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Malia Obama is taking a year off between high school and college, highlighting a growing trend in education. Here’s what to consider before launching your gap year.

Malia Obama, the daughter of President Barack Obama, has decided to take a year off after graduating high school before she enrolls at Harvard University. Malia’s decision is just the latest example of the growing popularity of gap years.

Long a mainstay of wealthy Europeans, more and more everyday Americans are considering taking a year-long break. While a gap year can be a valuable learning experience, if you do not spend the time wisely, it can end up doing more harm than good.

How gap years work

More colleges are not only accepting students who have taken a break but are actively encouraging them to defer enrollment to give them time to recharge and refocus. Some schools view this period as a chance for undergraduates to enhance themselves by learning a new language, traveling the world or volunteering.

In schools where gap years are encouraged, upon being accepted, you notify the school of your intention to delay entry by a year. Once approved, you may need to update the school periodically about what you are doing and your plans for enrollment. If, at the end of the break, you still want to attend the school you were admitted to, you enroll in the next freshman class.

Popularity of gap years

Gap years are very common in Europe but are a growing trend in the United States. While the overall number of students deferring college is small, that number grew by 22 percent last year. Harvard, which encourages the practice, saw a 33 percent increase in the number of students taking a year off before enrolling.

Undergraduates who have taken a gap year have reported feeling more mature and ready for college. With some life experience behind them, they can make more thoughtful decisions about their fields of study and take classes more seriously. Evidence shows that people who took a year off to participate in travel or volunteer activities are more successful in their academics.

Drawbacks to gap years

Just as there’s no one career path, gap years are not for everyone either. Gap years are typically associated with the wealthy, as lower income students would not be able to pay for such a privilege. For many, the cost of a gap year with college expenses and student loan debt is just too expensive. According to the latest numbers from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), seven out of 10 graduates of public and nonprofit colleges in the class of 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 in loans. Other estimates peg average student loan debt at closer to $37,000.

Taking a year off before college can be a tremendous added cost. According to GapYear.com, the average hiatus costs between $5,500 and $7,800, with some people spending as much as $20,000 on top of regular living expenses. Besides the cost of travel, room and board, most schools that encourage gap years require a deposit or freeze financial aid, so if there is a tuition increase, you’ll have to cover it yourself. On top of student loans, this can be a heavy debt burden that is difficult to overcome.

Some schools, such as Tufts University and The University of North Carolina, have attempted to address this issue by offering forms of financial aid to students who want to take time off. However, these schools are the minority, and a gap year is still a significant financial consideration.

Also, gap years can put your college career in jeopardy. Not all schools encourage or even welcome students who have taken a gap year. If you’ve been accepted but want to take a year off, you will have to go through the admissions process all over again. If it is a competitive application year, you risk your application being denied.

Students who are feeling lost after high school often want to take a break after graduation, with the idea of working odd jobs until they find themselves. These students tend not to do well academically later on, and gap years can harm their college careers. They are more likely to struggle in class and have higher dropout rates than others.

Who is a good fit for a gap year?

Gap years can be beneficial to some students. Nontraditional learners, who frequently feel stifled or frustrated in a classroom setting, can thrive with a gap year because it allows them to pursue their passion. If you feel limited in school, the break can serve as a launchpad, helping you link classroom experiences to meaningful work.

If you are planning to go to college but are struggling to afford it, a gap year can be a smart way to pay for school if used strategically. As long as you are focused on your end-goal, working full-time and saving as much as possible may help make college accessible.

If you have an idea of what you want to do after college but haven’t had any work experience, a gap year might be a good choice. Finding out what you do not want to do is invaluable and can potentially save you from wasting college tuition on a major you do not enjoy.

You’ll have the opportunity to intern or work for a company part-time in your chosen industry. You will get valuable insights and hands-on experience in your potential field, helping you decide if this is a career you want to pursue. For some, interning in a particular industry made them realize it was not for them.

Making the best of a gap year

To make a gap year a valuable experience rather than a waste of time, preparation is essential. The American Gap Year Association, an organization promoting meaningful gap year experiences, recommends students take the following steps:

  • Coordinate with your intended college: If your school is a proponent of gap years, contact the registrar to defer your enrollment and review any policies or requirements.
  • Determine your timeline: Set a strict timeline for yourself of when your break will start and end, so you do not put off college indefinitely. Creating a schedule will keep you focused on making the most of your time away.
  • Define structure: Structured gap years are better than undefined vacations. Have specific plans in mind, such as an internship or formal volunteer experience, and fill out the required applications or paperwork to make your plans a reality. If you do not know where to begin, USA Gap Year Fairs holds events throughout the year. Similar to career fairs, these events feature volunteer opportunities, travel itineraries, internships and other structured ideas that maximize gap year opportunities, ensuring a valuable experience while away from school. Attending these fairs can be an excellent way to find a productive use for your time.
  • Identify goals: Enter your gap year with distinct goals on what you want to accomplish, such as earning a certain amount of money, building a portfolio or learning to speak a new language fluently.
  • Create a budget: A realistic budget is essential to make a gap year doable on top of college tuition. Whether you have financial aid, family contributions or are paying for it yourself, those decisions will impact what you can do during your year off; you may have to change your expectations based on your budget. While you may dream of backpacking through Europe, it may not be feasible. A gap year in your hometown can still be a valuable learning opportunity at a fraction of the cost.

While gap years are growing in popularity and are increasingly accepted by universities, they are not for everyone. Added expenses, student loan debt, learning styles and your goals are factors that decide whether or not a year-long break is right for you. Carefully consider your options, your budget and your goals to determine your next steps.

Kat Tretina is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida. She double majored in English and Communications at Elizabethtown College, before going on to earn a Masters in Communications from West Chester University.

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