Mind the gap

Gap years are gaining credibility as a way to explore the world before college.

Mind the gap

Prince William spent his gap year as a student volunteering in Chile and Belize, visiting Africa and working on dairy farms.

Prince Harry spent his making a documentary about orphans in Africa and also visited Australia and Argentina.

Matt Zaragoza-Watkins spent one gap year as a student working in Boston, and another working in New York City.

A gap year is taking a year off between high school graduation and going to college. Some people take a year off to work, some to travel, some to volunteer, others to do outdoor adventure or career exploration. There are programs that can help you decide what to do with your gap year, too, so you’re not spending it sitting on your parents’ couch.

Why consider being a gap year student?

1. It’s an excuse to do cool things
 The whole purpose of a gap year is to explore the world a bit before stepping back into academia. People taking a gap year—“gappers”—are encouraged to get out and do something.

“The last thing a student should do is hang around at home working in an uninspiring job or worse yet, waiting to find him/herself,” says Jim Zuberbuhler, executive director of gap year opportunity company Dynamy (Dynamy.org). “Gap years are intended to be active, challenging and introspective. The key to a successful gap year is to challenge yourself, test your interests and passions and reflect on your experiences.”

2. You can live like a student without taking classes
Zaragoza-Watkins is a two-time alum of City Year (www.cityyear.org), another gap year opportunity. Zaragoza-Watkins, a native of Davis, Calif., had been accepted to UC Berkeley and was looking forward to high school graduation.

But he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to study in college—and that seemed like a good reason to put off enrolling. He considered the military, Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, then found City Year—a service corps for young people.

“In Boston, I taught math and science to second to eighth grade students with special needs,” he says. “It was an experience that required me to mature very quickly. I was living with seven people, so it was sort of like the “Real World” house with a little less drama and a little more idealism.”

City Year participants receive a small stipend ($250 a week) and are responsible for finding their own housing.

So gappers live like students (roommates, budgeting, on-the-cheap entertainment) without actually being students. What better time to explore the world—especially when living on a budget is something you’d be doing in college anyway.

3. Your gap year can help you get into college
Zaragoza-Watkins didn’t know what he wanted to pursue in college. But after spending two years in City Year, he has a better idea. Zaragoza-Watkins is now studying applied economics and management at Cornell.

“Colleges are looking for a diversity of experience, and this is something that sets you apart,” he says. “Often they say you need extracurricular activities. Well, this is the ultimate.”

A gap year can make you more aware of your life’s goals, and help you develop the path to get there.

“Challenge yourself,” Zuberbuhler says. “The beautiful thing about a gap year is that you can choose the type of challenge that you think will be most beneficial to you.”

Interested in taking a gap year? Get your parents’ support, and research gap year programs at the same time as you research colleges.


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