Well here we are – the end of another year! And what an exciting time this has been for Gap Year Solutions, as the number of students we serve continues to grow, and our internship business begins to find its footing. As we look back on the past year, we see several clear gap year trends. Some of these areas are not completely new, but they came into greater focus in 2022.
#1: Growing acceptance of pausing and taking a break before college
This is our eighth year working with gap year students. We are seeing any stigma of “not going straight to college” disappear. Parents used to push students toward college. Now, parents are supportive as more students are choosing to work on themselves, first. Sometimes it’s just acquiring more “life skills” (independent living, decision making, managing their money). There is also a lot more focus on mental health (see trend #2).
But this year, more than before, we are finding that students are simply burned out and want a break. They know college will be four more years of academics plus living away from their parents. After dealing with the stress of high school academics, extracurriculars, social pressures and the college application process itself, plus the difficulties of COVID, they just want to step back. Students tell us they often feel kind of “blah”. They’ve lost their energy and “get up and go”. Parents tell us their son or daughter has no idea what to do, no idea what college to apply to, what excites them, no idea about anything. So gap years, or “discover years”, or “just taking time off before college” years, are increasingly accepted as a time for students to regroup, get back their “mojo”, and uncover new interests.
#2: Full focus on mental health challenges
From our standpoint, teen mental health was already suffering before the pandemic (here, here and here), and COVID made it worse. While every student experiences it differently, their goal is to heal themselves after the challenges of COVID, and the general stresses of today’s teenage life and social media. Parents are still talking about COVID – how their students didn’t get the full experience of high school, and missed out on some basic growing up and adulting skills. For their part, students want to learn to cope with their mental health challenges. If they have triggers, they want to spend time building resilience, and adding tools to combat those. And just be healthier.
We see more students on medication to treat anxiety, depression and ADHD. Students are definitely talking about their anxiety and other challenges more openly. We talk about it openly with families. The big positive is that students are accepting their challenges, and making it a goal to better themselves during a gap year. This includes greater awareness of things that lead to heightened general anxiety, and social anxiety, and things they do that put extra stress on themselves.
#3: Parents accepting the possibility that their student will not attend college
For the first time, we noticed parents talking openly about the possibility that their student might not attend college. The numbers are small now, but this is not something we heard in the past from families seeking gap year planning help. Previously, we always heard concern about “what if my student doesn’t end up going to college after their gap year?” More high schools are talking about post-secondary options other than just college, and this year we have been invited to participate in post-secondary sessions held around the U.S. by high schools for families. We see more parents supporting their students taking time to figure out their next step – even if they don’t go to college for a year, or two, or ever.
#4: Students applying to college during a gap year
Students using the fall semester of their gap year to reapply to colleges was publicized in the spring, as high school seniors were rejected from many more of their targeted colleges than in the past (see April 2022 Wall Street Journal article which includes comments from Gap Year Solutions). More of our students don’t enroll anywhere and take a fresh start the next fall during a gap year. We also have more students applying to college for the first time during their gap year. We never used to see this, and in fact we’ve always encouraged students to go through the college application process during senior year because it is easier to get teacher recommendations and support from their school while still in high school. We’re completely supportive though if students skip applying to college during senior year, to wait until their have a clearer idea of what they want to do.
#5: More college students taking a gap year
While less discussed, students taking a break during college has always occurred. We are working with a larger number of students who went through the college application process, but really don’t know what they want to do after high school and end up in a school that is not a right fit. And students end up in “wrong fit” schools for all kinds of reasons and end up transferring. Some students go through the transfer process while in college, while others take a leave and apply elsewhere during a gap year or gap semester. One of our students this year originally enrolled at the University of Kansas, because he missed all the regular application deadlines and Kansas has rolling admissions. He decided after he arrived on campus that he had made a mistake, and is now on his gap year.
#6: Growing demand for gap year internships
All of our prospective students complete a gap year questionnaire as part of our process. While we used to have to prompt students to uncover whether an internship would be a good fit for their gap year plan, more of our students on their own are indicating interest in obtaining an internship. Internships provide a better understanding of career possibilities, and a great way to gain insight on college majors. Student requests for internships go hand in hand with their desire to gain work experience in general, and motivated us to launch a gap year internship service this year. We are proud that our students have landed internships in engineering, the arts, animal care and other areas.
#7: Interest in having a part-time job during the gap year
Do you have a resume? We pose this question more and more with our students, because more and more of them are including a part-time job as part of their gap year. We have always been proponents of students working during their gap time, both for the life skills it reinforces as well as to help fund a portion of their gap year activities (especially if travel and/or programs are involved). Students used to say they didn’t want to work just minimum wage jobs, but increasingly they express interest in having a part-time role which brings structure to their time and puts some money in their pocket. We value the real world learning from having to show up on time, work with a boss, learn specific tasks, and meet expectations. We also think the process of getting a job is essential learning – finding opportunities, building a resume, going through the application process, and “selling” yourself. This year our students have had many paid jobs, including working in restaurants, seasonal work at Target and UPS, Rover (walking dogs), and camps with younger students. As with internships, these roles can also inspire and inform student’s longer term interests.
We are truly grateful for our families who allow us to guide their students through their gap year experience. And to all of the others we work with every day – program directors, school counselors, IECs, teen librarians, media – thank you for everything you do to support us, challenge us, and help to grow the gap year movement! Most of all, we are proud of the personal growth and accomplishments of our gap year students. My own son continues to say his gap year is the “gift that keeps on giving.” Have a wonderful holiday break and see you in 2023!