Students today are faced with seemingly endless possibilities during the college admissions process, but there’s one option that many don’t consider until the very last minute: taking a gap year. Expert Jane Sarouhan from the Center for Interim Programs suggests that parents might add this idea to their student’s pile of college brochures early on; while not right for everyone, there are many potential benefits to an interim year between High School and college, and many ways in which this time can benefit students academically, emotionally, and spiritually.
NP: So let’s start with the basics. What is a gap year?
JS: At the Center for Interim Programs, we describe a gap year as a definite period of time in which an individual takes a break from his or hear academic or career path in order to explore other areas of interest. It is chosen to achieve something, and it is academic for some students.
NP: You mentioned taking a break from academic or career paths. A gap year is not just for seniors in high school?
JS: That’s another key point in my definition: a gap year is a point in time where any person, any individual, is taking a break from his or her current trajectory to engage in other life experiences. At Interim, we call the high school graduate taking a year off the “True Gapper.” But we also work with loads of college students who are taking semesters or years off, and we call those students “Step Aways.
NP: What are some examples of the intentional programming Interim provides for these varying interests?
JS: Programming can mean different things to different people. A student of mine might say “I’m interested in journalism and I want to study that in school. Is there an internship I can do?” And maybe we find a journalism internship for them in the USA, maybe in Australia, maybe in South Africa. My job is to find students a bit of traction and focus— kids that want to travel the world with their backpacks aren’t hiring me! And that’s not my job…I mean, they may do something like that for a bit of time, but not for the entire year.
A lot of people want to roll up their sleeves and get physical in a gap year, and seek a period of time that’s a little less cognitive and intellectual: building roads, planting trees, building classrooms, things like that. Many students are also interested in internships, and we are seeing that field grow.
NP: Is a typical gap year generally monolithic, or three months doing this, six months doing that? Or is it something in the middle?
JS: Other than students who are trying to develop fluency in a language, which will drive them to say “I’m spending one year in Paris” with the primary goal of becoming fluent (which is fabulous), the vast majority of my clients and families will break their year into parts. The basic model looks at their year academically, and breaks it up into trimesters. So, roughly three experiences of three months each. One of the reasons why I love a year broken up into different parts is that students today are multi taskers— they have many different interests that they want to explore— and this allows for a year that has its own type of evolution and progression. We can build up a student’s maturity and grow it throughout the year; these different experiences keep raising the bar and ultimately push students towards their final goals.
NP: For a student who is considering taking a gap year, what are the possibilities?
JS: Anything you can think of! Languages are of real interest to a lot of students. Community service is also a very popular area, and a vast topic. Possibilities include environmental work, reforestation, marine based conservation, things like that. Social services, still under the umbrella of community service, include working with kids, working with kids with disabilities, working with the elderly. And hands-on work— more development based work— is still under this umbrella of volunteerism. A lot of people want to roll up their sleeves and get physical in a gap year, and seek a period of time that’s a little less cognitive and intellectual: building roads, planting trees, building classrooms, things like that. Many students are also interested in internships, and we are seeing that field grow. Outdoor adventure and wilderness adventure are also very popular, and programs range from classic hiking and backpacking to getting scuba certified to pursue marine conservation. All of these things can happen on a gap year. The last two things are travel and specialty skills. There are some skills that students want to learn, but that might have nothing to do with their ultimate career or college path— glass blowing, cooking, painting, photography, anything in the arts— and we encourage students to totally immerse themselves in these types of pursuits.
NP: And what do you suggest for students who just don’t know exactly what they want to do?
JS: I start with broad strokes, macro level stuff: what kinds of things interest you, what hobbies do you have, what classes did you enjoy in school? I really give students permission to go crazy with brainstorming. Before we start limiting ourselves, why don’t we dream big? Usually this gets them to find one thing (if not five things) that they are passionate about. And that creates excitement and work. I also tell students that the process of elimination is a fabulous idea— if they don’t know what they want, they might know what they don’t want. So, through elimination, what’s available becomes more manageable and expressible.
Are you considering a gap year for yourself or your student? Further information can be found in part two of our interview with Jane Sarouhan, where we discuss what parents and families should know when planning for a gap year.