Gap Year- What Parents Should Consider

Is your college or graduate-bound student considering taking a gap year? As a Vice President at Center for Interim Programs, the nation’s oldest gap year counseling service, educator Jane Sarouhan has helped thousands of high school and college seniors find the perfect temporary placement at this crucial time in their lives. Sarouhan spoke with Noodle Pros about the possibilities for gap year programming, pros and cons of delaying college or graduate school admissions, and the ways in which a year away from school can benefit students emotionally and academically.

NP: Traditionally, many parents have viewed taking a gap year as a fallback option for students who are dissatisfied with where they’ve gotten into college, or the financial aid packages they’ve received. Do you see taking a gap year as “Plan B?”

JS: That wouldn’t be what I advocate; my hope is that parents are coming to the notion of the gap year much earlier in the process, as a fair option amidst of all of their college choices.  That’s kind of an ideal. What comes out of it is that sense of maturity, confidence, resilience, and new personal and often global perspectives; students can choose the gap year for any number of reasons, but the end result is a smarter, stronger, more curious candidate for college or a career path.

NP: What are some expectations that students and parents should have for a gap year? What should they be looking to achieve?

JS: They can expect it to be hard! The gap year isn’t just the poster child swimming in beautiful blue waters in Fiji. This is experimental education; it is primarily an opportunity to learn, just in a less traditional format. What students are telling me is that they want to grow, gain a global perspective, and learn about themselves. So they have to be prepared for adversity. A really great expectation is to go in eyes wide open.

NP: So if it’s simply an exotic vacation, they’ve missed the point somewhere?

JS: Absolutely. Exactly. But if they’ve chosen a reputable program or placement, along with any challenge, they should expect to be saved! Parent should know that this isn’t going to be dropping their kid in the wilderness with a backpack, that there will be true instructional leadership; instructors will guide students through the physical and emotional rigors of whatever placement and program they’ve chosen.

NP: So you’ve touched on parents; how do you sell this to a parent who has been part of a multi-year focus of getting their child into a specific college, or for whom a gap year has never felt like a real possibility?

JS: Having worked in experimental education for 25 years now, it’s amazing to see how the gap year has really taken root in the US over the last five years alone. I think one of the most important things for families to know is that this is a viable option, alongside college; it is meant for everybody, academically and socially, and particularly for those who feel they need a break from a certain type of academic intensity in order to pursue emotional growth and gain that sense of maturity. I wouldn’t want to sell anyone anything that doesn’t feel right for them, but I do see my role as helping to debunk and demystify a lot of misconceptions about taking a gap year. There are plenty of students who are in schools, who are thriving, who are doing great. But I think that if parents are seeing a lack of enthusiasm from their child around college, or are watching grades drop during a student’s junior and senior years, that should be a red flag. This new type of experience would allow the student in question to take stock in his or her academic process, with more passion and personal drive.

NP: What’s your advice to parents who are weighing the cost of a gap year prior to college?

JS: A lot of families will say that they don’t want to pay for a gap year, that they don’t want to “waste” that money. My question is, are you prepared to spend 50 to 60 thousand dollars for your student’s first year of college? Is your child ready for that? Fewer than 50% of students finish college in four years as opposed to major switching, transferring, or any number of other things, and I believe this is an important thought for families. Studies have shown that kids who take a gap year are outperforming their non-gap year counterparts in college, and have higher GPAS. Another big thing parents say is that “if my child takes a gap year, they will never go to college,” but there’s no evidence to support that. I have had one student in the last five year years take a second gap year, and the rest went to college; and they were excited to go to college as well.

NP: So where does taking a gap year fit into the process for students who are pursuing high test scores and college acceptance?

JS: I’m a huge proponent of students going through the college process while they have team support and momentum, both at their school and through outside companies like this one. Once the applications are in, whether early or regular, October, November, December, January,  or February, then they can put that process to rest and give the gap year some very serious consideration. They can talk about it with their counselor. They can investigate their school of choice’s policies regarding gap years. A gap year is not a detour but a bridge: to help transition students into adulthood, give students a deserved break, and prepare them to really embrace a rigorous higher learning institution.

For more information on gap year programming and possibilities, check out part one of our interview with Jane Sarouhan.

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