The year between high school and college can be a chance for a teen to explore and mature—without the pressure of grades.

By Allison Slater Tate
Photo by Peter Ardito

For many of our teens, high school feels like one long job interview for college. They are pressured to produce the best grades in challenging courses as well as wow-worthy test scores while still pursuing meaningful extracurriculars. 

What we’re creating are mentally and physically exhausted kids who then, just months after their high school graduation, start all over again on college campuses—where they’re expected to know what they want to study and who they will be when they grow up.

What if our children had the opportunity to push pause on the whole business of growing up, explore some of their interests, perhaps try and—stay with me, now—even fail at a few things before they settle into majors, career tracks and full-blown adulthood?

The choice exists, and that’s why we should talk to our kids about the possibility of taking a gap year, according to Holly Bull, the president of the Center for Interim Programs, based in Princeton, NJ, and Northampton, MA. The center has focused solely on gap year counseling, plans and placements for students since her father founded it in 1980.

Teens who take gap years tend to enter college as more mature, confident and focused students, and colleges are increasingly recognizing them as assets on their campuses. But teens might be hesitant to take them because they are still not the norm in the U.S., and students don’t want to be behind their high school peers in school or be older than their college classmates. However, the way you introduce the idea of a gap year to your child could change the way they look at the opportunity.

Start the discussions early

Bull recommends including gap years as part of the process when you start to talk about college: “You could say, ‘There is college and there is a gap year, and let’s look at them both. Doing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other.’ ”

Bull’s own stepdaughter and daughter filled out forms about their interests on the floor of her office when they were just 5 and 6 years old. “They always knew it was a possibility,” she says. When it came time to decide, her stepdaughter, Samantha, did take a year before college. Samantha credits her time working at a startup in Dublin, Ireland, during her gap year as instrumental in landing a job at IBM after graduation. 

Offer it as a chance to step off the “treadmill”

A gap year gives a teen a unique chance to explore interests that “light them up,” Bull says. “This is a year when you don’t have to be good at anything. You can make mistakes. You should make mistakes—that’s how you learn.” In a time when depression and anxiety are real concerns on college campuses, a gap year can also serve as an important chance for students to do something else they don’t often get to do: rest.

The year can look different for each  student and might include several experiences as opposed to just one. Some teens might want to join structured programs or travel abroad; others might try jobs or internships in fields they think they’d like to pursue as careers. Ask your teen about their dreams and the things they may want to try.

Talk about the costs

Contrary to popular belief, “you don’t have to bleed financially to have a great gap year,” says Bull. Plans and programs run the gamut in price, but even some expensive programs offer scholarships. Other opportunities, such as volunteering for national parks or other services, often provide housing and food for labor.

That said, Bull sees the financial lessons of a gap year as one of its benefits: “If you keep in mind the goal of inspiring teens to follow their interests while acquiring practical, in-the-world skills, then learning about budgeting is a key component.” At the beginning of the process, she suggests that parents talk about a budget for the year with their child, explaining what they are willing to pay or what they can afford to spend toward the year. 

Parents can also request that students work to help pay for the year, something that Bull always recommends, even if the family has sufficient funds. “It’s part of the student learning how to take fuller responsibility, and will help in the transition from college to the work world,” she says. 

When Bull took her own gap year, for example, she used the summers before and after to work and save up to pay for airfare for the year. To balance the costs, she chose one program that was volunteer and another that required tuition.

What teens learn during the year could also translate into future money and career opportunities, says Bull. “On a practical level, your child is building a résumé,” she explains. “They’re learning skills they won’t learn in a classroom that can help them down the line with getting jobs. And they get the chance to ask themselves, ‘Do I like these people? Do I like this work?’ ”

Make a plan

Bull suggests that teens receive their acceptance and commit to a college before asking for a deferral for a gap year. She says most colleges are accommodating as long as students agree not to earn credits somewhere else that would change their status when they do arrive on campus. 

Colleges will also want a general idea of what a student plans to do with their year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a binding commitment. “They just want to know you won’t be a couch potato,” says Bull. 

The most successful gap years give students somewhere to go in the fall at the same time their friends are heading off to college. They have structure during the year as well as a community and peers to support teens socially. “You don’t want too many gaps in a gap year,” says Bull. “Have a plan and keep them busy.”

Let your teen own their choice

Although she is obviously an advocate for gap years, Bull thinks parents shouldn’t force the idea on their kids. Encourage them to consider it, she says, and let them know what they could potentially do with that time. But whether or not they ultimately decide to take a gap year is less important than the fact that they’re making a conscious decision about their future.

If they opt to go straight to college, accept that decision, says Bull. “They’re choosing it. They’re owning it more.” Either way, you will have given your child a chance to begin developing their personal power—perhaps the most valuable high school graduation gift you could give.

The Right Candidate

There is no one kind of student who should consider a gap year, but it could be especially helpful for:

  • A child who could use a little more time and experience to mature before going to college
  • A teenager who seems very confused about what they might want to study or pursue as a career
  • Any student experiencing a high degree of burn- out, whether they’re at the top of their class or not