Gap Year Guide: Why Taking a Year Off Can Jump-start Your Teen

Why Taking a Year Off Can Jump-start Your Teen

Your child has just finished a rigorous four years of high school filled with tests, studying, college applications, work and extracurricular activities.  She’s burned out and needs a break.  But can high school graduates afford to hit “pause” when they are so close to the finish line and a college degree?  The answer, in short, is yes. Students are no longer expected to jump full-steam-ahead from high school to college to a job. More and more students are taking a gap year between high school and college, or between college and settling down with a job.


Gap Year 101

The basic definition of a gap year is a break between life stages designed for personal development and exploration. Typically, they are taken by high school graduates who are planning to attend college, and they aren’t always a year long—most students take only a semester off. Gap years can involve travel, volunteering, work, meditation, taking classes or whatever you choose. Gap years are quite common in Europe and Australia and recently have been catching on in the United States. Even Malia Obama took a gap year before she started Harvard!

What was once seen as an option only for the lazy or wealthy is now looked at as an opportunity for all who want to take a break, explore their options or learn about themselves and the world. Traditional gap years occur between high school and college, but more and more people are choosing to take a gap year between college graduation and getting a job, between jobs, before having children, or even a “family gap year” with children.


What Do Teens Do During a Gap Year?

A gap year most often includes some element of travel. Whether it’s backpacking across the globe or just spending a year in another nation, a gap year abroad can give a young adult a new perspective and teach him about other cultures. Living and traveling abroad can literally open up a whole new world for your child as he begins to form his future plans. And if traveling overseas isn’t an option, just living in another city or state can give a young adult a new perspective.

Gap years also can include getting a job. Although some may look at a gap year as “lazy,” it’s really an opportunity to detour from the expected path and explore different options. For some, that might include working. And for many, a job is necessary to pay for their gap year expenses. Jobs can vary from corporate internships to working at a surf shack on the beach. But working during a gap year can give your teenager experience in the real world and a chance to try out a profession that is interesting to her. Or, it can just provide a little bit of extra cash.

Many students choose to volunteer during their gap year. Organizations like Go Overseas ( offer formal programs for students interested in a volunteer-based gap year. Students should choose volunteer opportunities that interest them from a personal perspective but also from a potential career lens. A student interested in marine biology could volunteer to clean up beaches or rehabilitate injured animals. Someone interested in teaching can volunteer to help students in developing countries learn English. This type of volunteering can lead students to a deeper dedication to future goals or perhaps lead them to change directions to a career they never considered before.

Though a gap year is looked at as a break from academics, many teens choose to take classes during a gap year. Some learn a new language. Others focus on a passion they didn’t have time for in high school, like dance or music. Still others might take a couple of general education courses at a slower pace while working or volunteering. A gap year doesn’t have to mean a break from education.

Whether your teen chooses to work, volunteer, go to school or just travel, be diligent when researching programs and companies that offer gap year programs. Many excellent programs are available...just do your research!  Visit as a starting point for a list of accredited gap year providers.


What Are the Benefits?

The benefits of a gap year are many, which is part of the reason why the practice is growing in the United States. According to the Gap Year Association, the vast majority of students (around 90 percent) who take a gap year after high school go on to enroll in college after that year is up. Those students go on to higher GPAs in college and higher job satisfaction later on in life, according to recent studies.

Students who have completed gap years report they developed as a person, learned about themselves, increased in self-confidence and maturity, and grew their communication and life skills. Many say the experience helped them solidify their career path or gain skills necessary for their chosen career.

Gap years also can lead to increased cultural understanding and a focus on global citizenship. Alice Shanks, a Kansas City native who took a gap year between high school and college, says, “I was always interested in other cultures and loved learning languages, but, until that time, I hadn't had the opportunity to experience them first hand. I am so thankful to my parents for giving me such a great opportunity to experience the world! I was able to feed my wanderlust and embrace it as part of who I am.”


Is It Right for Your Child?

A gap year can be good for anyone with the right planning and perspective. If your teen is burned out after the rigors of high school, a gap year can help recharge her batteries. If your teen is indecisive about college and career, a gap year can help him explore options and discover new passions and interests. Teens that need to “grow up” before heading to college could find a gap year increases their maturity and prepares them for the responsibility of college.

A gap year might not be right for your child if she lacks the discipline or desire to make it a learning experience. A year spent on the couch playing video games will not lead to the kind of personal growth that a well-planned gap year does. Also, before you agree to a gap year, make sure that the college your child has been accepted to will allow deferred admission.

Whatever the reasons for a gap year, going into it with a plan and clear expectations is important. A financial plan needs to be established from the beginning. Whether you are funding the gap year or your child is, be sure expectations are clear and a budget is set. Next, set expectations for how your teen will spend the time. Even if the plan is just to travel, have a loose itinerary set and a plan for the trip. If you prefer a more structured plan, look into volunteer organizations or study-abroad organizations to find a set program for your child.




Sara Keenan is taking a year-long sabbatical from her job at Rockhurst University for a family gap year in Germany. 

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