College Applications and Gap Years

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Sterling College Senior Dinner

Sterling College Senior Dinner


What do college admissions officers think about Gap Years, and how might the decision to take a Gap Year impact your college application prospects? In this post Tim Patterson, Director of Admission at Sterling College in Vermont, sheds some light on Gap Years from the perspective of a college admissions officer.

More and more students are choosing to take a gap year between high school and college. For college admissions officers like me, the growing popularity of gap years is a trend that merits close attention. Personally, I am a big fan of gap years because I believe that students who take a gap year arrive at college having gained a clearer sense of purpose that helps them focus and succeed in their program of choice. However, Gap Year students need to figure out how to approach the college application process, including the question of when to apply.

Should I Apply To College Before Taking A Gap Year?

Students often ask if they should finish their college applications and defer enrollment before taking a Gap Year. Most colleges, including Sterling College, allow students who receive an offer of admission to defer for up to one year by submitting an enrollment deposit. Alternatively, some students choose to hold off and complete the application process during their gap year, or apply after the gap year is complete. There are pros and cons to each approach.

The conventional wisdom that I usually hear from college counselors and parents of gap year students is that students should finish the college application process before embarking on a gap year. The argument goes something like this:

Settling on a college before a gap year helps students because they can access all of the resources of their high school college counseling office while completing their college applications. Additionally, by deferring college enrollment before a Gap Year students can make the most of their Gap Year experience instead of being distracted by college applications.

If you stop and consider the perspective of many college counselors and parents this argument makes a lot of sense. After all, counselors and parents have been known to worry that a Gap Year might somehow lead a student off track, and they want the reassurance of knowing where and when the student will go to college. Also, since high schools keep track of the plans of graduating seniors and often look favorably on graduating a high percentage of college bound students, guidance counselors can sometimes feel pressure to successfully “close the file” on each student before graduation. However, I think a different approach is often the right call.

You can apply to college during a Gap Year

You absolutely CAN apply to colleges during a Gap Year, and for many students I think that doing so is the right choice. Here’s why:

A Gap Year is a time of growth and change

Students almost always gain a great deal of perspective and maturity during a Gap Year, and many emerge from the experience with new academic interests and a more evolved sense of purpose. Applying this new perspective and self-knowledge to the college search can lead to students to consider college options that are a better fit given the self-knowledge gained during the gap year. Precluding that possibility by choosing a college before the gap year might be the “safest” option, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Not going to college right away isn’t a catastrophe

The average age of a student here at Sterling College in Vermont is 22, and generally speaking students who have life and work experience before college are more focused and successful in their studies. There is nothing wrong with delaying college until you’re fully ready, clear-headed, and prepared. If your Gap Year leads you to other opportunities, it’s OK to take advantage of them instead of imposing a fixed end to your gap year experience.

A Gap Year can make your college applications stronger

When my colleagues and I are evaluating applications, we look for things that set an applicant apart. Students who are able to describe their Gap Year are often our most captivating applicants, and we know from experience that students who have completed a Gap Year are often better prepared for success in college than their peers who attend college straight out of high school.

Students with a clear sense of purpose thrive in college

I keep coming back to the phrase “sense of purpose” because I think it’s a pivotal part of the whole conversation about Gap Years and college applications.

Like many colleges, Sterling College has a clear mission and purpose – we happen to be focused on a mission of environmental stewardship, with majors in Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems, Ecology, Outdoor Education, and Environmental Humanities. It takes a very focused student to succeed at Sterling, and we look hard for evidence of that sense of purpose during the application process. A gap year is a great opportunity to hone in on a sense of purpose, and then approach college applications with clearer focus and intent.

Gap Year students can be savvy about financial aid

Finally, a word about affordability. I believe that we are in the midst of a student debt crisis in this country, and I am often shocked at how little students and parents know about financial aid and college affordability in general. I could write a whole series of posts about financial aid, but here are the points that are most relevant to gap year students:

  • Financial aid packages can change from year to year.
  • Students are in the best position to advocate for an affordable financial aid package BEFORE they commit to a college.

By committing to a college before receiving the financial aid package for the academic year in which they plan to attend, students sacrifice all of their leverage and are unable to compare financial aid packages and find the best fit at the best price.

The choice is yours

Ultimately, the choice of whether to apply to college before, during, or after a gap year is up to you. If you have already have a clear sense of where and why you want to go to college, by all means go ahead and lock in your plans before your gap year. Just don’t feel as if there is only one path that you need to follow. One of the most important lessons of a gap year is that you are free to make your own choices, and use your own compass to navigate the world. This is true in life, and in college as well.

To contact Tim Patterson, or learn more about Sterling College, please visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.

Taking a Gap Year After College

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Why I opted for a gap year abroad after college

Due to scholarship requirements and an eagerness to launch my undergraduate career, taking off for a year after high school wasn’t in the cards for me. However, that didn’t mean I was going to pass up a Gap Year all together, and four years later I found myself face to face with the invaluable opportunity to live abroad for a year.

In March of my senior year of college, I received a long-awaited email with a few short sentences informing me that I received a Fulbright grant to teach English in Germany. The months leading up to the final decision had been a pressure cooker of anticipation that would decide whether walking across the stage on graduation day was impending doom or the closing of one chapter before starting life’s next adventure.

Taking a chance on a Gap Year after college was never an easy, clear-cut decision. As my four-year undergraduate journey came to an end, friends and classmates were being snatched up by graduate schools, picking up stable full time jobs, or even exchanging vows at the altar. Society’s expectations and the desire to finally settle into the “real world” as an esteemed adult more or less dictated where everyone’s priorities lied. That’s not to say I didn’t want the same. I had a set list of goals I wanted to achieve in my 20s, which included obtaining a master’s degree, starting a 401(k), earning a stable income, and growing professionally, just to name a few. A slightly delayed timeline was the only difference.

Before running off to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to a career and tying myself down to a rental agreement and car, I wanted to squeeze in one last hurrah of youthful exploration. Shooting for a structured program abroad that guaranteed an occupation and stipend gave a peace of mind that I would have a clearly defined purpose for the next year. Professional development and an immersive environment to advance my German skills? Check and check.

Taking a Gap Year was a responsible, sound decision, but I couldn’t muffle the nagging voice in my head questioning if it really was the right thing to do.

The Post-College Gap Year Stigma

Seniors in college and recent graduates are constantly drilled with questions about their near future. What’s next? During the buildup to my departure to Germany, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives alike curiously asked what life had in store for me next. After announcing my plans to live and teach abroad for the upcoming year, the reaction was always the same— “Wow, that’s amazing…but why?” No one got it. Rather than proudly revealing my achievement, I instead had to constantly justify to myself and others why I was “taking a year off”.

Whether a result of the United States’ education system or a deeply embedded hustling go-getter culture, there’s a certain stigma behind taking a Gap Year in the United States. During high school, the college-bound crowd is encouraged to apply to every scholarship under the sun, many of which are restricted to high school students. Missed the application window? You might have to scramble for smaller awards or take out financially crushing loans. Although some scholarships and higher education institutions may allow recipients to defer for a year or two with good reason, it’s not easy. Students are consequently steered from high school straight into college. After college, you naturally continue education, or settle into a job and start paying off racked up loans.

There’s a strict sequence of life events to check off before true adulthood, otherwise you run the risk of being perceived as a slacker or confused millennial trying to figure life out. Even so, gap year participation has skyrocketed in the last few years. International travel is the cheapest its ever been, Millennials are ditching the antiquated view that travel is a luxury reserved for retirees, and internet culture has inspired an inescapable wanderlust.

The benefits of taking a Gap Year, whether it’s after high school, college, or a relief from career burnout, are widely advertised. It’s no shock that a Gap Year spent volunteering abroad, exploring diverse careers, or simply traveling for the sake of adventure results in personal and skill development. You might not find your life’s purpose while meditating under a waterfall in Thailand, but stepping out of your comfort zone and drastically overhauling your reality shapes you at the core over time.

A Different Perspective: Germany

Teaching in Germany comes with many perks, one of which is gaining an insider perspective of students’ attitudes and a general feel for how education is approached.

Germany is no stranger to the concept of the Gap Year. Until just a few years ago, all young German men would have to serve a term in the military or do civil service such as volunteering. Putting their lives on hold right after schooling was common, and since mandatory service was abolished in 2011 it has remained popular to travel abroad for an extended period or do freiwilligenarbeit (volunteer work) before deciding on what to do next. Young students taking a year to live abroad is quite popular, often as an au pair to fine tune language fluency or volunteer at a local school for a few months for career insight.

When compared to the United States, universities in Germany are laughably affordable, with public ones only costing a few hundred euros a semester in fees (tuition at private universities are slightly steeper). With admission deadlines much later in the year, significantly less stress over funding, and a laxer attitude toward taking time off, the education system in Germany might lend a good explanation as to why the Gap Year has become a cultural staple. It’s not uncommon for students to be in their mid-20s by the time they receive their first bachelor’s degree.

Living in a rather small town off the usual tourist route, I’m regularly asked what a young American woman is doing in the German countryside. Instead of raising eyebrows at my year-long transatlantic jaunt, students and strangers give me an understanding nod and conclude that I’m doing an Auslandsjahr, literally a “foreign country year”.

No single cultural perspective has the right answer, and Gap Years are definitely not for everyone. The host of Gap Year Benefits are constantly cited, but who’s to say that the direct plunge from school to career doesn’t also have its own advantages?  As young Americans continue to collect passport stamps and effortlessly gallivant across country borders, the attitude towards taking time off for a global education outside a classroom will undoubtedly continue to evolve.

Ultimately, a Gap Year abroad is an intimate experience of personal growth unique to each person. The only person who can decide whether a year abroad will be beneficial and when it’s best to take it is you!

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raquel headshotFreshly graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in tourism management, Raquel spent the last few years trekking through Peru and Argentina, farming in Japan, teaching at a summer camp in South Korea, and exploring her parents’ heritage in Mexico, Spain, and Germany. Now during her fifth time in Germany, Raquel’s teaching English through the Fulbright program for the next year before pursuing a career in international education. She’s also virtually working as a junior editor at GoAbroad.com hoping to spread the international love.

 

How to Put a Gap Year on Your Resume

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Your backpack is officially empty and your socks no longer smell like the plague. You’re settling into life back home and are eagerly looking to the next steps in life. OR – you’re at the stage of life where you peek into your Gap Year memory box only when you’re feeling particularly nostalgic.

Whether you completed your trip yesterday, yesteryear, or yester-decade, here’s the advice you need to add some pop to that black and white list of credentials.

General Gap Year Resume Tips:

No matter if you’re fresh-off-the-plane or you ended your RTW adventure a few years ago, here are important things to keep in mind as you craft your resume and prepare to “Wow!” future employers or universities:

Reflect.

Without taking the time to really think about what you gained from your Gap Year that would be useful to future employers, you will have difficulty articulating its value. Pour a big cup of something warm (and ideally caffeinated) and spend time identifying the tangible takeaways from your big trip.

Focus on the skills learned.

Rather than giving a play-by-play of what you did (i.e. traveled to X number of countries or volunteered with sea turtles in Costa Rica), focus on the skills your acquired through the behemoth-learning-vehicle that is a Gap Year.

Put it in the right place.

If you weren’t gainfully employed on your Gap Year, don’t tack this under your “Work Experience” section. If you predominantly volunteered while traveling, add an entire section based on “Volunteer Experience.” You get the picture.

Know the audience.

Adapt your details and inclusions to be as useful or relevant to the person who will be reading your resume. College admissions counselor? Focus on academics. Fellowship granter? Focus on skills related to the goal of the fellowship. Scholarship board? Focus on your volunteer opportunities.

PRO TIP: My strategy is to create one giant document that outlines all of the possible details for communicating the value of my experiences, from travels and studying abroad to general volunteer and work experience. Whenever someone asks for a copy of my resume, I pick and choose the relevant details from my master document to craft a unique application/resume each time.

Friendly reminder: this isn’t your cover letter. Save your stories for your interview or your cover letter. Including your gap year on your resume should be a snapshot of the experience, not necessarily every (sordid) detail.

Tips for the Recently Returned

If your Gap Year is the main highlight of your resume (or at least the major TA-DA! You want to highlight), then here are the tips you need to follow.

How to provide details. Since you have a lot of space to work with, you can afford to communicate a few more details when explaining your Gap Year experience. Don’t fall victim to temptations of using flowery language. Use quantitative and qualitative metrics to communicate the value (ex: “Worked with kids to help improve their English” sounds good, but “Worked with 17 children under age 10 to improve their English from level 2 to level 4” sounds way more badass).

Is this for college admission or your first foray into the working world?
Don’t only focus on your Gap Year in your resume; you’ll want to communicate your breadth and depth of experience before/after your trip. High school clubs are a great inclusion, as well as any work with outside organizations, such as your place of worship or your community. You’ll probably have to include your GPA or standardized test scores (blah!), but these can be as small or big of a focus as you see fit.

Tips for Those Who Finished Their Gap Year Way-Back-When

Did you just turn the tassel after four years of study post-Gap Year? Are you ready for a career switch after climbing the corporate ladder for the first few years after your Gap Year? Keep these in mind:

Don’t skim over its value. Even if this happened a few years ago, your Gap Year was an incredibly unique (and cool) experience. Don’t dumb it down to just one line on your resume. It makes you stand out and be more memorable.

Determine placement. Since it’s been awhile since you completed this experience, you probably don’t want to put it smack-dab at the top of your resume. Write your most recent, relevant experience first, as this is deemed most valuable. Your Gap Year probably makes more sense in section two or further below. If you’re creating a creative digital resume, consider making it it’s own box!

Go Get Hired Already!

Be laser-focused and direct; rock that newfound confidence and independence, and keep the big picture in mind – if you don’t land the gig, it wasn’t for you. You more than anyone know there’s a great big world out there. Seize opportunities and enjoy the employment ride!

Should I go to College After my Gap Year?

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You’ve tackled the world. You’ve marched confidently off the beaten path (even if your heart broke a little as your friends all shared first-year experiences as college freshmen). You’ve grown leaps and bounds, and are excited at the prospect of continuing to grow and learn. But you’re wondering: is college the next best move for me in my life? Is it a conducive environment to the type of growing and learning I want to do?

The Value of a College Degree

There are a lot of benefits to attending college and earning an undergraduate degree. Oftentimes, these benefits are intangible (and don’t necessarily make their way onto your transcript). While classes are important and developing solid relationships with your professors ideal, there’s a lot of growth that happens out of the classroom, too.

There are myriads of clubs and causes to get involved with. There are passionate, weird, different, eclectic, normal people – all within close confines – and you learn how to interact effectively with each of them. There are folks with mindsets and philosophies and perspectives you’ve never been exposed to. There is training in how to think critically, how to argue productively, and how to compose logical statements. Plus, it’s fun (late night pizza, anyone?!).

That Being Said…

A college degree isn’t for everyone. Some might opt for a community college experience instead of a sleep-away-school ← totally awesome option for the money conscious/savvy student. Some students might end their Gap Year and want to keep traveling and learning experientially. You can get a job – part-time or otherwise – and bump up that piggy bank. You might want to sign up for the military, an apprenticeship, or another trainee program.

In short, there are many paths you can opt to take. But going to college should be a choice you weigh considerably. Here are some general questions to ask yourself as you navigate these waters:

What are your goals?

Certainly, not all career paths require college degrees; however, others do. How will this chapter of life – college – contribute to your overarching life mission? If you want to work with refugees or other marginalized populations, perhaps more direct-experience with these peoples through an internship would add value to your eventual formal studies in global development. If you want to devote your life to teaching English as a second language, there’s nothing wrong with taking a teaching gig abroad instead of attending school yourself, but understand that those with a degree are making a lot more money than those without.

To be clear: college can benefit you in ways beyond the actual degree, but it’s up to you to decide if it is necessary to accomplish your goals in life.

What Are Your Motivations for College?

If you feel motivated to go to college because it feels like the “right” thing to do or because you’re feeling pressured from outside sources (here’s lookin’ at you, mom and dad), you might need to go back to square one. College is a significant investment. Very significant. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars here. If your only reason for going to school is to make others happy – and not because it is what you truly want – your motivation to attend classes and perform well scholastically might decrease over time, potentially undermining the endeavor altogether.

Are You Crazy-Passionate Right Now & in Need of an Outlet?

College campuses are hotbeds for change, full of individuals hungry to make a dent in the world and help others. Living in this community can be jarring and exciting for a young activist in the making. If you’re on fire for any given cause (Women’s rights? Education equality? Access to clean water?) in light of your Gap Year experiences, consider channeling that fervor in a healthy, fertile environment – like the kind you can find on a college campus.

Does College Have to Happen RIGHT NOW?

Or, can you hold off for a year or more? You might decide that you definitely want to go to college, but the idea of term papers and sororities and three-lattes-per-day sounds off-putting at this stage of life. Attending college is a full-time job (a badass one, if you consider your only tasks are to learn and read and try to better understand the world); if you’re not ready to take on the commitment yet, hold off until you are.

Do You Know What You Want to Accomplish, Academically?

One of the perks of the Gap Year experience is clarity towards your life purpose and vocation. If you return from abroad, ready to hit the ground running and know exactly what you’d like to study and where, then you might be a great fit for going to college. Not wasting precious time (and money) on an undecided major will help you feel focused and accomplished in your collegiate career.

Do You Have the Resources?

If you thought your Gap Year bills were expensive, wait ’til you get a load of a tuition invoice. While financial aid, work-study programs, scholarships, and grants are all well and dandy, there’s still typically a good deal of money you have to fork out independently. Some students are fortunate in that family members will foot their college bills or subsidize their living expenses. Others might not be as lucky. Ask yourself if this is debt you’re willing to take on.

Then, think creatively. Perhaps combining the best of your international Gap Year experience with university would work. Check into the countries, abroad, where even foreign students can attend for free, or at rates far less than the ones found at US schools. There are international options, at excellent schools, for a fraction of the costs inside the USA.

Are You Ready to Make This Decision?

Whether you send off that application to (insert dream college here) or choose another path to postpone college life, you need to feel confident in your decision.Much like it took a degree of bravery when you chose to do a Gap Year, aim to have an equivalent sense of purpose towards your college decision.

Should You go to College Right Away After Your Gap Year?

Maybe. Should you go right now? Maybe not.

Don’t feel rushed to make a decision. Make sure you have many conversations – with friends, parents, other friends’ parents, your favorite high school teacher, your manager from your after school job, your mentor, whoever you look up to in life – and use all of their insights to come to a decision that feels right for YOU and you alone.

Remember: being “successful” is subjective and there are plenty of “successful” people who have lead meaningful, lives of impact with (and without) a degree in tow.

Navigating College & Your Gap Year

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The college admissions process is challenging enough, but should be seen as a necessary step in the evolution of your Gap Year. On average, 90% of AGA Accredited Gap Year graduates make their way back to university within a year. The good news is that once you hit college, Gap Year graduates also perform better in school and engage more in local campus activities. So, that being said, know that you’ll be bringing good value to whatever university you should choose to enroll in.

In almost all cases, your best bet is to:

Apply to college

Get accepted and pay your deposit.

Ask for a “deferral” from admissions. More and more universities are adopting a formal policy around deferrals as they’re seeing more students ask for these. In some cases, deferrals are specifically to take a Gap Year – and we always encourage announcing your plans clearly and honestly – but in other cases students are simply looking to take time to work and earn a bit of money for college.

Finding the ‘right’ college is a bit of a misnomer in terms of how the process works. The ‘right’ college is sort of like the ‘right’ Gap Year . . . regardless of where you go it’ll be a transformative experience, and they’ll be lucky to have you. But, bear in mind that this should be seen more as a plan rather than a commitment. In short, you certainly will change as a result of your Gap Year, so don’t feel overly obliged to stay with the ‘plan’ simply because it’s The Plan. Every good plan can be changed, especially if you no longer fit that school’s profile or you decide that you want something different at another university.

Admissions

The admissions process is thankfully fairly simple. In most cases you’ll find that universities are excited to have you do a Gap Year. In some cases you’ll find that you have to do a bit of explaining for what one is and what you hope to get out of your Gap Year. Sometimes, as a result of your Gap Year, you may feel compelled to re-evaluate the college you initially sought deferral from. This is not unusual, and if the changes you’ve made in yourself throughout your Gap Year compel you to re-examine your university goals, then please do so. But remember, universities and colleges are making assumptions only based on what you tell them, so be up front and honest with your admissions representative if you’re considering making a change.

In either case, your experiences on your Gap Year most certainly will be a phenomenal foundation to write any future admissions essays. In most cases, regardless of where you are in your Gap Year, you can apply to different universities online and with a little help from your family and friends. So, while applying and deferring is the best practice for taking your Gap Year, it’s also very important to understand that you can indeed change universities and select another one even once you’ve begun your Gap Year.

Financial Aid

When taking a deferral for your Gap Year, remember that there are many different rules from university financial aid departments. In some cases they’ll grant a deferral, but only contingent upon the fact that you don’t enroll at another university during your Gap Year. In other cases it’s granted contingent on earning no college credit.

Regardless, in almost every college decision, the financial aid award plays at least a role in the college decision. Understanding as much, you should certainly weigh your options thoroughly – it’s not to say that there’s only one financial aid offer on the table from one university, but they do have their preferred way of doing things.

In most cases, universities prefer to have you enter as a freshman rather than come in as a “transfer” student. Each university has a different threshold for the number of credits in order to enter as a transfer. Sometimes it’s 30 credits, sometimes it’s 36, but you should check with your particular university to see what their rules are. For more information on funding your Gap Year, please see our Gap Year Financial Aid section

Photo Credit: Dave Meier

Leveraging your Gap Year with Employers – by Kelcy Cox

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Despite the horrific traffic, impossible parking, and your uncooperative necktie, you have arrived to your interview fifteen minutes early; so far, so good.  Your name is called and you anxiously make your way to the hiring manager’s office, remembering at the last moment to dry your sweaty palm before you offer to shake her hand.  Sitting across the desk from her, you watch as she skims your well-prepared resume, and then she lifts her eyes and says, “So, William, it says here that you spent a year in Brazil.  Tell me about that.”

Maintaining perfect posture, you smile and tell yourself, “I’ve got this one!”  You were hoping that the interview would make its way to this topic, as this is just one of many questions that you have thoroughly planned for.

You explain to her that prior to choosing your destination for your gap year, you spent time asking yourself what you wanted to achieve while abroad and then researched how to accomplish it.  The three professionally oriented goals that you set for yourself were:

  • Language Learning
  • Marine biology Service Learning
  • Community involvement & networking

But, remember that your job in an interview is to translate your past experience into real and marketable benefits to the organization: principally among them is to demonstrate that you can Plan and then Execute

Language learning:
Prior to embarking for Brazil, you took the initiative to study Portuguese.  You took courses at school, volunteered as a teacher’s assistant, joined the Portuguese club (in your school, local university, and/or within your community), studied with computer software, worked with an afterschool tutor, subscribed to your favorite magazine in Portuguese (Coral Magazine, National Geographic), and read prominent Brazilian authors (Paulo Coehlo and Paulo Freire).  While in Brazil, you made a conscious decision to only speak Portuguese, achieving a language ability that is comfortably conversant, and since you have been home you’ve maintained your Portuguese by returning to your Portuguese club, teaching/tutoring whenever you’re able, etc.  You package this for the hiring manager as being a person that sets a goal, designs a strategy, and then executes it fully.   Furthermore, you’ve anticipated what value your new language is to this company, and why they should care that you speak it: … and every language has a value to an organization.  In this case, it’s an international organization and Brazil is the top emerging economy in the Western Hemisphere.

Service Learning / Networking
Knowing that your professional interests lay in marine biology, you arranged an afterschool service learning experience with Projeto Tamar, a non-profit organization whose objective is to protect sea turtles from extinction.  You were intentional when you chose this organization as they had a marine biologist on staff that you did a job-shadow with, and, the organization has a relationship with your university (thus enabling you to secure undergraduate credits).  Through this service learning opportunity you developed real-world professional skills, immersed yourself into an environmentally conscientious community, have a professional network for career opportunities in Brazil, and are able to offer a network of professionals to the very employer with whom you are interviewing.

Summary
Just like everything in life, you will get out of your gap year what you put into it.  If you put serious thought into the planning phase of your gap year the rewards will be bountiful: start early, and seek the advice of those who know how to build a good Gap Year, like the American Gap Association.  Perhaps the two most important elements in a successful Gap Year are that you do it intentionally, and that you, the student, lead the charge.  So taking the time to plan – hopefully based on goals or explorative themes, no doubt will offer the most lasting of benefits.

Gap Year answers; responses to questions for a high school thesis

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-- 1. How would you say that taking a gap year increases student's motivation and performance at college?

In large part the answer to this question can be hedged under the guise of “ownership” and “relevance.”  Throughout the majority of students educational careers, they historically and most likely have considered attending College because it’s the next step.  However, rarely do students pause to consider what they personally want out of college aside from the conferral of a degree.  Students who take a Gap Year have the opportunity to literally explore the world at large and begin to question what they want for themselves: it’s no secret that when a selfish agenda overlaps with an altruistic one is when the best things happen for the greatest good.  This means experimenting with careers, cultures, finances, and perhaps most importantly, the their own accountability to their own actions; truly reaping what they sow.   So, when a student takes a Gap Year they have the opportunity to see themselves from another perspective and identify their own needs and desires – thus giving them ‘buy-in’ for their collegiate experience.

The other important element here is relevance.  In the vast majority of college students’ experiences of academia they are exposed almost exclusively to the theories and abstractions of information however, absent the relationship to it.  The etymology of the word “school” literally means ‘time held for yourself’ as in to pursue learning important life-insights.  The etymology of “education” means to lead out of ignorance.  New research is beginning to show that the traditional didactic form of pedagogy doesn’t work as well as we thought it did.  Instead, a more Socratic, thought & debate pedagogy, seems to be proving more and more relevant.  [http://www.npr.org/2012/01/01/144550920/physicists-seek-to-lose-the-lecture-as-teaching-tool]

Additionally, with more data at every student’s fingertips these days than ever before (with the internet), imparting information to students is proving less and less relevant and students feel it.  Education that is grounded in reality – where students experience the information in a real and personal way – seems to be the best way to impart knowledge.  Unsurprisingly, relevance, and thus knowledge of a thing, means the information stays better remembered and becomes conceptual (as in useful for reasoning) rather than factual (and thus limited to the information).  One promotes a critical thinker, the other a passive learner.

The final element is research that’s being done into the notion of ‘grit’ as pioneered by Paul Tough [How Children Succeed] and others in their field.  The idea is that Motivation, Grit, Optimism, Conscientiousness, etc., … these are recently able to be quantified and ultimately are showing a better correlation to college success than GPA.  [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaeFnxSfSC4]

-- 2.How does taking a gap year help to develop student's maturity and independence?

The idea here is that students who never take the time for self-inquiry (which is often best accomplished by juxtaposing one’s Self against that of a diverse population), never have the opportunity to truly identify what makes them who they are.  Students who take a Gap Year are far more likely to have inquired about their own definitions of success, rather than taking as ‘given’ those that are imparted by their culture, schools, friends, media, etc.  What do you actually want out of life?  For some people, having seen great poverty but also great happiness and family, they desire less the financial and material and more the filial and relationships.  For others, they really do truly want a new BMW and that does indeed make them happy.  But without having ever inquired about your own personal reasons, they become less significant.  Students having taken a Gap Year are usually subsequently exposed to myriad different ways to ‘do this thing called life’, which includes seeing the different ways that people measure success.

Students who take a Gap Year are also exposed to their own consequences.  In a typical American life, we move from “cradle, to college, to cubicle, to cemetery” [http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/24/the-gap-year-breaking-up-the-cradle-to-college-to-cubicle-to-cemetery-cycle/].  Basically, we move from one institution to another to another – often giving up the consequences of our actions to some larger protective body.  For most Gap Year students, their year turns into a grand experiment wherein they are exposed to real consequences – of course the aim for the Gap Year industry is make sure those consequences are limited to ones that students grow from in a positive fashion – but in my own Gap Year, it meant having to watch my budget; getting sick when I didn’t feed myself well or drink safe water; sleeping in dingy places when I didn’t do sufficient planning; but ultimately learning that I was far more resilient and capable than I’d previously thought.

-- 3. How can taking a gap year add to a student's future employability?

88% of Gap Year graduates report that their experience contributed significantly to their employability.  I see this as a factor of the following:
Self-awareness: when you know your own strengths and weaknesses you’re better able to contribute in substantive ways.  This also comes across during the interview phase
Language: in those Gap Years where students go overseas they inevitably learn more language.  Having additional languages on a resume is an incredible asset to most companies
Workforce: students who have traveled get to see and relate to people from other countries and nationalities.  In this global marketplace, being able to say that you know how to work with a diverse clientele is an asset
Teamwork: students who have had a Gap Year inevitably have to work together with strangers.  This might be through service-learning, partnering with other Gap Year folks, or interning in a strange work force
Networking: students who push out of their comfort zone socially – which is the norm for a Gap Year – expand their network of potential jobs.  This might mean connections for a future employer, or direct possibilities for employment
Outcomes: students who take a structured Gap Year earn better GPAs (and thus a better resume).  They are more engaged in on-campus activities (which translates to more hobbies, and better recommendations letters).
Intrigue: being able to list what you did over a competing job-seeker makes you more interesting to the employer.

-- 4. How does taking a gap year enhance a student's social skills?

Primarily I’d say this is a function of confidence – which is a frustratingly nebulous term.  The confidence is built by pushing comfort zones and discovering newfound strengths and abilities.  But the confidence itself is where the social skills are mainly rooted.  It comes down to confidence of self, but also confidence in knowing how to find the commonalities and relate to those from a diverse background.  Think about it from this perspective; when a student has had the experience of communicating with strangers through the barriers of culture, language, expertise, work, difficulty/challenge, they inevitably feel more assured that they can do so with others.

 

– Authored by Ethan Knight, American Gap Association