Top Reasons to Take a Gap Year

10/19/2015 04:51 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2016

My second child just left home. She didn't run away, she just graduated from high school. But, she's gone, like many other college freshmen. However, unlike many of her college bound peers, she is headed many miles away from campus. She deferred her college acceptance and has embarked on a gap year. For my daughter, it promises to be a year of travel, adventure, exploration, learning, inquiry and growth.

What is a gap year? Many people have asked me this question since my son deferred his college acceptance three years ago to pursue his gap year. Some other common questions are: Why do it? Aren't you afraid that your son/daughter will fall behind? Worried that they will never go to college? A gap year is a term used most often to define the year between high school and college when a student takes a break from their regular studies and pursues other interests. There are many reasons to consider a gap year, which I will address below. I wasn't worried my children would fall behind; in fact, both anecdotal and increasingly quantitative research has shown that gap year students out perform their non-gap year peers.

Before I elucidate the reasons why a gap year is valuable, I want to emphasize the importance of managing expectations and redefining success. Many of the greatest gains from a gap year are intangible. Success doesn't mean that each program you embark on meets or exceeds expectations. Success doesn't mean that each cohort group you travel or learn with is cohesive or leads to close friendships. And success doesn't mean that there are no bumps on the road. Rather, we have to redefine success as navigating the entirety of the experiences, which can even include shortening a commitment to a program or bailing all together. We want our children to grow, to develop independent skills to navigate their world and to become resilient, capable people. My son experienced two medical clinics in South America during his gap year, not as a volunteer, but as a patient. He outsourced his laundry, managed circuitous bus routes while communicating in a foreign language, and survived 14 days on trail in the winter in Idaho. His year was a success not in spite of the missteps and challenges, but because of them. I know my daughter will also experience highs and lows as she navigates the year ahead and am confident that she too will experience success despite the disappointments or blunders.

Some might argue that much of this kind of growth can happen in college. Although I agree that our children continue to grow and learn in college, the gap year can provide opportunities and challenges beyond anything found on campus. This in turn fulfills another goal of a gap year, providing our children with experiences, building their capacity to better utilize their college years with more intention, focus and maturity.

The opportunity to experience the broader world before beginning college is just one of the reasons to consider a gap year. Some additional reasons are highlighted below.

Developmental Maturation. Four years of college go by quickly and we all want our children to use their time well as they figure out their major and navigate a different kind of independence. But not all 18 year olds are created equal. A gap year allows kids who are less developmentally mature to grow up a bit.

Academic Refresh. Some of our kids have really burned the candle at both ends during high school and they are frankly burned out. A gap year enables them to take a break from academic pressure and scholastic demands so they can enter college renewed and reinvigorated.

Interest Exploration. Most 18 year olds don't know what they want to be when they grow up. A gap year can expose them to career options, internships, personal exploration and more.

World View. We live in the most interconnected and interdependent world in our history, and yet, many of us know little about our global community. Gap year students fortunate enough to travel or pursue an opportunity in a different country have greater global awareness and often develop fluency in a foreign language.

Tool Belt. Much anecdotal, qualitative and increasingly quantitative research validates the benefits of a gap year. Undeniable benefits are the skills learned, the resiliency discovered and the confidence acquired. All of these get added to the metaphoric tool belt our children need to succeed in the college environment.

I want to note that gap years vary in costs and those costs can range significantly. That said, it is possible to build a gap year with minimal cost and still have a significant experience. Volunteering for or apprenticing with an organization may include free room and board in addition to providing an incredible experience and/or career skills. Furthermore, many students work during their gap year to offset costs of their experience and/or to help with college expenses. Getting a job can also help define career goals. Students who are contributing to the cost of their college education are vested in their success and understand the value of the opportunity.

If you are considering a gap year for your son/daughter, you may get some pushback. My oldest son was skeptical at first (so were his Dad and grandparents). He wanted to go to college; he was ready to 'move on'. Yet, after a 45-minute Skype interview with a gap year counselor, he came into the kitchen and said, "Why wouldn't I take a gap year?" Why wouldn't you, indeed? His year included travel, service learning, language immersion, Wilderness EMT certification, scuba certification and environmental activism. What an unbelievable opportunity to get off of the treadmill and explore your world, your options and your interests.

My daughter's year looks wholly different, although she too will travel, experience language immersion and commit to service learning. She added working with children, and getting certified to be a ski instructor so she can earn some money when she heads to Colorado for college. I am so proud of her, and a bit jealous too.

Numerous people have asked me to adopt them so they can take advantage of a similar scenario. For the record, I am not accepting any more applications. My youngest watches it all and probably has some pretty interesting plans already in mind. But, first he has to finish high school and get into college!