I attended a gap year information fair this weekend. It was hosted by the Center for Interim Programs, based in Massachusetts, one of the oldest consulting organizations that help students organize “gap” time between high school and college. Counselor Jason Sarouhan describes a gap year as a way for students to “take productive, intentional time out of your academic life in order
to achieve something you have dreamed about doing.”
A gap year, or even a gap semester, can help students get a better sense of who they are in the world, their skills and talents. Importantly, a gap year can help students figure out where they want to go in their lives, so they can refine their major before starting college. For students who are truly undecided, who may change their major three, four or more times in college, a gap year can actually help save money in the long run. Sarouhan noted that studies show that 60% of students either discovered their major or discovered their career during their gap year. Even if programs are not focused on leadership and cultural immersion, it’s nearly impossible for students who participate in a structured gap year program not to come away having experienced
In brief, there are five different styles of gap year or semester programs. Many organizations offer shorter versions as well, so students can gain these experiences during summer, spring or winter breaks:
+ A facilitated experience will have a group of students around the same age, and could include adventure, volunteerism, language skills and other activities. Many of these types of programs have classes part of the day, and something else for the other part.
+ Volunteer programs can range in duration, and take students to all corners of the world. Other participants could range in age, and there will likely be a cost to participate, as the program will generally provide housing, food, etc.
+ Room and board programs are where you work or provide some type of service in exchange for your housing and meals. The possibilities are endless! You could shear sheep in Australia; dress in period clothes, sing sea shanties and teach children about maritime culture; work at a castle in Italy where writers work; work with Native American people and cultures. These programs could be no cost or low cost.
+ Internship programs provide students with an opportunity to work in a professional setting. Expect again to pay for housing, transportation, meals, etc., and not to be paid for your work.
+ Specialty courses are opportunities for students to learn specific skills they may have always thought about learning. Different programs around the world offer the chance to learn to blacksmith, scuba dive, drive a race car (or a dog sled!), make a guitar, and hundreds of other things. These programs range in their cost and length of time.
Programs vary widely in cost – costs can range from a few hundred dollars to over ten thousand dollars. Parents concerned about cost should look for gap year programs with financial aid and scholarships. Parents concerned about safety should talk with the program representatives about how risks abroad are managed.
The American Gap Association has just established a Standards and Accreditation process, so most program providers are not accredited yet. Parents should ask program representatives if they are planning to seek accreditation from this industry-leading organization.
Most college counselors would encourage students interested in taking a gap year to apply to colleges during their senior year, and ask colleges if they will offer a deferral in advance. The only downfall is that a gap year will provide students with amazing stories, and they will further develop in the time they spend away, which makes for great college essays. But Sarouhan said that gap year students don’t want to take time away from visiting with family and friends to fill out college applications when they are home. Of course decisions can be changed, and students may discover they want to apply to entirely different kinds of colleges after their adventures abroad. Colleges look very favorably upon these growth opportunities, if they are well-spent.
A few recommended resource books include The Complete Guide to the Gap Year and The Gap Year Advantage. The following organizations sent representatives to the information fair (in no particular order):
- Projects Abroad
(Holding an information session in Hollywood on Wednesday at 6 pm, click here for details)
- Where There Be Dragons
- Thinking Beyond Borders
[I had a lovely conversation with Recruitment Director Scott Ingram, who is passionate about helping students find their purpose before they start college – he took five years and four majors to find his path and is an excellent spokesperson for the gap year concept.]
- Scope – Volunteer in Brazil
- BBYO – Beyond
- Outward Bound
- Tivnu: Building Justice (projects all in Portland, OR)
- Learning Programs International
- International Studies Abroad
- AFS Intercultural Programs (seems to focus on programs abroad during high school)
- Global Citizen Year
- Adventures Cross-Country
- Máximo Nivel, the Intercultural Center of Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru
[I had a lovely conversation with the rep from this program as well, who is American but based in Costa Rica. Their programs are highly customizable and can last between 1 and 52 weeks. Their brochure pdf is below.]
Maximo Nivel Volunteer Program guide
- Rustic Pathways
- Minds Abroad (summer and semester-long programs in China, Vietnam, India and Thailand)
- Carpe Diem Education (three-month and yearlong programs)
- Aspire Academic Programs International
This is just a VERY small sample of the programs you can explore for your high school student. Many of the programs listed above have summer programs for students entering the 10th, 11th and 12th grades as well as semester-long and longer programs for students deferring college.
As with everything in the college exploration process, there is no right answer for everyone – it’s about what’s right for your student and your family!