Not all college-bound students go directly to college right after high school. In fact, the popularity of taking a year off (or a "gap year") continues to grow more and more in the United States.
Choosing this option can help you learn and grow before enrolling in your first semester—provided you use the time wisely. If you decide to take a gap year, consider doing the following five things to ensure your gap year is full of benefits (and to reassure your parents, as the idea of you stepping off the college track, even temporarily, may strike fear into their hearts).
1. Get To Work
If you know what you'd like to do during (or after) college, use your gap year to get a head start. Find work opportunities related to your eventual major, or aim for a job that will help you explore your future career. If you're not sure what you want to do, don't worry—you can still gain skills that can help you down the line.
For example, you can get valuable office or sales experience from a variety of jobs. These skills are highly transferable, and you may be able to secure better pay and benefits than you would from a typical summer gig. At worst, you'll make some extra money, which can reduce the amount you borrow for school.
If you can't find or don't want a full-time job, landing an internship can be great as well. Once you're in college, internships let you test your future career and get some experience. But internships look great on college applications, too. Plus, they can make it easier for you to choose a major before you start taking classes.
2. Consider A Gap Year Program
Did you know that there are programs designed specifically for students interested in taking time off before college? Many offer the opportunity to work and travel, and some even give you the chance to live overseas.
These programs can be expensive—and sometimes charge as much as a year of college. However, not all programs are quite that costly, and you may be able to find some that offer financial aid. Plus, not everyone takes a year off from school due to finances. If money isn't a question for you, you may want to consider one of these programs to help you find yourself or figure out your future.
You'll want to do your research before committing the time and funds to a gap year program. The USA Gap Fairs website provides information on a few different programs to get you started.
3. Volunteer Your Time
Want to help improve the lives of others and maybe even travel a bit? If you're willing to complete a full term of service (this can be up to a year or more), many volunteer programs will help fund your future degree.
The Peace Corps is always a popular option. If you want to help closer to home, programs like AmeriCorps can give you the chance to make a difference in underserved communities throughout the United States.
4. Make A Plan
Maybe you're unsure of what you want to get out of your college degree, or maybe you graduated high school with a lot already on your plate. That doesn't mean you have to give up on your college dreams.
Instead, use this time to think about what type of college you'd like to attend and what kind of course load would work for you. Many technical and community colleges offer flexible schedules and a wide range of part-time programs, which can make it easier to balance your studies with your job and family responsibilities. Lower costs and excellent transfer opportunities make these schools a great option if you want to get a degree but you can't afford a 4-year school.
Financial aid may be different for full- and part-time students, so talk to an admissions counselor. They can work with you and help explain the application process—even if it's for next year.
5. Stay On Track
Many students worry about falling behind their friends if they take time off before college. However, starting out with clearer goals can actually help you graduate sooner. Almost 60% of students take 6 years to finish 4-year programs, often because they change their mind about what to study.
One way to stay on track is by applying to colleges at the same time as your classmates and deferring your admission for a year. That way, you can take advantage of all the available resources during your senior year of high school. Plus, some schools will even pay you to take a gap year!
Just remember that you have to reapply for financial aid each year, no matter what—so ask if your school can hold any scholarship offers you received.