Off to college

Most 18-year-olds, fresh out of high school, have no idea what they want to do for a living. Should they explore their options in college or take a year or two off to "find themselves" first?

Take a year off before college

Our children are programmed to go school, take a three-month break and then go back to school. The time following graduation offers a natural break from the routine and gives students a chance to gain life experiences and consider their next best steps.

A "gap year," or "gap time," is when a high school graduate opts to delay starting college. While gap time provides the obvious benefit of giving students a break from the books, it also presents a tremendous opportunity for the "gapper" to save money, volunteer or travel.

Why wait?

Educational consultant Deena Maerowitz, an independent college admissions advisor and the founder of Undergradadmit.com, said that there are definite advantages to taking off some time before starting college.

"It allows students to mature, to be sure that they are ready for a major investment of time, money and focus," says Maerowitz. "Colleges see it this way too and often are glad to have students defer and then be more ready for college."

Gap time prevents school burnout and gives students a chance to explore their own interests and curiosities about the world. Most gappers find that they get more out of the college experience when they have life experiences that they can connect with the concepts they're learning in college.

The disadvantages of waiting

Waiting to start college is a non-traditional path and is not right for everyone. Maerowitz explains that some gappers may feel left behind and "not on track with peers."

And those students who are comfortable with their decision to wait often find resistance from others. Family, friends and even former teachers and counselors may criticize the decision.

The money factor

For some, the decision to wait is purely financial. Students who can live at home and obtain full-time employment before starting college can save up money to put toward books, room and board and tuition. Every little bit helps.

Some gappers, however, opt to learn a foreign language abroad or volunteer in a third-world country. While these ventures can be pricey, they're just a fraction of the staggering cost of tuition. And, of course, it is possible to travel and work, so the gap year can be used to enrich both life experiences and bank accounts.

The decision to wait to begin college impacts financial aid options. "Financial aid is based on the family's financial snapshot of a particular time," explains Maerowitz. "Your financial aid package will generally not be held for you, and you will have to reapply for aid."

How to spend "gap time"

How gap time is spent is a very personal choice, but "it's really important to use the year wisely," cautions Maerowitz. "Think about your reasons for deferring and make sure you follow though and have plans."

Maerowitz adds that there are plenty of organized programs for gap-year travel, internships and volunteer opportunities. Websites such as USA Gap Year Fairs and Gap Year Programs are just a couple of the many places to get started.

"I've seen kids really enrich their lives with their experiences — through employment, travel — and then start college with a more positive perspective than their peers," says Maerowitz. "I think it is something that should be encouraged."

More on your teen and college

How to teach your college student to earn free money
The true cost of sending kids to college
The college student's survival kit

Tags: college freshmen

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