How to Prepare Teens for Taking a Gap Year
The trend of taking a gap year between high school college didn’t start with former first daughter Malia Obama. Recent studies indicate a number of benefits for students who take a gap year between high school and college.
This phenomenon can be traced back to the mid-1960s when students began backpacking through foreign countries, although the practice predates the term. Many derided those 1960s “gappers” merely as hippies. But a survey earlier this year by TD Ameritrade indicates that 35 percent of graduating high school seniors were at least considering taking a gap year.
Impact on student outcomes
The primary stated motivations for students to take a gap year are personal growth, an academic break, career exploration, and social encouragement from peers, family, and academic advisers. But money also is part of the equation, with some students planning to save to help pay for their academic careers.
Regardless of the motivation, the time off can be helpful. Srini Pillay, M.D., Harvard psychiatrist, academic adviser, and author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlick the Power of the Unfocused, can relate a number of advantages students may have as a result of time spent away from academia during a gap year.
In his book, he outlines exactly how time off such as a gap year can benefit the brain. Some examples include activating the default mode network of the brain – what he calls its unfocus circuit. This area of the brain increases creativity, improves memory, enhances a sense of prediction about the future, and re-energizes the brain.
Many prominent businessmen and businesswomen thrive after taking time off from stressful situations, such as the time provided for students between the end of their high school career and the beginning of their time in college. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates are among those who’ve taking a gap year – only they often call them sabbaticals.
According to Pillay, “Time away, even when it seems irrelevant, can enhance creative solutions because the brain has time to shuttle around old memories, recombine puzzle pieces, and invent new and fresh approaches to life.”
The American Gap Association surveys alumni to gain further insight into the benefits of taking time between high school and college. The most recent report shows the following:
- More than 80 percent of respondents said they would recommend a gap year to someone who was considering it.
- The most meaningful experience for the majority of respondents was being in a new and different environment.
- Also important was the increased exposure to new experiences.
- Respondents reported the greatest impact in their personal growth and development.
- Respondents averaged a shorter time between returning to school and graduating along with higher than average GPAs.
Affording the time off for a gap year
A gap year is not something that can effectively be planned at the last minute. It requires preparation that could begin years before graduation.
Parents who want their teen to experience the benefits of engaging with the world prior to heading off to college may want to consider dual enrollment during the high school years as a way to save money on tuition and ensure the student can jump back into his or her college career without having lost any time. This is not a necessity but it can be beneficial.
In addition to planning for the expedition in advance, students may benefit from finding a job in the locations to which they travel. Pillay says, “They can become part of the gig economy by advertising specific services for hire, or they can work a part-time job while taking the time off.”
This can create a greater understanding of a new culture by resulting in a fully immersive experience. If students will be spending time in a foreign country, it can also help them become more fluent in the native language of that country.
Cultivating the best experience
The first step in crafting a rewarding gap year is discerning whether it is a good fit for the student. Pillay explains, “It depends on the individuals and their tolerance for lack of security. If they are able to create structures in an unstructured environment, tolerate uncertainty, and afford it, it is likely a good fit.”
Parents can help by encouraging their teen to view the experience as an opportunity for developing creative insights. Pillay recommends having teens write monthly or quarterly insight reports about the new ideas they encounter.
Nathaniel Turner from the Raising Supaman Project recommended parents focus on the following three things when helping create an itinerary for their teen’s gap year.
- Increasing the teen’s intellectual, emotional, and social capacity.
- Preparing the teen to be a global citizen – someone who values and respects the humanity of all living beings.
- Encouraging the teen to care for something greater than themselves to prepare them to leave the planet better than it was when they arrived.
It is possible to allow a teen to simply take the year off and play video games, but that doesn’t tend to create optimal outcomes.
Supporting a teen in his or her gap year adventure requires careful thought and preparation and making sure they have the emotional maturity and intellectual curiosity necessary to fully take advantage of the opportunity.