Taking Time Off Before College: The Wide World of Gap Year Programs

thinking beyond borders gap year programNot everyone is ready to dive headfirst into college right after high school. The concept of taking a “gap year” – time off before starting college – is becoming increasingly more popular amongst graduating high school seniors. But how can you make the most of this time? How do you even start planning?  To find out we invited Robin Pendoley, Co-Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational gap year program, to share his expertise:

With over 100 organizations and consulting firms in the US offering gap year options, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Investing in finding the best fit will ensure your gap year is everything you hope it will be. Exploring gap year options is not always an easy task.

Here are some quick tips to help you find all of the options and begin to narrow them down to the best fit for you:

Where Do I Find Gap Year Options?

Your High School Guidance Counselor – Many guidance counselors encourage students to consider a gap year during the college planning process. Visit your counseling office to ask for brochures and recommendations from the educators you know and trust.

The Internet – Searching for “gap year programs” on Google or another search engine will produce a wide range of results. Here are a few sites that offer a quick overview of the many gap year opportunities:

  • USA Gap Year Fairs – Provides brief descriptions of over 40 providers and links to their websites. Additionally, the site lists the dates and locations of 25 gap year fairs around the US. Each fair includes 30 or more providers, allowing you to collect brochures, ask questions about the programs, and compare the options.
  • Teen Life – Includes brief descriptions and links to over 40 providers, categorizes them by interest area, and offers links to gap year consultants.
  • Enrichment Alley – Includes links to over 50 providers, with some student reviews.

Attend a Gap Year Fair – High schools have begun hosting fairs such as The USA Gap Year Fairs to provide students and families a chance to meet representatives from many of the gap year providers. This is a great way to get a good feel for the culture of each program.

How Do I Choose?

Once you have a sense of the broad array of options available to you, it’s time to narrow the field. Answering the following questions will help you hone in on the best fit for you:

Price Range – EVERYONE can afford a gap year. While some programs cost as much as a year of private college, others will pay you to participate – including education awards to help pay for college. Plan your budget – keeping in mind the college years after your gap year – and then consider the options in your price range. Not all programs are the same, so look carefully at what you get for the dollars and time you commit. Also, some programs offer scholarships, college credit, and access to federal financial aid. If your dream program looks out of your price range, get in touch with the organization to explore options for funding.

How Long? – Gap years can last from the moment you graduate high school until your first day of college (and for some, the first day of college is in the spring semester). Many students break their time up, spending some time working and committing the rest of their time to travel for a structured program. Providers offer options that last from a few weeks to 8 months. While some students want to have a diverse year with lots of different activities, others choose a longer, more in-depth experience.

International or Domestic? – There are excellent opportunities for new experiences both international and domestic. International opportunities range from traditional university learning in Europe to service programs in rural communities in the “developing” world. Domestically, there are options offering students a chance to live, work, and volunteer in communities in the US that often feel like a foreign country or culture. While international programs tend to be more expensive than domestic ones, that is not always the case.

Group or Individualized? – Gap years can be great opportunities for personal exploration and freedom. While the notion of heading out on your own has romantic appeal, group programs can offer an instant social circle and the support of adult program leaders, all while offering many of the freedoms of an individualized gap year. Think carefully about what each day will be like and what your support system will be if you are away from home.

Service or Learning or Both? – Be clear what you hope to gain from your gap year. If service is what you’re looking for, carefully consider the work offered by programs to be sure it aligns with the contribution you hope to make. If you want to learn about a particular subject or culture, look for programs that will offer chances to really engage that subject in a meaningful way. Some programs create a mix of the two. Pay close attention to the details of the day to day experience of students within the program.

Have you been considering a gap year? Find out if taking a gap year is right for you.

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