Students in countries like England and Australia often take a year off between high school and college to work or explore the world. It’s called a gap year, and the trend is increasingly popular in the U.S.
Both students and universities are beginning to see the potential benefits of the gap year, so MainStreet decided to take a closer look at the phenomenon:
Freedom vs. Focus
Like many offerings to college students, the gap year is not for everyone.
For some, it may be a resume enhancer. Tom Griffiths, founder of the U.K.-based web site GapYear.com, says employers in the global economy are looking less at numbers like GPAs and more at the life skills a candidate can bring to the table.
“They are looking for three things: initiative, communication skills and decision making skills,” says Griffiths. These skills, he says, can only be developed through life experience.
On the other hand, Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org, says although he agrees gap years enhance the life skills of a young person, for some the interruption may do more harm than good. “Some students who do this find it’s more difficult to get back into the mode of studying,” he says.
What Do Colleges Think?
Griffiths and Kantrowitz agree service or education-based gap years are most attractive to prospective colleges and employers.
Griffiths uses the highly competitive veterinary science programs in the U.K. as an example. “If they are faced with five students," he poses. "One has taken a gap year and headed off to Africa…and worked on a vaccination project…with a game ranger. When they get home they do some more work with a veterinarian…You can see who the admissions chief will be looking at.”
Kantrowitz cautions that in the American education system, it is best to apply to colleges during high school and then, once accepted, approach them with the gap year proposal.
Whether you spend your gap year with an organized program or you strike out on your own, make a solid plan if you want your time away to appeal to prospective colleges or employers.
“All sorts of people come back saying, ‘I didn't get what I wanted,'" says Griffiths. "'I thought I was going to be more proactive and hands-on’ and they get out to find out they are just a bystander."
For that reason, it is vital that you set tangible goals before you leave, and work to achieve them throughout your journey, experts agree.
Are Gap Years Good Moves Financially?
They can be. For those whose 529 plans have taken a hit, taking a year off could give your money some time to recover.
Kantrowitz says the impact shouldn’t be terribly severe on older students, since many of the age-based plans move investments to less risky ventures as students near college age. He also says that opting for a study abroad opportunity instead of a gap year is a financially sound decision because those programs can utilize government aid for students.
But some gap opportunities pay for themselves and then some. According to Griffiths, there are some gap year planning groups that help students organize long trips to raise money for charity. For example, two students working with the CHADS Coalition for Mental Health recently rode a pink tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled, gas powered rickshaw) from Bangkok to London to raise money for mental health issues.
“You take a year or so to plan it and get people to donate and you can raise tens of thousands of dollars for an interesting cause or charity," says Griffiths. "You pay for yourself and have an incredible trip that you'll be telling your grandchildren about.”
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