While gap years have been common in other countries for years, they are only now just slowly gaining in popularity in the United States. Typically, students elect to take gap years after they graduate high school and before they enter college. But why wait? High school is a great time to take a gap year! And if you plan it just right, you might even still be able to graduate without losing a year!
It can be difficult to convince your parents to let you take a gap year, especially after high school because they may be afraid you’ll end up deciding you don’t want to go to college, or that you’ll lose time you can’t get back. To convince them to let you go during high school might seem an even more insurmountable challenge -- you’re still a minor and they don’t have to let you go yet, so why would they? It’s much too scary for their precious little son or daughter to head out into the big bad world!
Furthermore, you might feel that you will be missing out. Your friends are all at home, their lives will go on, they’ll have fun, go to parties, take classes without you! But don’t let FOMO get to you... or at least not in that way! What you should really be afraid of missing out on is the A-M-A-Z-I-N-G experience of living abroad for a year, of seeing the world in a new way, of meeting incredible new people, of doing awesome things you can only do on a gap year, and having the opportunity of a lifetime to do something that many people can’t do -- or don’t have the guts to do!
Benefits of a Gap Year in High School
It’s difficult to name all the benefits of taking a gap year in high school because there are just so many! Spending a year abroad -- whether it’s in one place or many -- completely changes a person, especially at a young formative age like in high school. You will almost certainly come back a more mature, confident, and independent person, no matter how you spend your gap year.
Whether you’re on your own or with a program, you will have to learn how to take care of yourself a bit, manage your money, navigate your way in a foreign city, interact with different people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and ways of living. Your mind will be opened to new ways of doing things, to ideals and beliefs that may clash with your own.
You will learn to reason, to understand, to accept. You will likely become less selfish and self-centered, more aware of the struggles and feelings of others.
But you will gain so much more beyond all that personal growth. It’s quite likely you will discover a new passion or talent. So many high school students graduate and move on to college completely unsure of what they want to study or want to do in the future. A gap year may not give you all the answers, but it will certainly give you more direction.
Maybe it will be as simple as learning another language that will open different doors for you. Maybe you will discover a passion for a cause while volunteering or a culture while living with a local family, or a knack for a certain skill or field while working or interning.
A Competitive Edge
And all those benefits will put you leagues ahead of others your age, in so many ways. You will stand out when you’re applying to college, and even later in life when you’re interviewing for jobs. It shows character and courage that you didn’t follow the typical path, that you didn’t feel you had to have the “typical” high school experience, and that you took the initiative to expand your worldview and improve yourself by taking a gap year at such a young age.
How to Spend Your Gap Year
One of the great things about a gap year is that it really isn’t defined. There are so many different ways you can spend a gap year. You can really take the whole year off and do something totally different, like using the time to volunteer abroad, or you can do the equivalent of studying abroad for a year, and just spend one of your high school years at a high school in another country.
Want a taste of it all? Do a mix of different things -- even working or interning abroad. Now that the gap year industry is taking in the US, you can even find organized yearlong high school programs that incorporate study, travel, volunteering and more into gap year programs. Some are even international programs, where you’ll be studying side by side with other high schoolers from around the world!
Find Your Perfect High School Gap Year Program
It can be intimidating -- though not impossible -- to plan your own gap year, especially when you’re still in high school. You may be able to find your own opportunities to work, intern, volunteer, study, and/or travel, but a year is a long time! Especially going back to that whole parent issue... having a coordinate program will definitely ease the burden on yourself and the fear and hesitation they will likely have!
There are a number of different kinds of gap year programs, from private programs that are designed to replace a school year -- or earn you college credit -- to government-sponsored exchange programs, and plenty in between!
High School Exchange Programs
These programs are designed for students to essentially "swap places" with an international student in a foreign country. You will attend classes at a high school in a different country, alongside local students. As an exchange student, you are expected to integrate within your host culture, immersing yourself in the local community and surroundings.
Suggested High School Exchange Programs
- YFU USA has semester and yearlong exchange programs where students attend high school in another country, live with a host family, and are usually immersed in another language.
- AFS also provides semester and yearlong exchange programs where students attend high school and live with host families in numerous countries around the world.
- CIEE has semester and yearlong exchange programs in numerous countries.
- SYA has special schools in China, France, Italy, and Spain where students can take class in a mix of English and the local language. Students also take an intensive language course and live with host families.
- The Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Program (CBYX) is funded by the U.S. State Department. While it’s competitive (it is fully funded!), no previous German language experience is required. Students will attend a local high school and live with a host family in Germany.
Unique Gap Year Programs for Teens
Looking for something a little more off the beaten path? Great news, there are a variety of gap year excursions designed just for your adventurous self. You may opt to do a combo of programs throughout the year, and forego attending classes in a traditional classroom setting. This may deter you from getting your diploma in 4 years, but I've got a feeling you won't regret the delay one bit...
Suggested Unique Gap Year Programs for Teens
- Rotary Youth Exchange programs range from a year abroad studying at a local school and living with a local family to shorter term programs that can be customized to include homestays, internships, volunteer projects, travel, and more.
- The Traveling School is just that -- a school that travels. The program is open to girls in high school and each semester takes place in a different part of the world.
- Projects Abroad’s Global Gap Year program focused on volunteering on various service projects in five countries on three different continents over the course of 27 weeks.
- The Island School is also semester-based, an opportunity for students to study in the Bahamas, with a focus on environment and sustainability and the chance to conduct scientific research at the associated Cala Eleuthera Institute.
- Where There Be Dragons offers a variety of programs which typically include a mix of travel, service learning, language learning, homestays, and more.
- THINK Global School is a high school in and of itself, with students from around the world, that is based in a different country each trimester. Students are allowed to enroll in the school for just one year (living and studying in three different countries in that time), though they are encouraged to stay with and graduate from the school.
What you should really be afraid of missing out on is the A-M-A-Z-I-N-G experience of living abroad for a year, of seeing the world in a new way, of meeting incredible new people, of doing awesome things you can only do on a gap year
However you choose to spend your gap year, whether you go on a program or do it yourself, chances are you aren’t going to regret your decision. Be sure to be mindful and embrace all that comes along with this incredible opportunity. Keep your mind open and save time for reflection, because you are sure to change more than you could ever believe possible in your year away. Take pride in your guts and foresight to take this huge step at an early time in your life... And be prepared to be met with shock and awe when you return home a new and improved you!