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Taking a gap year due to COVID-19? Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls

If you’re one of the many students now planning to take a break from school, here’s what you should keep in mind to avoid common gap year mistakes.

Taking a gap year due to COVID-19? Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls
[Photo: Siora Photography/Unsplash]

Whether you’re an incoming freshman or a graduation-facing senior, you may be concerned about attending college this fall. Nearly one in six high school seniors say the coronavirus has changed their education plans, and of those, 35% plan to take a gap year, according to a survey by the higher education consulting firm Art and Science Group.

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“Gap years are now part of the dialogue due to the discourse of the country,” says Abby Brody, founder of Mind the Gap, a program that helps students make the most of a gap year. “In the United States, less than 1% of students take a gap year. But we’ve hit the pause button and are in a state of reflection as country. College is about the experience, and it may not be worth the price tag when you’re learning distantly.”

The thought of taking a year away from school scares many parents says Brody. But research from Middlebury College suggests that a gap year can be academically beneficial. According to a study by Robert Clagett, the school’s former dean of admissions, 90% of students return to college within a year, and their GPAs are higher than students who didn’t take a gap year by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale.

Catherine McDonald Davenport, vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions for Dickinson College, says gap years are meant to be exploratory and growth orientated. She challenges students to ask, “What am I looking to learn about myself that will better prepare me for college and life in general?”

What to do during a gap year

The best thing to do is to create a gap year plan that has purpose, says Alyssa Polakowski, college and alumni relations manager for The Laurel Springs School, a K-12 online private school.

“Identify goals and then be selective with the experiences chosen, and be sure that those experiences align with passions, interests, and abilities,” she says. “Utilize these experiences to further enhance skills on a résumé, or to confirm an intended college major or career pathway.”

Today’s world offers a lot of opportunities, says Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We are in a pandemic, a fight for racial justice, and an election,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary and troubling moment in history. The opportunity to do meaningfully engaging work is remarkable.”

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Find ways to connect with the world, suggests Weissbourd. “Become an engaged citizen of the community or the country,” he says. “You can volunteer to do contact tracing or provide tutoring to kids in school, many of whom are struggling. You can also get food for elderly neighbors, or send thank-you notes for essential workers. There are a lot of worthwhile things you can do.”

Carrie Stockton, associate vice president of student success and academic engagement at Biola University, recommends that students look for opportunities to explore their interests, values, and knowledge. “Exploration is often linked to experiences, and employers tell us the most important thing they are looking for in potential employees is relevant experience in their field,” she says. “Getting an internship or work experience, even if volunteer, is highly advisable in the gap year.”

Brody says a gap year is where students can learn critical thinking and “adulting.” “Skills like balancing a checkbook, reviewing a lease agreement, or signing a contract for a new job are taught nowhere,” she says. “These life skills are more essential than ever.”

Avoid the pitfalls

The biggest danger to avoid is a lack of defined purpose or structure, says Jackson Kerchis, founder of HappinessMajor.com and COO of StudentFi.org, an early stage fintech company that helps individuals navigate the process of paying for higher education. He took a gap year abroad and says it was one of his best decisions.

“Even if you’re disciplined and self-motivated, going into your gap year without goals or plans will lead to wasted time,” he says. “Whether it be travel, learning a language, getting professional experience, or just figuring out the ‘what should I do with my life’ question—have a focus to guide you.”

If valuable opportunities are not pursued or available, a gap year could run some risks to consider such as lost wages due to entering the marketplace a year later, diminished academic momentum, or decreased motivation to transition to college, says Stockton.

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“A key question to ask yourself, will you be more or less motivated to enroll in college by taking a year off?” she asks. “It could be that graduating a semester early would be a better idea, and you will have developed skills through the college experience that you can apply to that gap semester or year postcollege.”

A gap year in action

Tanishq Kumar, a rising freshman at Harvard University, is finishing up a gap year he spent learning to code, reading books, and talking to experts across the industries that interested him, such as education, climate, and gaming.

“I would have plenty of time in Boston to be sucked into the finance and consulting groupthink, but when would I seriously think about feeding the planet, autonomous weapons, or machine learning as an educational tool? Never, unless I took this year to do exactly that,” he explains. “Gap years can be superlative supplements to the rigorous foundation a collegiate education provides, and they certainly don’t need to fit some mould that goes ‘backpacking then volunteering then learning a language.'”

During Kumar’s gap year, he ran CareerFear, an education equity nonprofit in high school that worked in the careers guidance space, helping more than 6,000 kids. Fittingly, he also created the site CovidGapYears.com, a free website that lets students to share their gap year stories with an algorithm that matches students considering a gap year to those who have taken one, based on interests and goals. A few weeks after being launched, the site has 7,000 active users, Kumar says.

The most surprising thing Kumar learned was that in the real world, things don’t happen unless you make them happen. “When you get used to making them happen, you put yourself in a position to walk away from anything, because you know you can fend for yourself,” he says.

Leave time for taking stock and reflecting, advises Weissbourd. “Kids who attend high-achieving schools are often on automatic, working in a frenzied pace for many years. You don’t want a gap year that’s another frenzy. Leave some time for thinking about how going to college is one of the rites of passage in our country. How does your childhood connect to your future life? And what have you learned and gathered that can help you in the next stage of life?”

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It’s never too late to take a gap year, says Brody. “College juniors and seniors should be giving serious thought to it,” she says. “It’s going to be tough to be the class of 2021. You don’t know if you can get a job and you may take on more debt to do it. A gap year can be a real gift.”

Successful gap years can lead to something bigger and better, says Kumar. “Silently, the gap year reminds you that conventional paths can often lead to conventional outcomes, and that thinking for yourself and relying nothing but your resourcefulness can lead to surprisingly rewarding outcomes,” he says.

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