Four Gap Year Facts Parents Need to Know

Your kid is proudly holding their college acceptance letter, and plans are beginning to take form for sending him off to college, finally! You’re more than ready to have him take flight and start his next chapter of education, and your new mantra for the next several months is basically “College or bust!” Now when can we start shopping for mattress pads and laundry baskets?!!

Now what if that same kid tells you he feels he’s just not ready to go to college right now, and wants to take a year off to travel instead? First, pick up your mouth off the floor, then refrain from screaming and kicking things and hear him out. Why? Because taking a “gap year” before starting college may just be the smartest decision a newly graduated high school senior can take.

What exactly is a gap year? Well, turns out that is becoming harder and harder to define these days, because a gap year can actually be anything you want it to be. Gap years first grew in popularity in the 1960s, as young students began to desire international experiences and cultural exchanges in lieu of traditional college after high school. They also sought to grow spiritually while learning to live independently at the same time, and traveling to far away places seemed like the perfect chance to do so. As a matter of fact, the now infamous “Lonely Planet” series of travel guides were borne from a gap year experience. And once travel grew cheaper in the 80s and 90s, and backpacking across Europe became the “hip” thing to do, gap years grew even more popular.

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet and the hundreds of gap year programs across the globe that vary in scope from service to education to mission work, gap years are now experiences that colleges want students to take, and do not in any way see it as delaying college. Rather, they see gap years as producing more well rounded and resilient students, and more prepared to take on the demands of college than their fresh out of high school counterparts. Research from gap year programs across the country suggests that students who take a year off before starting higher education experience higher academic performance when they do start college. 

So if you’re a student (or parent of a student) and you’re thinking of taking a gap year post high school, here are a few must know tips before you pull the trigger on a worldwide adventure.

Here's what you need to know about gap years. Shutterstock

Gap Year: What to Know

Does your student’s potential college have specific “gap year” programs?

For highly qualified students, many universities will not only hold your admissions spot for a year, they may even help pay for your gap year. See if your institution offers some form of gap year fellowship or subsidy program. Also check to see if your college has a study abroad program that you can enter as a freshman. Some even offer in-state tuition to out of state students if they study abroad their first year.

Who will pay for it? 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in taking gap year is how you and your student will afford it, but again, thanks to the internet, managing travel on the cheap has never been easier. Destinations like Southeast Asia, South Asia, and South America are popular destinations for gap year kids, because the cost of travel is so inexpensive. Also, some travelers do stints of short term work during their year, especially if they block out several weeks in one place. Check out the budget worksheet on for more tips.

Will they go it alone or with a group?

While wandering the world solo may seem like the perfect soul searching opportunity, some gappers actually enjoy company along the way. Traveling in pairs or small groups is also a great safety idea, as well as reducing their lodging expenses because you can spilt housing costs. Even if they do trek out alone, chances are they will meet fellow travelers along the way, and probably make friends for life.

Does your gap year have a goal in mind?

You may find when researching possible destinations, that some are particular to a certain kind of experience. For example, your teen may want a language immersive one, where they end up fluent after a year. Others may include missionary type work or service based options, and some may actually involve real world full time work experiences or internships, just in a very different environment. And of course there are the adventure based trips, where very little is planned ahead of time, and participants are very much in a “go with the flow” type of situation all the time. Doing your research beforehand on these options can help your teen narrow down what they want to achieve during their gap year.

Even if your student doesn’t have the chance to take a gap year before they start college, have them consider taking it after their four years of higher ed. Now more than ever employers are seeking out graduates who possess cross cultural awareness and worldly aptitudes, who have not just spent the last four years in a lecture hall, but who have been out in the real world. And I do mean WORLD. 


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About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

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