Taking a gap year can be one of the best decisions a young person can make when considering the path of their higher education. The benefits are plenty. Gap years provide time to figure out what you want to get out of your education before devoting several years and tens of thousands of dollars to it, they can provide a better means of achieving that end than the traditional route, they allow you to get work experience and learn about things you want to learn about, and they help prevent academic burnout.
One of the hardest parts of taking a gap year isn’t finding the time to do it — it can be found pretty easily before entering college or during college as a leave of absence — but talking to one’s family about it. Even if you are in complete control of your education, the social pressure from parents, aunts, uncles, and loved ones can stymy the ambition to take that leap. Even though the gap year experience comes with very few risks and a large potential payoff, parents and older family members come from a generation when taking such a detour from the traditional educational path was rare and usually considered a sign of worry. Baby Boomers see the traditional high school-college-corporate career track as something safe and predictable — something that worked for many of them and their peers, so it must work for their children as well. They tend to be relatively risk-averse as a generation when it comes to educational paths.
So, talking to parents, aunts, and uncles about taking a non-conventional route can be difficult. They key during these months is to not be confrontational and difficult with family members, but rather to remind them that the risks involved are minimal, that this time is time spent building yourself up, giving yourself a broader set of experiences and skills than your peers, and making whatever educational path you decide to pursue after it (if you decide to pursue something longer afterwards) more focused.
To better define what the conversation looks like, it’s important to differentiate between two different kinds of gap years. The first is the traditional gap year, which takes place immediately after high school (rather than going directly to college, technical school, etc.). The second is the leave of absence, which is two semesters off from school during school.
Traditional Gap Year
The traditional gap year can be taken after being accepted to a college, or before you apply to college. Many universities now encourage graduating high school seniors to take a year off before enrolling (example: Harvard admissions). This gap year is valuable for those who want to get a better idea of what they want to get out of higher education, want to gain a skill set different than what they anticipate they’d pursue at college, and/or those who wish to do something different that is logistically awkward to do during school (e.g., travel to the Amazon, start and run a business, shadow an artist).
On the whole, students who take a gap year before pursuing traditional higher education are happy they did so. It allows them to be more focused on what they want to get out of school than their classmates. Many students use college as “discovery period,” during which they spend four years trying to figure out what they like and what they want to do with their lives — many times without success. College is an incredibly expensive and time-consuming way to do this, though, and a gap year can provide an answer.
Chances are, family members predisposed to the traditional education pipeline will worry that you are just spending a year sitting on the couch and eating junk food. Some people do do this, but if you are consciously making the decision to take a gap year, you probably are not one of these people. It is important to assure them that these 10-12 months will be spent in the most productive way possible — helping you gain a better sense of what you want out of your life and out of your education.
If you are totally unsure of what you would want out of college (should you pursue it), the benefits of the gap year can also be stressed on this account. What’s worse? Taking ten months doing something nonconventional but really interesting and cool and then knowing what you want, or taking four years doing something conventional only to be mildly sure of what you want?
The risks involved are also very low. If family expect you to pursue a traditional college education, assure them that admissions officers do not discriminate against students who took gap years. In fact, as noted above, they actually like students who have taken time off. It assures them that the student knows what they are doing.
The post-secondary gap year can be extremely valuable for the college-bound and non-college bound students alike. Stressing these benefits is key to helping family understand why one wants to pursue it.
Students who take a year off to try something out before committing themselves to a longer experience tend to do better at related metrics than their peers who don’t take such time off.
Leave of Absence
The leave of absence is a little less traditional than the post-secondary gap year, but can also be incredibly valuable. While policies differ from university-to-university, many schools allow students to take 2 semesters off with no academic or financial penalties. The student stays enrolled in the school (meaning they don’t have to apply for admission should they return), keeps their academic credits and financial aid, but spends 2 semesters off campus.
There is some stigma around the idea of a leave of absence. It tends to be associated with the idea of somebody having a mental breakdown and not being able to handle school work for two semesters, so they move back home with their parents while they recover. Though that is one situation in which somebody could benefit from a leave, it is also common for students with leaves to be working at startups or nonprofits full-time.
Leaves of absence are great opportunities to gain work experience — especially for the liberal arts student — and prevent academic burnout. Students who step away from their academic work for a few months-to-a-year can return and throw themselves back into the work.
A likely concern from family — especially those family members who may be assisting with tuition payments — is that you are dropping out. For most colleges and universities, dropping out is a completely different bureaucratic process than going on leave, but this isn’t popular knowledge. Assure family that you are not, in fact, withdrawing totally from the school, and that if you were to do so, you’d have to pursue a totally different process. Assure them that, under the process you followed, you are returning after the time is up (unless you do decide to pursue a second leave of absence or drop out). In some cases, it may be worthwhile to request that your college advisor write a letter explaining the process.
The benefits from taking a gap year are huge, but generational differences make it understandable that older family members may not be as open to the idea as you or your peers. Winning over their support can be done, starting with the tips here.