It’s a seemingly inescapable rite-of-passage for most of us these days: SATs, college applications, acceptance letters, prom, graduation, one last summer of chaos and anxiety, and then it’s off to some faraway (or nearby) campus to start the Beginning of the Rest of Your Life. Every year, millions of teenagers go through this exact process like it’s the only option they have.
Something is telling you to pack your bags and hop on a plane across the ocean instead of across the country.
But look at you. You don’t want to be like everyone else. Maybe you’re not ready to sign up for four more years of books, papers and all-nighters; maybe you don't feel ready to decide your life path; maybe you’re itching to see the world and just can’t wait until junior year for study abroad; maybe you found a great program that fits your interests perfectly; maybe you can’t even put your finger on what it is, but something is telling you to pack your bags and hop on a plane across the ocean instead of across the country.
Whatever the reason, you’ve decided that instead of joining the hordes of college freshman drinking and skipping lecture across the country, you’ll be much better off taking a gap year before you start drinking and skipping lectures (or whatever else you plan to do at college).
Read on for ways to convince Mom and Dad to let you take a gap year after high school!
Wait, Wait -- Why Should You Take a Gap Year?
Despite their many benefits and support from people like gainfully-employed globetrotter Nick Kristof (and his son), gap years really have yet to catch on in a major way in the U.S. Sure, some people have started to hop on the bandwagon, but the vast majority of people still put it off or see it as something they can’t manage or afford to do.
The reality is, though, a gap year is not only within your reach but also a viable option to increase your overall marketability and proactively increase your skills set. Yes, a gap year takes some planning and financial responsibility (the horror!), but it can also be one of the best things you can do with your time and energy -- definitely better than spending all your weekends participating in illegal activities at keg parties.
Increasingly, conversations are evolving on the benefits of a gap year before college. The act of travel and experiencing new cultures is rightly touted for increasing self-awareness and clarity, allowing young adults to make more refined decisions when looking to their future. This includes choosing their college, their college major, and perhaps the organizations, clubs, and people they will choose to get involved in while at university.
The psychological and emotional benefits of dedicating a year to exploring cannot be praised enough. As one of the most formidable periods in our lifetime, it is no surprise that the post-high-school-pre-college time frame is famed as one of the best times in your life to take a gap year.
Secondly: Understanding Why Your Parents Feel Inclined to Say "No"
Let’s all pretend for a moment that we are old enough to remember why they’re called B-sides – that is, that we’re your parents. The major concerns we’ll probably have about the potential idea of a gap year mostly have to do with money and that terrifying concept known as “your future.”
The primary reason most people talk themselves out of doing a gap year is financial. Indeed, spending a year working, volunteering or just traveling will take a bite out of your wallet, but it almost definitely won’t cost as much as a year at your average U.S. university. Still, like any other significant life decision, it’s a financial commitment, so you do have to consider whether it’s realistic, given the state of your finances (or lack thereof).
The other parental-style objections usually run along the lines of: “Are you sure this is the right thing to do now?” “Why don’t you want to go to college with all your friends?” “Why not wait to do this until after you graduate?” or some other question that reminds you that what you’re doing is not normal. Sure, your plan might not be status quo, but status quo doesn’t always work for everyone. Everyone who does a gap year has positive things to say about the experience – and if you never try, you’ll never know what you’re missing, right?
How To Get Them to Say "Yes"
So, how can we convince your various parental figures that this is actually the Best. Idea. Ever? Here are the main points you need to have prepared before you have any sort of real-talk conversation about it.
1. Create and Stick to a Gap Year Budget
Since money will probably be the most significant issue, this is what you absolutely need to focus on. No, you don’t need to come up with an itemized list of every possible expense for 12 months of backpacking through Southeast Asia, but it will really help your case if you can lay out what you expect to spend – and how you’re going to pay for it. Chances are, if your family is helping pay for your education, they may not have the additional funds to sponsor your gap year. Get a summer job, look over your savings, practice making a budget and show your parents that you’re responsible enough to be trusted with a credit card halfway across the world.
To take it a step further, you can aim to have a game plan for ways to offset your costs while you are actually traveling and living abroad. You may look into teaching abroad on the side, take advantage of different work exchange opportunities, or even plan to do a bit of fundraising. Details will be key here in convincing Mom and Dad you know what you're getting yourself into.
2. Plan Your #RTW Itinerary and Choose Programs
So now you know how you’re going to spend your money, or at least how much you expect to use – but what are you spending it on? Gap years take all different forms: some people choose to do long volunteering stints in one location or short ones in several different places; others treat it as time to get to know themselves better; some actually find internships abroad; and still others just want to have fun and maybe pick up a new language while they’re at it.
Showing Mom and Dad the tangible skills and advantages you'll actually be gaining in that time is a great way to demonstrate that the unmissable opportunity is actually the gap year after high school.
Gap years are not restricted to stomping through jungles with a backpack – plenty of volunteer programs accept participants as young as 18, and many provide hands-on experience and training in fields like medicine or international development. There are plenty of pre-planned gap year ideas out there.
It will seriously help your case to find a program (or several) for your gap year, both to reassure your parents that you’re not going to get lost in the middle of the wilderness, and so they have a better idea of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Do some research on helpful web sites (like this one!), check out a gap year fair if there’s one nearby, and find the program that will show them you won’t be wasting your time.
And if you’re really just planning on spending the year hitchhiking from one surfing location to the next, well, that sounds awesome, but planning-wise, you’re on your own.
3. Highlight Personal Development Opportunities
The point of taking a gap year is not because you can’t think of anything better to do, or because you just don’t feel like sitting in lecture halls. Sure, some people do it for those reasons, but the goal is that it will benefit you in some way. Whether your interests take you on a gap year in Cambodia or Kansas, make sure you’re doing something that’s useful and relevant to you and your plans.
If you want to study international development, what better way to start than with some hands-on practice? If you’re a future marine biologist, budding photojournalist, linguistics nerd or anything in-between, you can find a way to make your gap year help you develop those skills or pursue those interests.
This isn’t even mentioning the life skills you’ll pick up along the way: independence, flexibility, patience, responsibility, planning and managing a budget. College is supposed to teach you all those things (eventually), but why not get started outside of the classroom?
In fact, some colleges are beginning to require and even encourage post high school gap years. We wrote a whole article on what college admissions really think of gap years. If that piece isn't enough to convince your parents that your gap year will help, not hinder, your personal and professional development -- then I don't know what will!
You need to convince your parents that you won’t be giving up any opportunities by putting off school for a year or two -- showing them the tangible skills and advantages you’ll actually be gaining in that time is a great way to demonstrate that the unmissable opportunity is actually the gap year after high school.
4. Use References and Consult Resources
Any good plan needs to be vetted by a few extra eyeballs, and this is no different. Though it might feel like it, you’re not the first person planning a gap year -- you’re probably not even the first person planning to go wherever you’re headed.
Take advantage of other people’s wisdom and experience to help you out. Whether you know someone nearby who can give you first-person tips or find a kindred spirit online, there are other people out there who are more than willing to offer you advice and guidance. Check out sites like Go Overseas as well as travel forums to find other people doing similar things. Ask interesting programs if they can put you in touch with alumni and make good use of their experiences.
Handy Gap Year Resources for Mom and Dad to Check Out
- Blog: Higher Education and the Gap Year, by gap year organization Thinking Beyond Borders
- Book: The Complete Guide to a Gap Year, by author Kristin White
- Article: Taking a Gap Year to Explore Alternatives Before College, on Petersons
- Website: The American Gap Association, created by gap year expert Ethan Knight
- Studies: Research Suggests a 'Gap Year' Motivates Students, from EducationWeek
Remember, from your parents' perspective, it’ll be much more convincing to say, “I talked to Chris, who spent a year volunteering at a conservation NGO in Ecuador, and here’s what he recommended…” vs “I think this place will probably let me stay there?” Real-life examples are always better than imaginary ones. Save the imagination for the trip itself.
5. Have So Much Enthusiasm You'll "Wow" the Pants Off of 'Em
Sure, it sounds silly, but any decent snake oil salesman can tell you that the key to getting people to buy your product is your sales pitch. You may not be selling magic x-ray-vision glasses, but you’re still selling an idea, and your parents are going to have a hard time supporting this idea if they can’t see why you want to do it.
Only resort to begging if absolutely necessary, but do make sure they can see just how excited you are about the idea and how important it is to you. It’s a year of your life you’re talking about here – you’d better be excited about what you’re going to be doing, or why bother?
Grounding your excitement in concrete examples will only further strengthen your argument. Another option is to ask your mom and dad for permission to travel for five years then negotiate them down to just one... you're both making concessions, right?!
Get Out There, Gapper!
Once you have all these figured out, then it’s time to sit down with the parents and actually discuss the whole thing. Hopefully you’ve mentioned the idea before, so it won’t be the first time they hear about this. If you’ve done your homework and prepared answers to all the questions they might have, you shouldn’t have too much of an uphill battle to convince them.
Remember – their main concern is that they won’t be able to help you or take care of you wherever you are, so it’s your job to show them you can take care of yourself. Oh, and take lots of pictures. Those always make parents happy.
Exploring your gap year options? Don't miss USA Gap Year Fairs every winter! These free, public events are held in 40+ cities across the country to provide a broad exposure to gap year options and connect prospective gap year students, parents, gap year organizations, educators, experts, and alumni. Register for a fair near you at usagyf.eventbrite.com.