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Should You Take a Gap Year? 

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While most students can’t wait to start college in the fall, a handful of students decide to put off enrolling and instead take a gap year. The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California reported that less than 3% of high school graduates in the United States typically take a year off before attending college. 

However, 2020 is proving to be quite different. With the COVID-19 pandemic, more students are rethinking their college plans. According to a survey by the Art & Science Group LLC, 17% of responding students said they would defer their enrollment until Spring 2021 due to coronavirus concerns, while 16% of students said they would take a full gap year and wouldn’t enroll until the Fall of 2021. 

With so many students considering their options, you may be wondering how gap years work and if they are a good idea to take one year off before school. Continue reading to learn about the pros and cons of being a gap year student, and get some ideas on how to use your year away from formal education for personal growth.

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What is a Gap Year?

With a gap year, the student postpones enrolling in college the fall after graduating high school and takes a year off from formal education.

Instead, the student may decide to pursue other personal, professional, or charitable goals. Some students may enter into structured gap year programs, while others will design their own development plans that include work, travel, or volunteer experiences. There are many options online for exploring gap year ideas, but they might be limited in the next year.

The goal of a traditional gap year isn’t to delay college, but to better prepare the student for the university experience and get outside their comfort zone of formal education.

Advantages of a Gap Year

Taking a break from school can be very beneficial. It can help you in the following ways: 

1. You can build your resume

Depending on how you use your gap year, taking a year off from school can enhance your resume. If you take a gap year to volunteer, do community service, intern, or participate in a structured learning program, that can be an impressive addition to your record. When you apply for part-time jobs or internships as a college student, your experience can help you stand out from other candidates. 

2. You can try out potential majors

Most students don’t get to test out their majors before college, leading many to change their majors later on. In fact, the US Department of Education reported that approximately 30% of college students change their majors within three years of their initial enrollment. Changing your major can cause you to be in school longer, adding to your overall college costs

With a gap year, you can spend time working in your desired field. You can talk to seasoned professionals and see what your dream career is really like, so you can see if it’s something you’d like to study before you start school — and before you spend thousands of dollars on tuition and fees. 

3. You get life experience outside of the classroom

Until you graduate from high school, all of your learning experiences have likely taken place in a controlled environment. Your schedule has been set for you, and you’ve had little control over your routine. 

With a gap year, you can gain life experience outside of the classroom, including the ability to set your own routine. Using a gap year productively requires self-discipline, which can prepare you for university life.  

Disadvantages of a Gap Year

While taking a year from school to work on your personal development can be rewarding, there are some downsides:

1. It can be expensive

If you plan on taking part in a structured gap year program or traveling, your time off from school can be quite expensive. For example, a gap year experience run by Outward Bound costs $11,935, while the gap program with The High Mountain Institute is $15,900. That cost is on top of what you have to pay for college, making it a substantial financial burden. 

2. You could be a year behind your peers

While you are working on your personal development, your high school classmates will be enrolled in college. That might not seem like a big deal at first, but over time, it may become more significant. Your friends and classmates will likely reach major milestones before you do, which can be emotionally difficult for you since you’ll be at a different point in your life. Your friends will graduate from college before you, and will likely secure their first jobs before you, as well. 

3. Opportunities this year could be limited

Many students spend their gap years traveling internationally. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic may make international travel much more difficult this year. Many countries are temporarily restricting the entry of visitors, making it impossible for tourists to visit. If you had planned on spending your year before college touring Europe or Asia and working on your language skills, you’d likely have to find an alternative plan. 

What to Do If You Want to Take a Year Off Before Starting College

If you decide that a gap year is right for you, you should take a few steps right away: 

1. Contact your college ASAP

If you intend to take a gap year, contact your college’s admissions office as soon as possible, and ask about their deferral policies. Some schools have formal gap year policies and will allow you to defer your admissions for a year. For example, Florida State University will secure your position for a year, including your financial aid package. Students who qualify for the university’s Gap Year Fellows program can even qualify for up to $5,000 in financial aid to offset their gap year costs. 

Make sure you ask about any restrictions your school may have for your gap year. For instance, many schools will not allow you to take any college courses during your year off. If you do, you become a transfer student, which changes your student status and makes you ineligible for your current financial aid package. You would have to go through the application process again, but this time as a transfer student. 

2. Develop a gap year plan

Some universities will require you to write a formal gap year plan outlining how you plan to spend your year away from school for personal or professional development. Even if it’s not required, it’s a good idea to create one for your own use, so you have plans for how to use your time productively. 

If you’re not sure what to do, here are a few ideas: 

  • AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps is a national service organization. As an AmeriCorps volunteer, you could mentor children, rebuild communities, or help veterans. Depending on your role, you could be provided with housing. AmeriCorps volunteers also earn a living allowance and an education award you can use to pay for a portion of your college expenses.
  • Volunteer: With so much of the country still under restrictions, in-person volunteer opportunities may be limited. Luckily, there are several ways to volunteer remotely. You could do web design for an animal shelter, fundraise for the local food bank, or create social media posts for the community center. You can find remote volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch.org.
  • Work: Working a full or part-time job can be an excellent way to gain experience and earn money for college. To find jobs, check out sites like Indeed or SnagAJob. Looking for a remote gig? Search for jobs on Remote.co and RemoteBliss.
  • Gap year programs: If you need a more structured program for your gap year, some companies offer pre-designed packages. Varying in length from a few days to a few months, you could learn outdoorsman skills, take part in leadership seminars, or hike wilderness trails. Some of these programs count as qualifying education expenses, so you can use your 529 College Savings Plan funds to pay for them. For a list of structured programs, visit The Gap Year Association.

The Bottom Line

During a typical year, only a few students decide to take a gap year before enrolling in college. But with the coronavirus pandemic, many people are rethinking their college plans and are putting off going to school this fall. If you’re thinking about postponing your enrollment, make sure you have a plan in place for your gap year to use your time wisely and bolster your resume. 

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.