When you were growing up, how did you imagine your life would pan out in your teens and 20s? Let me guess:
Work hard in high school, get good grades, apply to good colleges, work hard in college, perhaps study abroad for a semester or two, get an internship, get a job in the "real world," start making money.
Sound familiar? Admittedly, that's the only path I ever considered. But the traditional path to a successful adulthood is changing. Now you've got options—lots of them—in the form of a gap year.
A gap year is time spent after high school or college doing something outside of a traditional educational institution. That could include attending high school in a foreign country for a year after you graduate from high school, or joining Teach For America after college.
Gap years offer many benefits not found on the traditional education path. One of the biggest benefits is avoiding burnout. Acquiring an education is very demanding, but taking a gap year to learn in a new way can be a welcome reprieve from studying. It can recharge you for future studies or work. Taking a gap year gives you time and experience to gain maturity and better prepare you for college or a career. And, it's fun.
gap year growth
The gap year is gaining popularity for several reasons: A suffering economy has shrunk the pool of traditional jobs, course loads are becoming increasingly demanding, students are craving a greater variety of experiences, and many top-tier educational institutions are actually promoting a gap year. Some schools, including Harvard and Princeton, encourage students to defer admission for a year. According to a PhilanthropyJournal.org article, Teach For America applications increased a whopping 32% in 2010, making these positions highly coveted and excellent résumé-builders.
There are hundreds of options for you to connect an interest or passion with a gap year opportunity. Goucher College, Baltimore, has an excellent gap year resource page with links to programs that focus on language, teaching, arts, environmental issues, government and policy, and almost anything else.
Here's a list of a few programs to spark your interest, just a fraction of the possibilities available.
Several programs pay a salary or living stipend and sometimes even offer traditional benefits for participating in a program. Here are examples of popular paid gap year programs:
- Teach For America is a well-known two-year commitment for college graduates, who work in disadvantaged schools around the country in an effort to deliver quality education to all. Participants earn $30,000 to $51,500 a year, plus benefits, directly from the school district they teach in. A teaching background is not required. Participants also are eligible for an AmeriCorps educational award of $5,350. Admission to the program is competitive—in 2010, only 12% of 46,000 applicants were chosen.
- City Year is another popular AmeriCorps program for young adults ages 17 to 24. It offers a 10-month, full-time position working in a very poor community or school district. Participants earn a living stipend of $900 to $1,000 a month after taxes. They also receive a cell phone, health insurance, and, in many cases, transportation passes. At the end of the program, you can receive an education award of $5,500 to use toward future education or to help pay off qualifying student loans.
Many other programs offer good experience, but don't offer pay. In some cases, programs actually can cost money. Financial assistance is available for some programs.
- The Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) offers a "Gap Year Abroad" program in several countries. The program allows young adults to learn a language, experience a new culture, and teach or volunteer in a foreign country. CIEE claims that a gap year in another country can broaden your global perspective, help you develop leadership skills, and accelerate foreign language acquisition. Participants live with a family in the host country for a year. Program costs range from $11,000 to $27,000, depending on the program and duration, and include housing and meals.
A gap year is time spent after high school or college doing something outside of a traditional educational institution.
- American Field Service (AFS) gap year programs are part of a nonprofit student exchange organization open to students ages 15 to 18½ that allows students to attend high school in another country. If you have graduated from a high school in the U.S., but meet the age requirements, you are eligible to study in a different country. Attending high school abroad offers an authentic cultural experience not available later in your life. Prospective participants must meet eligibility requirements as defined by each program, including GPA, medical evaluation, and sometimes language requirements. Fees vary by program, but a full year is about $12,000.
- Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB) is an eight-month program where participants travel to several countries. TBB provides education and service learning and exposes students to global issues and solutions. The program targets those who love to learn and want to strive for community change. The program is open to students ages 17 to 20 who haven't passed more than one academic year between high-school graduation and enrollment. Program fees are steep at $39,000 for a year or $19,000 for a semester.
If you are a high-school student, talk to your college admissions counselor about the school's policies on deferring enrollment. Some institutions encourage it, some don't allow it, and some will require you to reapply the following year.
One of the biggest benefits of a gap year is to help you define a career path and get experience before you enter college or the professional world. You might be an engineering major who discovers a passion for teaching, or a journalist with an undiscovered environmental interest. These opportunities can be a good way to test the waters risk-free while you add to your résumé.
Think about whether this kind of real-world experience could benefit your short- and long-term education and career goals. Don't be afraid to do something different than your friends do. A gap year could guide your future in a bright new direction and help you stand out from the crowd.