If you're close to finishing your time in high school, there's one question you'll hear from friends and family incessantly: "So, what are you doing next year?" Everybody wants to know. But what if you don't know yourself? A common dilemma for many students at the end of their high school careers is whether to continue on the educational path by going to college or take a diversion with a gap year and learn new things outside of the stuffy confines of the classroom.
The stats on American high school students taking gap years are not officially recorded, but the trend has reportedly been growing over the last decade. With so many opportunities presented by a wealth of gap year companies, a gap year is now a viable option for every high school grad. Colleges are also beginning to realize the benefits that a gap year can have upon a student, and more and more are allowing students to defer acceptance and take a gap year. In fact, Harvard's acceptance letter now encourages this, as long as students can prove they're not just sunning themselves on Koh Phangan! If you're in the process of deciding whether or not to take a gap year, keep reading - we've got tons of compelling reasons to consider and helpful tips for planning you gap year.
Why You Might Be Hesitant to Take a Gap Year...
Even if all of those alleged gap year perks seem irresistible, you may still be afraid to enter the complete unknown - that's completely understandable. The prospects of a gap year might be especially scary if this is the first time you will travel abroad by yourself or without good ol' Mom and Dad (hint: setting up regular Skype dates with friends and family back home is a great way to maintain your support network!).
In fact, it is often your Mom who is more worried about your travels than you are! Worrying parents can only make things more stressful and daunting. What's more, you're not going to be able to travel abroad without saving a little USD. Building up that bank account won't happen overnight (unfortunately), so you will need to make a concerted (and perhaps longterm effort) to finance your gap year. The funds, the planning, the uncertainty of the adventure ahead are all stumbling blocks to making your gap year a reality - and a success. On top of all of this, you'll be a year behind your friends as they head off to college in the fall. You'll miss out on all those first-year flops and follies. It is really worth it?
... And Why All That ^^ is Hog Wash
If you're not yet convinced, you probably haven't realized all of the ways that taking a gap year can change your life. This adventure will help prepare you for whatever lies ahead. For you second-guessers out there, check out all the reasons why your first year out of high school is the best time to take a gap year:
A gap year will change you forever
Gap years can be many things. In between hours spent in transit or devoted to sightseeing, gap years, at their very core, are dedicated to discovering YOURSELF. Increasingly, gap years are devoted to worthwhile causes, whether it be for others (many students opt to participate in a volunteer program while on their gap year) or for your job prospects (fancy boosting your resume with an international internship?). Whatever your goal in this year, identify it early on and work to achieve it aggressively.
It's amazing how a year away can sharpen your understandings of yourself and your place in the world. Taking a year out of your life to give back to others in the way is an invaluable experience - it will open your eyes to the plight of others and show you just how much you can accomplish if you set your mind to it. Even if you're not spending your year volunteering, traveling around the world is incredibly beneficial, too. You will learn to be totally independent and will gain a better sense of who you are and what you want from life.
A gap year will help your future
Taking a gap year can actually help you get into the college of your choice! If you spend your gap year wisely, you'll come out standing head and shoulders above most other college applicants with the same grade as you. If you're not sure where your true passions lie, a gap year can also give you a twelve month's grace. You'll have some extra time to decide the major that you truly want to work towards once you enter college. You'll also get experience working in your field on interest, which can help narrow down your specialty.
Even if you've deferred your college acceptance for a year and know where you're headed two-falls from now, a gap year has its benefits. Entering college with the increased sense of clarity invoked by travel will make your academic and career decisions more pointed and intentional. Everybody wins.
A gap year will teach you valuable life skills
Remember that travel is an education in itself, and exposing yourself to cultures and the realities of life that others at home only watch on their TV screens will make you a wiser and more conscientious person. Taking a gap year will prepare you well for all of the challenges that you'll face once you enter college. The independence that you gain while abroad will certainly help you to adapt to your new environment at school. Traveling and working or volunteering abroad is also a terrific way to build self-confidence. If you travel alone, meeting people and forming new friendships will be a daily exercise that you will soon become an expert at. Meeting new people is possibly the scariest part of starting college, so having confidence in your ability to make friends easily can ease the anxiety on the often-dreaded first day.
Tips For Planning Your Gap Year
If you've decided that taking a gap year after high school is the right decision for you, we're here to help you make it happen. Follow these tips to plan your perfect gap year experience.
Figure Out Your Gap Year Activities
Timing your gap year requires considering how long you really want to travel for, how long you want to volunteer or work for and how long you want to spend at home. You don't have to travel the whole twelve months! Most gappers work at home for a while to save up some money and then head off to a work or volunteer placement before traveling around with a few friends they have made on the trip. If you haven't traveled abroad on you own before, it may be best to take a few test trips first, like a week long trip to another American city. This will help you familiarize yourself with how transport and hostels generally work and introduce you to the rigors of the traveling lifestyle.
Traveling independently or with a program
When planning your gap year, you can either decide to travel with a formal program, which will organize a lot of logistics for you, or independent travel, which allows you the freedom to arrange your own travel plans. Most gap years involve a bit of both, but the ratio of each is up to you to decide. Do you want to volunteer more than sightsee? Are you more interested in the journey or the destination? Do you want to concentrate on just a few places or travel far and wide? The best gap years often start with a formal program and end with independent travel. This way, you are able to settle and adjust to new surroundings when you arrive. Then, you'll meet some awesome travel buddies for those post-placement road trips.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both styles of gap years - another reason why it's good to get the best of both! Independent travel allows you to see lots of the world and figure things out for yourself. However, it is often tiring and can also be daunting to those traveling solo for the first time. Formal programs are great for meeting new friends and getting close to a community, but you are stuck in one place for a fair amount of time and they can be expensive. The best bet is to be as flexible as possible and see how you feel when you're out in the field. If you plan and arrange too much at home then you may find yourself trapped somewhere you grow tired of when you're traveling.
Suggested Gap Year Programs
Want to have a year worth bragging about? Don't waste your time abroad (or your potential, for that matter). Travel with purpose, and check out one of these suggested programs for your gap year.
Plan your itinerary - and fit in some truly amazing destinations
Your gap year may have you visiting a single country, exploring a whole continent, or traveling all the way around the world. While each person's gap year itinerary will be totally unique based on their own interests and dreams, these are some great destinations that will help make your gap year awesome. Try to hit at least one, or more if you can!
- Thailand: It's cliche gap year stuff but Thailand is top for cheap living, wide ranging volunteer placements and the fact that it's wildly popular, meaning that you'll never be short of a friend or two.
- Mexico: Mexico is not too far from home, but far enough to experience a different culture and language. Mexico has plenty of volunteer opportunities and is a good base for exploring the rest of Central America.
- China: China has everything you could want: teaching English is very popular in the Far East and the big city sights of Beijing and Shanghai are well countered by the natural beauty of Guilin and Tiger Leaping Gorge.
- South Africa: South Africa offers a taste of this incredible continent but also a place where you will be (mostly) understood and where you can make a genuine difference to the lives of local people while exploring this stunning nation.
- Australia: Australia is also a top spot: the land Down Under couldn't be more popular for gappers looking to earn some money while living the beach life. The barbecues aren't bad either.
Last Minute Tips for Your Gap Year After High School
Ready to really get planning? Consider these final tips first - they'll help you get the most out of your gap year and ensure that everything goes as planned.
Plan ahead, but not too much. Put some thought into where you want to go, but allow room for the road to whisk you off into the unknown. The best travel experiences are the unplanned ones. Remember that you don't have to go with a friend. A lot of people don't end up traveling because they can't find a friend to go with them. News flash: traveling by yourself is a more enriching, more exciting and, actually, a more sociable experience. You will find it far easier to meet people and to appreciate a destination if you're not huddled with your best friend half the time, moaning about how much you miss home. Don't be afraid to try new things.
You may be taking a gap year to get some work experience, and might be sorely disappointed if you don't get the one placement that you've set your heart on. However, search broadly for work and don't shirk at learning new skills or taking on a position that isn't exactly the one you dreamed of. You never know if you don't try. Document your travels and your whole gap year on a blog. Not only will a blog keep family and friends informed (and jealous) of your journey but you'll also be able to show it to colleges when you return to prove that your gap year was beneficial to your learning.
Don't let family or friends decide for you. Remember that this is your life and your time on Earth. You're eighteen now and you're old enough to make your own life decisions. However, you should assure your parents that you will be taking up a place at college when you return. Having a deferred entry is a good way to ensure this.
A common dilemma for many students at the end of their high school careers is whether to continue on the educational path by going to college or take a diversion with a gap year and learn new things outside of the stuffy confines of the classroom. With so many opportunities presented by a wealth of gap year companies, a gap year is now a viable option for every high school grad.
The great thing about a gap year is that it's one year of your life in which you get to do pretty much whatever you want. The world is your oyster! College can wait, right? The whole world is out there, ready to be explored. A gap year is not without its challenges and big decisions but the vast majority of pre-college students that take a gap year are really grateful they did. Think hard about what you want to achieve and where you want to go. This way, when the next friend or relative annoyingly asks you about your plans for the future, you'll be able to give them an answer that will not only impress them, but will make them slightly envious too!Photo Credits: Megan Lee.