For most American teenagers, attending college in some form is considered an inevitable step after high school. Sometimes it can feel like you’re on a train chugging ceaselessly toward four years of higher education and, beyond that, (hopefully) a job. But wait, you might feel like saying, “I never asked for this! Stop the train — I want to get off!”
What do you do if you are having second thoughts about starting college immediately after high school?
The first thing to know is that you’re not alone. There’s something called “pluralistic ignorance,” in which group norms make everyone think that everyone else wants something when, in reality, things are difficult and confusing for many. Just because everyone’s acting excited and carefree about these upcoming changes doesn’t mean they’re not as scared as you are. Reach out to people. Talk about how you’re feeling. You might be surprised that others are feeling similar things.
In a more concrete sense, there are many things you can do if you don’t feel that you’re ready for college. The first one is to take a gap year, which is becoming an increasingly popular option for high school seniors. The pandemic has only made gap years even more appealing to students — last year, nearly half of high school seniors who hadn’t committed to a college by late spring said they were considering a gap year, according to a LendEDU survey.
Whether online and hybrid classes are making you rethink your college start date or you’re considering a gap year for personal reasons, it’s important to know that gap years are perfectly valid courses of action for high school seniors. Anyone who feels unready for college, unsure about starting college during a pandemic, or up for an opportunity to work, travel, volunteer, or otherwise pursue their passions outside of school before diving into college life should at least consider the potential benefits of a gap year.
What is a gap year?
A gap year is a year-long break from formal schooling, often taken between high school and college, during college, or right after college. During this year, people typically travel, volunteer, work, learn skills such coding or a foreign language, or pursue passion projects — in other words, they engage in activities that are interesting and meaningful to them. Another way to think of a gap year is as an opportunity to experience personal, professional, and educational growth outside of a formal classroom setting.
A gap year is not a year-long vacation; people who take gap years often have at least one specific goal in mind, whether that is to gain professional skills, learn about new cultures, or figure out what their next step in life should be. Gap years have traditionally been more common for students outside of the U.S., but interest in gap years has significantly grown within the U.S. over the past few years.
How do I plan a gap year?
Traveling the world may sound like the perfect way to spend your gap year, but you may be wondering how to plan and fund your global adventure. In terms of funding, it’s important to know that many gap year plans involve some sort of financial investment from students, and many students use a combination of working, fundraising, and financial aid to participate in gap year programs. Keep in mind, though, that gap years do not have to solely consist of a formal program — you could use a gap year to work a job and start a passion project, you could start a gap year by working a job and then use some of the money you’ve saved to travel for a few months, or you could engage in a combination of a short formal program and independent plans, just to name a few options.
While you can find gap year opportunities throughout your senior year, we recommend starting the process as early as possible, preferably by the summer before your senior year or earlier. This will give you ample time to think about your goals and find activities to fill your gap year. There isn’t a definitive instruction manual on how to plan a gap year; however, there are a few broad steps you could follow:
- Make a list of goals you would like to achieve, skills you would like to learn, and experiences you would like to have.
- Determine where you would like (and are able) to go.
- Search for programs and/or brainstorm independent plans that align with your responses to the first two steps.
- Tackle the logistics of taking a gap year, including the length of each activity, applications you have to complete, and determining how to fund the activities you wish to partake in..
Not sure how to organize all of your gap year ideas? Here is a table to help you visualize your gap year goals and itinerary:
Download a copy of our gap year worksheet to start planning.
And here is a sample gap year timeline to help you as you craft yours:
If you’re not sure how to find gap year opportunities, here are some resources to help you get started:
Idealist.org: If you’re looking for a job, internship, or volunteer opportunity at an organization that focuses on social issues, such as AmeriCorps and City Year, then Idealist is a great place to start your search. The site allows you to research specific organizations, find paid and unpaid positions, and even filter your search for opportunities that don’t require anything beyond a high school diploma.
Gap Year Association: The Gap Year Association is a nonprofit that works to increase access to, and participation in, gap year opportunities. The organization offers gap year advice and resources for students, parents, and educators, including a list of Gap Year Association accredited programs and information on gap year financial aid.
Go Overseas: Go Overseas lists a myriad of international programs for those looking to spend a gap year abroad. The site showcases both full-year programs and shorter international opportunities. If you don’t feel ready to move to another country or can’t move due to the pandemic, Go Overseas also provides virtual international opportunities.
Snagajob.com: Snagajob is a platform for employers hiring for hourly, part-time, and full-time roles, and it has a job board built especially for teen job seekers. Both local and national organizations use Snagajob to hire high school students and graduates, particularly in the restaurant, retail, hospitality, and healthcare industries.
AngelList: AngelList is a platform that connects startups with job seekers. To get started on the platform, you have to create an AngelList profile, which should be a concise version of your resume. After you create a profile, you can search for jobs by available positions, company size, and more.
We Work Remotely: We Work Remotely is the world’s largest platform for finding and listing remote jobs, which are great gap year options if relocating and traveling are not possible due to the pandemic.
edX and Business edX: edX and Business edX offer courses on a range of topics. In the context of gap year plans, these are great sites to look for courses that will help you build skills that will benefit you in the professional world, including business, programming, communication, and management-related skills.
All for Good and Catchafire: These are two of many sites that you can use to find both remote and in-person volunteer opportunities. Keep in mind that, in addition to using sites like these, you can also look to your local communities for volunteer opportunities — for example, you could get in touch with local elderly care facilities, religious institutions, and your local government to see how you can serve your community during your gap year.
If you are having trouble deciding what to do during a gap year, we suggest perusing the above websites and writing down ten to fifteen activities — not necessarily programs or organizations — that pique your interest. This will help you define your goals and understand the full range of gap year activities that are available. This is also a useful exercise to help you determine extracurriculars and internships you may want to get involved in during your college years and beyond.
In addition to the resources listed above, you should also check if the college you plan to attend offers a formal gap year program. Princeton University, for instance, offers an international service-oriented gap year program known as the “Novogratz Bridge Year Program,” Tufts University offers the “1 + 4 Bridge Year Service Learning Project” and the “Civic Semester,” and American University offers the “AU Gap Program.” If you have not yet decided on a college or are in the process of applying to colleges, talking to admissions offices about gap year opportunities and how their universities support students who participate in gap years would be a great way to get the ball rolling on your gap year plans.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting gap year plans?
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the number of gap year opportunities, as some of the most traditionally popular itineraries, including international travel and interning in an office, are now off the table. Despite the reduced number of opportunities, though, there has been an enormous increase in interest in taking a gap year. This is true for a couple of reasons. For some students, online and hybrid college is not worth the price tag. For others, college plans need to be put on the back burner due to family finances, health, and other personal reasons. Regardless of the motivation behind considering a gap year, students of all backgrounds who are interested in taking a break from formal education need to get creative with how they plan to spend their time.
What are the potential benefits of a gap year?
You can develop your interests and skills
If you have a penchant for languages and cultures, then backpacking through Europe or hiking in the Andes may be the perfect way to explore that passion. Due to the pandemic, though, travel may not be an option in the upcoming year. Despite that, there are still many ways to explore cultures and other interests during your time off. You could intern remotely for an international organization, start a small business, write a novel or screenplay, or take online classes in subjects you won’t have time to learn in school. When you have all the time in the world, you can really discover what you love outside of the parameters of a traditional school environment. Diving into one of your passions is not only personally fulfilling, but also professionally beneficial, as it can help you determine how to chart your course in college and the professional world.
You can save money
Many students need to take a gap year in order to afford college. Contrary to popular
belief, competitive private colleges are often more affordable than public state universities once financial aid is taken into consideration. However, even with a “full ride” it can be difficult to afford the textbooks, plane tickets, and (often) winter clothes and other expenses you’ll need to cover, or even the lost income of three or four years not spent working full time. You can take this time to work remotely and save up money so that you don’t have to stress about your finances during your first year of college. If you plan to take multiple gap years and have not yet committed to a college, we recommend applying to colleges each year. The financial aid packages you are offered or are able to negotiate can vary dramatically year to year and from college to college, so never make assumptions about your ability to afford college.
You can gain maturity and confidence
For students who don’t feel academically qualified or mature enough to attend college
directly after high school, a gap year is the perfect opportunity for personal growth. No matter what you choose to do during your gap year, you will probably encounter new people and ideas that will help you feel more prepared to take the next step in your education and your life. Simply planning a gap year requires a significant amount of reflection and organizational skills. After you have planned and undertaken a gap year, you will most likely have matured and developed a more solid sense of your personal identity.
It can help boost your college GPA
One of the greatest fears of students considering a gap year (and parents) is the
repercussions of getting off the academic treadmill for a year. Will you lose academic momentum and find the transition back to the classroom difficult? According to Time, the answer is no. A study by a former senior admissions officer at Harvard showed that those who defer their enrollment for a year have college GPAs that, on a 4.0 scale, are 0.15 to 0.2 higher than would otherwise be expected.
There are multiple factors that could explain this difference in GPA. First, students who take a gap year and start school with increased maturity likely have better organizational and time management skills, both of which are key to earning a high GPA in college. A gap year can also give students the opportunity to catch their breath and return to school with newfound motivation and energy.
What are the potential drawbacks of a gap year?
It can be expensive
Formal gap year programs can cost upwards of $30,000. There are more affordable
programs, such as those offered by AmeriCorps and the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms; however, after figuring out how you want to spend your time off and doing a cost-benefit analysis of your gap year options, you may decide that the experience is not worth it. That being said, there is a growing movement dedicated to making gap years accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, so be sure to do your research on the range of options and price points. Remember that you don’t have to participate in an expensive program to have a fulfilling year.
It involves a lot of additional planning
Compared to the well-trodden path of going directly to college after high school,
organizing and taking a gap year requires a lot of independent planning and effort, from searching for opportunities to filling out lengthy applications. Keep in mind that this will all be done while balancing school, extracurricular activities, and college applications. All of this additional work could lead to an overwhelming amount of stress your final year of high school. This does not mean that planning a gap year is impossible — you just have to make sure you manage your time well.
It could be difficult to transition back to an academic environment
While studies show that students who take a gap year do well academically upon
their return to school, it’s possible that you could find it difficult to adapt to an academic environment after a year away from school. One way to combat this is to fit an online course or two into your gap year schedule — while many colleges, including Harvard, will not count courses taken during a gap year toward your degree, online courses are a great way to continue learning and maintain all of the good study habits you’ve developed throughout high school.
You could feel like you’re behind your peers
Life is not a race. Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to compare your timeline
to that of others. Unless you make a plan to graduate from college in three years, taking a gap year means you will be graduating a year after your peers. This is not necessarily bad; however, if you find yourself wanting to stay on track with other students your age, then your slightly delayed timeline could be a factor to consider when deciding if a gap year is right for you.
Should I apply to college before or during a gap year?
The vast majority of colleges accept students who apply before and during a gap year. That being said, we recommend applying to college for the first time before your gap year for a variety of reasons. First, applying to college before your gap year will ensure that you have concrete options after your time off. It’s also often logistically easier to apply to college while you’re still in high school and have easy access to support systems such as your school’s guidance department.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you can apply to college before your gap year and then reapply during your gap year, in case you didn’t get the college acceptances you had hoped for during the first round of applications. Applying while you’re still in high school will give you experience with the college admissions process, which will hopefully lead to a seamless second application cycle. If you decide to reapply to college during your gap year, you should make sure to carve out time during your gap year to retake standardized tests (if necessary), rewrite your personal statement, and apply to a range of schools that would be a good fit for you.
How do I tell my college that I want to take a gap year?
If your college has a formal gap year program you’re interested in, you should complete the application materials for that specific program by its deadline. If your college does not have a formal program, or if you would like to pursue different gap year programs and activities, you should send a letter outlining your gap year plans to your school’s director of admissions. You should aim to send this letter as soon as possible — ideally before May 1. Your college’s admissions committee will then grant or deny your deferral request. Be sure to double check any rules your college has regarding gap years and financial aid, and keep in mind that you will likely have to reapply for FAFSA after your gap year.
What can I do if I don’t feel ready for college but don’t want to take a gap year?
Maybe the prospect of taking a full year off from school is daunting. If you’re hesitant about taking a gap year because you don’t want to take a prolonged period of time off, keep in mind that many colleges allow students to take gap semesters. That being said, gap years and semesters aren’t for everyone. Some students decide that the potential drawbacks outweigh the benefits, and others don’t realize they’re not ready for college until they’ve already started their first year. So what do you do then?
First off, make use of on-campus counseling services and support networks! There are likely more resources in college than there were in high school, and they’re there for you to use. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Don’t put pressure on yourself to have everything figured out immediately. There’s a learning curve in college, and all you can do is take things one day at a time and keep an open mind.
Whether you decide to take a gap year or semester after high school or not, the next chapter in your educational journey will be whatever you make of it! Perhaps online or hybrid college will be the perfect transition into college-level work and set you up for three more years of success. Or maybe you’ll take a gap year and produce a mixtape that you would never have the time to do when balancing school and creative pursuits. Regardless, if you enter the next year with the same zeal and determination with which you tackled the past several years of school, you will be destined for success!