On a lovely SoCal evening in February, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual USA Gap Year Fair in El Segundo with my fellow college counselors Josefine and Melinda. Although our reasons for attending were to network with other industry professionals and to stay informed on the latest developments in the field, I found myself caught up in planning my own globe-trotting gap year itinerary (I haven’t told my wife and daughter yet, though- something tells me 2-year old Lucy will not be stoked about her dad/personal chef being away from the kitchen for weeks at a time).
When we arrived at Vistamar School to check in for the event, we were each given a small card with a unique QR code registered to our contact info. Instead of being forced to hunch over at countless display tables and write our names, phone numbers, and email addresses ad nauseam to sign up for each program’s mailing list (back in my day, let me tell you...), we merely had to reach out and allow the program representative to scan our cards. Kudos to the organizers of these fairs for implementing technology in a way that genuinely made the entire process more efficient and convenient.
The event began with a presentation by Jason Sarouhan, one of only six accredited gap year counselors and the co-founder (with his wife Jane Goldstone Sarouhan) of J2Guides. The “gee-whiz” factor of my amazement with QR codes quickly receded into the background of the evening as we were presented with enlightening info about the Gap Year: why students choose to take a gap year after high school, how taking that gap year can be beneficial for personal and academic development, and what kinds of programs are available to those who wish to go this route. Following the presentation, we had the chance to meet with representatives from over 20 gap year/summer programs in a fair setting.
Here were my main takeaways from the presentation and program fair:
Know your ‘why’: There are plenty of reasons to take a gap year, and each individual’s situation is unique.
High school seniors are given very little time to celebrate and reflect on completing their K-12 education before being confronted with a barrage of life’s Big Questions: Who am I? What should I do next and what should I do after that? Would I rather be in debt for the next 200 years or subscribe to the instant-ramen-of-the-month club for the rest of my life? For many new graduates, the first step in answering those questions is to enter the workforce or transition immediately to college. But that will not be the answer for some. Perhaps a student has stacked AP and IB courses and sports and volunteering and test prep for the past few years, and without warning, academic burnout has set in. Or maybe a developing curiosity about the wide world and one’s place in it makes travel seem like a more fulfilling experience than the next level of institutional education. Some high school graduates are pretty sure college is the right path for them, but they want to take some time to explore interests before boarding the 4-year college train, or they didn’t get accepted to any of their top schools and want to try a different path. For these young adults, taking a gap year might provide the answers they need, or at least a fresh perspective. If you are a high school student (or adult) considering a gap year, the most important thing to do is honestly, sincerely reflect on what your unique reasons are. Brainstorm, make a list of pros and cons, talk to a teacher or trusted adult: anything that helps you tap into what your heart really wants.
Mythbusting: Many of the fears surrounding gap years are untrue or overblown.
There are some common misconceptions about why students choose to take a gap year and what exactly happens during that year. Because students who take a gap year often (but not always!) travel overseas, it’s easy from a distance to label this as a vacation. The phrase “gap year” is even somewhat misleading, as it implies that there is an empty space (a gap) in the timeline between high school and college or work. In reality, gap year programs challenge students by pushing them beyond their comfort zones and into new realms of growth; when was the last vacation you took that did that? Research data actually support the claim that students who take a gap year are likely to succeed in college. About 90% of “gappers” begin or return to college within a year, and these students generally graduate closer to four years than the rest of their peers, who take closer to six years on average. What’s more, recent studies have shown that gap year students tend to over-perform their expected GPA in college at a higher rate than their peers (https://www.gapyearassociation.org/data-benefits.php). There are a variety of reasons to explain why gappers go on to do so well - improved confidence and self-knowledge, increased empathy, valuable experience gained from short-term courses and hands-on learning - but the overall impression I was left with is that the detractors don’t know what they’re talking about.
Choices, choices, choices: There are many options available for students to plan a stimulating, maybe even life-changing, gap year.
There are not literally unlimited options for planning a gap year (#reclaimliterally), but it sure felt that way as I learned about program after program at the fair. This availability of options means that each student can choose those activities that best fit her or his interests and aspirations to create a transformative gap year. Many of these gap year programs involve cultural immersion, physical recreation, and academic subjects, often in combination. There are plenty of great resources to learn more about the individual programs, such as GapMatcher (www.gapmatcher.com), which uses a brief survey to provide search results specific to what each person is looking for. Gap year counselors, such as the aforementioned J2Guides, provide 1-on-1 support in helping students plan the most rewarding experiences possible.
Best summer ever: Many of these exciting programs are available to current high school students too.
If you happen to be a current freshman, sophomore, or junior (or younger) reading this, don’t worry: you’re invited to the party too! In many cases, the organizations that offer gap year programs also have summer experiences available to high school students. These summer programs can range from one week to a full summer term, and they present younger students with similar opportunities to learn about themselves, their peers, and the world around them. As with the gap year programs, the travel factor tends to necessitate a high cost to participate, but fortunately most of these organizations do seem to offer scholarships. For those interested in learning more, GapMatcher works well for finding high school summer programs in addition to gap year options.
Strike while the iron is hot: People of all ages can take a gap year, but…
there may be no better time to do so than right after graduating from high school. During Jason Sarouhan’s presentation, he succinctly described the typical adult’s journey from late teens to twenties to oh-so-domestic thirties and beyond. Those of us who have passed through multiple stages of this journey can surely relate to both the 18-year old’s feeling of having her whole life ahead of her (“what’s the rush?!”) and the thirty-something’s reality that taking a gap day is not close to possible, let alone a gap year. This is not to discourage any adults from participating in gap year programs if doing so is feasible, but it is a warning to current teens who feel like kicking this particular can a little further down the road: if you have found your “why” and you have the financial means to take a gap year before going to college or starting full-time work, this is the time do it.
These fairs are free, open to the public, and held in about 40 locations across the United States; if you are a student with even the slightest interest in taking a gap year before attending college, trade school, or the workforce (or if you would like to learn about some exciting high school summer programs), the next USA Gap Year Fair in your area will be extremely worth your time.