Gap Years and the Class of 2020

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As a college and gap year counselor, I always get excited when high school students ask me about the possibility of taking time off after graduation before starting college.  They have exciting ideas about travel, internships and all kinds of enriching experiences they want to have before resuming their academic work.

But like so much else this year, gap year conversations right now are different. Most students I’m talking to would much rather be on campus in the fall, but they’re concerned either that that won’t happen or won’t be worthwhile. They’re asking, if I request a deferral for a gap year, will it be approved? If not, should I take my chances on reapplying in the next cycle? And most importantly, what should I do for the next year of my life if I’m not going to college? Even for students who were planning gap years before COVID-19 hit, the discussions are different since we aren’t sure what programs will be operating and whether it will be safe to travel.

My first piece of advice, however, is the same as it always is: gap year students should start by identifying and articulating their goals for their time away from school.  This is even more important for students who are motivated by not wanting to be on campus or studying online in the fall.  Even if this is your primary rationale for a gap year, try to focus on the opportunity you’re creating for yourself. Are there specific skills you want to learn or strengthen, like a foreign language or wilderness first aid? Do you have projects you’d like to complete, such as artwork or writing, or a robot or other item you’d like to design and build? Are you hoping to beef up your resume with an internship or service project, or are you interested in a cultural immersion experience? Are there people you’re hoping to spend time with before you start college? It’s certainly possible to have a good gap year without thinking too hard about the big picture, but your experience will be richer if you invest in some reflective goal setting up front.

The next step is to develop a plan that is aligned with your goals, which might be a more challenging task this year since so many options are unavailable or unclear.  As I write this, many summer programs have been canceled and we don’t know which ones will be running by fall, or even what criteria program operators will be using to decide whether to open.  However, more options will likely be available by next spring and summer, and students should keep in mind that most gappers don’t do one single thing for the entire year anyway.  Plan your time in phases based on what you might be able to do at different points in the year, also keeping your goals in mind as you plan.

Take a student whose goals include improving her Spanish, experiencing the culture of Latin America, and participating in a service project with her best friend.  In 2019 she might have spent the summer and fall working to pay for travel, with a big trip to Peru planned in the winter and spring and the following summer at home getting ready for college. In 2020 she might instead spend the summer and fall studying Spanish through remote learning opportunities and volunteering online for a community-based organization that serves Latino families in her area.  As public health conditions improve and local restrictions are lifted, she might get a job, and perhaps continue volunteering in person, which could offer additional opportunities to develop her Spanish.  And if there’s a vaccine by March or April next year, she and her friend might be able to travel from May to July, with a few weeks back home before the fall 2021 semester starts.  While it may not be her dream itinerary, this student could start college having met her gap year goals.

If students have a strong commitment to service, I always encourage them to consider AmeriCorps. The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program is a team-based program for 18-24 year-olds and is accepting applications until June 30 for a ten-month term of service beginning in October 2020.  Not only would this opportunity boost your resume and give you a meaningful experience serving your country at a time of great need, it also offers a stipend while you’re serving, an education award for college, the possibility of domestic travel if conditions allow, and time to spare before enrolling at college in the fall of 2021. The NCCC program has additional start dates at other times of year as well, and other AmeriCorps programs are run by national and local nonprofits serving communities around the country. Visit www.nationalservice.gov to learn about opportunities that might be a great fit for you.

Despite their benefits, gap years are not right for everyone and there are some unique considerations this year. Students who have committed to a college should be certain they understand their school’s policy about whether they can defer admission or whether they’ll have to reapply this fall in order to enroll next year—and note that a previous policy may have changed.  If you’re planning to take classes during your gap year, keep in mind that most colleges won’t allow you to enroll elsewhere during that time. In fact, if you complete credits at a community college or another local or online institution, you might have to reapply as a transfer student. Students with physical or mental health conditions will also want to make sure their gap year plan includes the support they need.

The Class of 2020 has demonstrated strength and creativity in coping with the curveball that’s been thrown at them, and those of you who choose to take a gap year will be well-served by these qualities as you define your goals and plan the upcoming months.  The experiences you have during your gap year can offer insight into yourself and your values that will build on the talents you’ve already developed and enrich your college experience when you enroll. It’s well worth it to invest the time and thought now so you’ll get the most out of your gap year before, during, and after the experience.

Becky Claster is an educational consultant and a member of the Gap Year Association.  She can be reached at becky@clastereducation.com.