Katherine Stievater, Founder, Gap Year Solutions
Those of you who know me know I love speaking about Gap Years. My talk is entitled “Discover Gap Years!” I think it is so important to keep raising awareness of this important option for today’s teens. I especially like to talk about how Gap Years bring many benefits, because I truly believe a Gap Year can be transformational for ANY student.
I will be using this space for the next three weeks to highlight key points I make in my Gap Year information sessions. This week I will cover the benefits of Gap Years. Part 2 talks about Gap Year myths. And I will finish with how Gap Year planning relates to the college application process. I look forward to hearing any of your feedback. As always feel free to send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment at the end of the post.
Part 1: The Benefits of Gap Years
Hands down, the biggest benefit of a Gap Year is maturity which shows up a number of ways for students. The teenage brain is just not, well, finished at 18 years old. It’s still growing. And just one year makes a difference. It really does. Let me break it down into specific areas.
I have certainly seen even before COVID that the mental health of students has become a little bit more fragile. I’m sure many of you see it with your students. I think it’s so important to start the next stage of a teen’s life with strong mental health, emotional health and physical health. Gap time can help students understand things that trigger challenges, so that when they get to college, they understand who they are and how to better manage mental health. If students experience depression and anxiety, a Gap Year is a great time to get that under control and help students feel like they own it and can self-manage, versus maybe relying on parents so much. I have also found that students spend Gap time learning more empathy and gratitude, especially as they spend time with people in more difficult life circumstances.
Another huge benefit is decision-making. For many students, parents and teachers and athletic coaches have helped them make decisions, and in fact often have MADE decisions for them. There’s really not that many students that are deciding everything about what they’re doing in high school. But once they step foot on a college campus, they have to make so many of their own decisions. And do they have the ability to do that? Decision-making is challenging. Deciding what they’re going to do during their Gap time is the first really big decision that many of these kids have made. Not a lot of teens have had real experience problem-solving. If something goes wrong, teens learn on a Gap Year more about how to work through situations without immediately calling Mom or Dad.
I am huge with life skills. During a Gap Year, some teens have another chance to get their driver’s license or cook or budget. (Exactly – What is a budget?!) Doing laundry, learning the basic life skills of networking with other people. They don’t teach networking in high school or college, but learning to talk to other people is so essential to being effective in life. Teens need to understand what it’s like to maybe have a job and a boss, and not just interact with people at their peer level, but with all different kinds of people. Some haven’t created a resume yet or interviewed for a job. A Gap Year creates space to figure these things out. We expect students to get into college, and then somehow miraculously figure these life skills out over the next two months of summer. No, it doesn’t happen that way. A year plus those two months is better!
Many students are labeled in high school. On a Gap Year, there’s no labels, it’s like a clean slate. Students can be who they are without being judged. I always say to high school seniors – if you’ve gotten into college, that’s awesome, congratulations! And they probably have a sweatshirt that says “Colgate” or “Bentley” or some other school. But I always say to my students, “Ask yourself – who is the student underneath that sweatshirt? You are so much more than the name of that college! It’s great that you got in, and you worked so hard to get in, but the name of the college should not be your identity.” So Gap Years are a great way for students to be really authentic, and spend time figuring out who they want to be.
Most students go on to college after their Gap Year. Teens that take a Gap Year have the chance to focus their interests, both academic and other random opportunities. They can “try on” different passions and potential career interests. They get to experiment in a risk-free environment, which is pretty special. I always tell students “You’ve been in school for 13 straight years, and now will be in school another four years. There’s so much upside and literally zero downside to taking this time!” Student who take a gap year are more engaged and more part of the student community when they get to campus. That’s one of the reasons why colleges grant Gap Year deferrals. They know these kids are going to be more ready to fly when they get to school, make better decisions, and graduate with a higher GPA.