience for all of us and we all being very different people got different things out of it.

I recommend AmeriCorps all the time to my students graduating from college and uncertain what to do next, and I would definitely recommend it in a gap year situation, particularly, as geegollygosh said, if it would involve not living at home. That could be just moving and living on your own in a city with a program you're interested in, or it could be joining NCCC or another program that provides housing and a bit more structure.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:30 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I gap yearred twice, between high school and college, and again between college and grad school. Each time I applied to the school and deferred for a year, so I knew what I was walking back into at the end of the year.

The first time I did a Rotary Club high school exchange in France, and I attended high school in France and lived in host families. I was on the young side anyway, and the extra year of growth and maturity and world-knowledge did me a world of good. I now work in the international education field, and I credit that first gap year experience for the path my life has taken.
posted by Liesl at 11:36 AM on September 24, 2016

Here, in Denmark, gap year is so common it feels like it is mandatory. My eldest daughter worked and also volunteered as an intern in a conflicted country, but to be honest, it was a waste of time for her. My intuition is that it will be very meaningful for her sister. The difference is that my elder daughter has always worked, since she was 13. The "sabbatical" didn't make much of a difference. The younger child has no experience at all, and may benefit from internships.

As a teacher at university, I must say that I prefer students with some work experience. I'm not rigid with this, but for most students, the discipline of studying is enhanced by work outside college. I teach students from all over the world, and I find that American students, regardless of their talent and intelligence, are often vulnerable because of their lack of experience and their dependence on their parents.
posted by mumimor at 12:46 PM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

I took a gap four years.

I worked in national parks, met people, traveled internationally, biked across the USA, learned about myself, learned some social skills and other life skills, and so forth. I did all this without having the added pressure of being a full-time student, and I think that was healthy.

Then I hit a point where the things I wanted to do and learn next required a BA. So I went back to school and got my bachelor's degree.

As an added bonus, I aged into federal financial aide while I was in college - the FAFSA considers your parents income until you're 24 even if you file taxes separately and have no financial ties.
posted by aniola at 1:06 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

AmeriCorps makes for a good way to structure a gap year.
posted by aniola at 1:07 PM on September 24, 2016

There's also working a summer job (coolworks.com) and then using the savings to go WWOOFing (work/trade on organic farms for room & board).
posted by aniola at 1:09 PM on September 24, 2016

Very common in the UK too. I taught English in Russia for six months, then went travelling around Asia. My brother worked as a snowboard instructor in Canada.

Both were arranged via organisations who sorted out visas etc. Mine was pretty shambolic, but it was only my gap year, so it didn't really matter. The basic accommodation and admin fuckups were character-building rather than dangerous.
posted by tinkletown at 3:01 PM on September 24, 2016

I took, welp, an inadvertent gap year. I went to college directly from high school, but the school was a bad fit for me. Also, as yes I said yes I will yes mentioned, my high school was an intense pressure cooker experience, and the stress from that caused me not to start college on the right foot. I made some questionable life choices and ended up dropping out after my freshman year.

My parents refused to support me, so I had to get a job, find an apartment, and basically live as a normal adult with no family support at all. After a few months of this, I got my head screwed on a little better and applied to college again for the following year.

I'm now in my 30s, so any direct consequences of that year off of school are quite apparent. Here's what I'd say about it:

- It really didn't matter at all that my "peers" were "a year ahead of me". When I went back to school I made new friends, most of whom were a year or so younger than I was. But surely, if I had stayed at my original school, I would have made friends with underclassfolk, anyway. I had younger friends in high school as well, so being 20 when everyone else was 19 was not a huge deal to me. I also have to say that the breakup of my core high school friend group after graduation was a tough thing to go through, regardless, and is almost inevitable for any teenager.

- This is something people do. I never felt judged for having taken a year off. Having a different college graduation year than most middle class white people born in 1981 has had no impact on my adult life.

- I really became the adult person that I am in that year. I started college and subsequently dropped out as an entitled little shit with no experience of how the real world works for regular people who haven't lived in a Gifted Kid bubble their entire lives/don't have upper middle class parents. Having to just be a regular person -- or worse, someone regarded as maybe a little dumb or fucked up or underachieving -- was a massive reality check, and it built a lot of character. There is a part of me that thinks that everybody should have to work for a living for a year during young adulthood. Most of the really bigoted people I know never had a job or had to pay their own way between birth and graduating from law/medical/business school.

- Because I lived on my own for a year without financial help, I developed a lot of life skills. It was nice to restart college knowing how bills work, how to use public transit, how to grocery shop and cook, why it's a bad idea to binge drink the night before a final, etc. Knowing how to deal with this stuff made focusing on academics a lot easier.

- One thing I do regret is that having done this meant that my dance card was pretty much full for the rest of college. I didn't get to study abroad, or backpack through Europe, or "find myself". Shitty service industry work seemed very tiresome by the time I graduated. I also felt like I had a lot to prove. This depended on family perceptions a lot, and maybe you are the type of parents to fund this sort of seeking phase in addition to the initial gap year. But my parents were not shy about saying "hell no" to anything else I wanted to do in my early 20s that reeked of flaky aimlessness, and they heavily pressured me to get a career and be independent after graduation.

- Another regret is that, as much as popping the Gifted Kid bubble made me a better person, I did really lose out on a lot of opportunities connected to that type of status. Once you step off the Gifted bus, they never let you back on. (No idea if any of this is relevant for your particular kid, but, yes, a lot of doors are closed to "nontraditional students", even very bright ones who only missed one year of school because they needed mental health time after a highly pressurized high school experience.)
posted by Sara C. at 7:27 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I took a gap year, for a work visa to the UK, and spent a year working and travelling, depending on myself for the first time in my life, and having all sorts of incredible experiences. My parents paid for the flight, everything else was funded by my savings and jobs over there. At the end of the year I was much more confident and secure in myself, and genuinely wanted to start studying (rather than just doing it because it was the next step).

I'd absolutely recommend it if it gets you out of your comfort zone in a big way. I'm not so sure it world have so worthwhile I'd I'd just been living at home working some crappy job.
posted by twirlypen at 7:37 PM on September 24, 2016

my middle daughter took a gap year. she applied for colleges picked one she was admitted to and during a conversation said she didn't feel ready for college. It seemed like a good idea toe after we talked more and we settled on AFS. She deferred admission and spent a year in south africa working at a camp for kids to experience the nature and animals of africa. she says it was the best thing she ever did (although she has just begun a two year stint in the peace corps in rwanda and that might become the new best thing or at least a tie).
posted by bluesky43 at 8:40 PM on September 24, 2016

I didn't take a gap year. I went to college when I was 17. I got a (mostly) part-time job to pay rent and try to have a life. That part-time job led to a lucrative career that has nothing to do with my degree. I busted my ass to avoid debt and it worked for me when I went into a professional job. Maybe if your kid takes a job in her preferred profession- maybe AmeriCorps even, if she is gaining skills that will help her get a job.
posted by kamikazegopher at 12:32 AM on September 25, 2016

My brother, sister and I all did a foreign exchange year after high school. My sister and I had both applied for uni and deferred. My brother had decided that he didn't want to do year 12 or uni, but didn't know what he wanted to do, so he went to Canada for a year.

It worked well for all three of us. We all grew up a lot and gained a lot of prespective getting out of our whitebread suburb in the most isolated city in the world. All three of us moved back home afterwards, as my sister and I went to Uni, and my brother got a job and later an apprenticeship. We were all probably a little insufferable about being more grown up than our peers, but that's because we were. We also all missed the mad first year of legal drinking (18 here), which I don't regret a bit.

I think it's best to have a structure for the year, and an end date to start tertiary education if that's the plan. However, my brother floated between jobs and travel for a few years before starting his apprenticeship, but I'm not sure if forcing him to pick something immediately out of school would have been better for him. My sister also dropped out of Uni during second year and started working fulltime, which worked really well for her.

We were obviously lucky to have parents who were financially willing and able to support us.
posted by kjs4 at 4:51 AM on September 25, 2016

I DIDN'T take a gap year. I went from being an overachiever in highschool, to an illustration major in art college, which I then dropped and switched and ended up with a bachelor degree in 4 years, got a good job 3 months after graduating which I still have to this day.

I wish I HAD taken a gap year. there were only 3 of us who were as young as me in my program, and most people were older, had worked, had traveled, had experienced things. I was calling my mom to ask if she thought I had to stay in the laundry room in the dorm while I did laundry.

Other than quitting my job now I will never have the chance to travel for more than maybe 3 weeks at a time, and that would use up all of my holidays for the year. if you kid is responsible enough and has the desire and means to travel, I would definitely encourage it. I love my life, but missing that period of your life where you have the ability to do things without the responsibilities you've acquired is something I occasionally regret.
posted by euphoria066 at 11:01 AM on September 25, 2016

Our middle kid is a senior in high school but is not ready for college. I don't just mean he thinks so--we, the parents, think so. Rather than force him to go and watch him fail out, we're asking him to focus on either gainful employment or vocational, technical training. He's been really interested in welding and engineering since a shop class a couple years ago, so he's started taking welding courses. He's enthusiastic about it, which we think its great. I welcome his gap year as a time for him to learn the force of a 40 hour workweek, the reward of personal income, the difficulty of saving money while paying bills, and self-management absent parental involvement.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:09 PM on September 26, 2016

My gap year situation is a little atypical, but I'll share anyway: I took a sort of inadvertent gap year between high school and college because my family got new orders to move to Japan pretty soon after I graduated high school. Given the choice between starting at State U in the fall and living in Japan (albeit on a US military base with my parents), I picked Japan.

As you might expect from that set up, my gap year didn't have a lot of structure. I had a job prior to moving and then got another job on base once we'd settled in, both in food service. I researched colleges and scholarships to apply for for the following year and took some classes at the Arts & Crafts annex as well as some Japanese lessons. I met some folks through work and through classes, joined a culture and language group, and just went out and did fun things in Japan whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Otherwise, I just kind of bummed around. Went to the library a lot to borrow books and DVDs, chatted with friends online, watched terrible AFN TV channels (think Dr. Phil and forgotten early 90s movies, mostly).

I think it could certainly be argued that having a little more structure or goals for a gap year could be useful in the long run, but for me, the single most beneficial part of that gap year was that there WAS no structure. I had near complete freedom to decide exactly what I wanted to do with my time. I didn't have any major bills yet, I didn't have any real responsibilities outside of my part-time work schedule, and I didn't have any homework.

I found it incredibly empowering and restorative to be able to take complete responsibility for the course of my days and to really take the time to decide what I wanted to do next. YMMV, but given that it's not often that that kind of opportunity presents itself, I'm a fan of leaving the gap year loosey-goosey.

And ultimately, I started college the following fall with no problems. I just went from being one of the youngest students in my year to one of the oldest.

My only real regret from that time is that I didn't work harder to learn more Japanese. So maybe I would add a caveat that while a chill gap year can be awesome, maybe make it a point to seize on rare opportunities to learn or do something new while you can, even if it requires some extra work.

BTW: If you DO want structure, AmeriCorps is an AWESOME way to spend a year or two, plus you can get money for college while you're doing it. Win win!
posted by helloimjennsco at 2:05 PM on September 27, 2016

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