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The UnCollege Blog

5 Ways to Support your Teen's Decision to Take a Gap Year

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Education in America has only one path – students enroll in a K-12 courses followed immediately. The path is supposed to lead not only to a more well-rounded person, but to an incredible job landed as a result of that university education. Deciding to take a gap year is a eyebrow-raising, off-script move.

Many parents fear that their kids will decide to take a gap year, but there’s actually plenty to be excited about. Gap years are one of the most beneficial opportunities out there for education. Students who take gap years typically have higher academic motivation when they return to school, experience improved career prospects and readiness, and enjoy enduring academic benefits that carry over all four years of college--all things that should be good news to parents.

Unlike the many articles detailing how to support your student in a successful transition to college life, there are fewer tips on how parents can support the decision to take a gap year. That’s a shame, because parental influence and involvement plays a significant role in education of all kinds, from learning to share in kindergarten to shaping your own learning experiences via a gap year. According to experts, there are three crucial ways parents can support gap years: Having your student apply to college, then defer; creating a structured plan; and helping your student figure out how to fund their own gap year plans. We have a few to add to the list:

Lend a listening ear.

“I don’t want to go to college” isn’t always the most expected conversation opener between a parent and student. Still, research demonstrates that students make better academic and career decisions with the support of a parent, so having an open dialogue counts for more than anything else. Rather than immediately panicking (which it’s easy to do!), listen instead: Why isn’t your student ready for college, in their view, or why do they want to leave? What are they planning to do instead? One of the most important elements of a successful gap year is having a plan in place, so hear your student out on what their plans, expectations, and concerns are. The first step to getting organized and figuring out your student’s goals--is there a problem that could be solved by say, transferring, or is a gap year truly the best option?--is talking it out.

Set expectations.

Especially if you’re contributing funding to your student’s gap year, expectations are important: They are what ensures a gap year is productive, fulfilling, and beneficial rather than an extended vacation. Once your student has decided to take a gap year, determine what the expectations are: Is your student’s gap year contingent on them eventually returning to school? Do you expect them to have a job, or take one academic course during their year away from school? What’s the post-gap-year plan, tentatively? Gap years are extraordinary opportunities for growth, and if done right, a student’s plans could change substantially by the end of their gap year simply because of the strides and connections they’ve made. Students who take gap years are seen as “more mature, more self-reliant and independent,” so those are important characteristics to keep in mind as far as building expectations: Root your ground rules in what is going to benefit your student the most moving forward, whether that is saving money, self-funding their gap year, moving into their own place, or continuing some form of study.

Ask questions.

Your first question might be obvious: Why do you want to take time away from school, or why don’t you want to go to college? But dig deeper. 60% of students say experiences during their gap year set them on the path to picking their current college major, and 88% of gap year students said their gap year “significantly added to their employability.” There’s a lot more meat here than just taking a year off, and gap years are valuable chances to uncover untapped abilities or interests, develop specific skill sets, and mature. With that in mind, keep the conversation going:

When your student tells you they want to take a gap year, ask…

  • What do you think you can do out of school that you can’t do in it?
  • Do you have a plan for what your day will look like? How will you fill your time?
  • What do you hope to gain from this experience? What are you doing to get there?

When your student is mid-gap year, ask…

  • How do you think things are going? Have you learned something new?
  • What do your plans look like when your gap year is over in a few months?

When your student returns to school--or doesn’t--ask…

  • How can we arrange academic credit for these experiences? Will they count as internships or transfer credits?
  • Are you planning to take classes even if you don’t go back to school full-time?
  • If you’re not in school, how are you going to continue learning and growing?
  • Let go of the rules.

This is a tough one for a lot of families: When I took my gap year, for awhile, my parents felt as though they had somehow failed me--after all, why didn’t I like college? Had they rushed me? Had they failed to prepare me for collegiate life? None of that was true. I simply had different ideas of what I wanted from education and work than what I was getting on the traditional university path. When we spend an entire K-12 education telling families college is the end-game, it can be difficult to let go of the idea that your student is “breaking the rules” by not sticking with the norm. The reality is, the “normal” rules of college are rapidly evolving, and they now include gap years: More students are designing their own majors, finishing school online, or choosing to work while they complete their degree. A gap year is an extension of higher education, not an oppositional force.

Help with research.

Just like with the college search, gap year planning can be overwhelming: Self-structured gap year versus a program? Internship versus part-time job? Traveling, working, or both? Once you’ve had conversations and set expectations, help your student go over feasible gap year choices. Luckily, we’ve got guides to jumpstart that research here: Check out our alternative college guide,tips on landing a first job, and even a guide just for parents.

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