National College Planning Summit Interview With Ethan Knight

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High school seniors are in the throes of college admissions paperwork and planning. The National College Planning Summit is a free online resource to help parents and students navigate the, sometimes rough, waters of the transition from high school to college.

The Summit is now available on YouTube and the Summary Notes of each interview are available for free download

Check out Ethan’s interview about Gap Years and college planning:

Click here for the summary notes of Ethan’s interview.

How a Gap Year Benefits University Life

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Last year was a year of adventure. I lived abroad for 10 months and consequently got to experience foreign worlds first hand, work unique jobs, and learn a lot about myself. Soon enough, my blissful Gap Year came to an end and I rejoined “real life” when I arrived here in California to start my astrophysics career at UC Berkeley. It has now been a couple months since I’ve arrived and so far, so great. I’m thoroughly enjoying my classes and my new friends, and my experience has overall been absolutely positive. Had I not taken my Gap Year, my first months as a freshman would have been radically different, and by different I mean probably a lot more stressful.

My Gap Year Reduced Stress at University

Arriving here, I had a new bed, 13 new suitemates, and a whole new city to get used to. The fact that everything is different in college overtax many new students, but this was something I already became very comfortable with last year. Since the majority of freshmen are coming in straight from high school, they tend to be amidst the stress of figuring out what they want to study, who they want to be, etc., but I already had 15 months to ponder and clear up these things. I came in feeling nothing but excited for I was clear-minded, well rested, and eager to get back into the rhythm of things. This mentality set me ahead of many of my peers not just academically, but even more so socially and mentally.

Socially, college is just like the movies. There are frat parties and study groups, social media-obsessed populars and those who play video games until dawn. However, when you first get here, you fit in nowhere and you have too many preconceived expectations of what college should look like. Eager to find a social niche as soon as possible, everyone is overly friendly and subtly desperate to make ourselves count in the social scene. It’s hectic.

What I Learned on my Gap Year That Helped

I learned something very valuable last year that helped me breeze through this aura of social anxiety. In life, the things that end up meaning something genuine, that influence you positively and become a part of you, are things you didn’t chase after. They result from patience, acceptance, and trust that your environment will adapt to you. The people who immediately started their search for the type of friends they already decided they want to have are the people who end up disappointed. Instead, one should make the decision that every person you meet is a potential friend, that every moment or conversation will matter at another, and realize that those crazy stories or incredible friendships will only be crazy when they are thrown at you.

Here’s an example. When first arriving at my residence of hundreds of new students just like me, I found myself feeling left out from any group of people that I didn’t know yet. I would look around and wonder if I would ever become friends with that guy with the skateboard, or the girl with the galaxy backpack. But, just as I saw on my Gap Year, all those then-strangers mixed and matched and came together in the most perfect way. I took a step back and ignored the pressure, and sure enough, I never had to go looking for the friends I have and love today. It’s hard to imagine that asking the girls in the laundry room how they’re doing will be the first memory you make with your future best friends, but it very well could be. Some conversations lead to incredible connections and others don’t, and that is the point. Test the waters because it’s all brand new, and remember that assuming you won’t get along with a certain someone is the most harmful thing you could do to your social career in college.

How a Gap Year Helps Academically

Academically, a Gap Year really puts you ahead because you’re just seriously excited to get back to school. I had a whole year to reset my tired-out high school brain, and stimulate it with vastly different types of knowledge. I didn’t do math problems for a whole year, but I thought about whatever came to mind. This is rewarding because without trying, you ponder things you care about. Particularly, I thought about who I want to be and where I see myself in the future. I could be sure that it was only me deciding to care about those things, not my parents or society or academic pressures, and I became overwhelmingly passionate about a few things.

I also thought about my dreams daily and became very eager to achieve them. So, I more or less know what I’m looking to learn in college, what sort of job I want and who I want to be out of college. More or less because, well, I’m 19. Nevertheless, I came to college prepared to give it my all with my newly intensified passion for astronomy and physics, and many other things. Six weeks in, I’ve done just that. I sit in the front of my lectures, ask several questions, reach out to professors, and do everything I can to do my best. A whole year to reflect on what I care to study changed who I am as a student incredibly, and confirms that every step I make is just one more step closer to achieving my goals- goals that keep getting bigger and better.

Gap Year Assets I Took to College

Something I’m also really grateful for are all the new assets I came to college with post-Gap Year. For instance, I’m extraordinarily clean and organized. After living in foreign homes where I had no choice but to keep everything extra neat, I have become a very responsible house keeper. In fact, I even make my roommates’ beds in the morning and maintain a very tidy dorm, which is something I never would have expected of myself.

I’m also very dedicated to keeping myself healthy. When you leave home and you don’t have the same workout or food options, and you share a bathroom with strangers and have a packed schedule, it’s difficult to always feel your best. I recognized the importance of prioritizing things like getting a few runs in per week or setting off time to stretch or scrub my body on my Gap Year, and I didn’t wait to get into a healthy rhythm of it here. I’m also very timely, and because of so I have more free time to do things that make me happy and to relax and keep myself well rested. Especially when you’re in hard classes and constantly busy with clubs and parties, this control and adult-ness that I acquired on my Gap Year really makes college way more pleasant.

Furthermore, free time is usually lazy time for college kids. This is acceptable considering how stressed we are the majority of the time, but since my Gap Year was essentially a year long homework break, I mastered the art of free time productivity.

I realized just how much you can achieve with as little as one hour on your hands, and I take that to reach out to that girl in my residence hall who always wanted to get coffee, for example. Or I’ll take the time to reflect and journal, or call a friend from home (or my parents if I’m feeling generous). In addition, it’s important to have these “free-times” as often as possible. In other words, if I’m running because I’m late to my lecture and I run into that climbing-loving guy I met a couple weeks ago, I will stop and have a full conversation with him even though I’m missing class. I now have a new friend who’s going to introduce me to a potential new hobby, and I caught up on those 5 minutes of missed lecture online later that night. Prioritize the little moments, they add up to the stuff that is really worth it in the long run.

Gap Year = Growth & Maturity

These small yet valuable lessons that I’ve instilled in my life because of my Gap Year make me feel more mature than a lot of other people here. I am focused on the things that many others have yet to realize are so important and it also made my adjustment period very short and easy. Mentally, more so than time-wise, I am a year ahead. Because of so, I feel way less pressured in all scenarios. Socially, I’m patient and academically, I’m brave, and the best part of these advantages is the position it puts me in to be able to help others. I often am the one to comfort others and help them with their first experience away from home since I’m already so familiarized with it. I’m not looking for help, I’m helping. With a mindset that is stable, open-minded, and ready for whatever is coming my way, I’ve got way more headspace to seek out more interesting things rather than dwell on discomforts, insecurities, and fears like most freshmen.

It’s crucial to know that all of these things only matter if they matter everyday. I learned that it’s extraordinarily unproductive to think in the short term, or to think that everything you’re doing is just to get to somewhere else. Each day is a fresh start, and if you dwell on being a certain type of person for a while or commit yourself to something for just a short while, the sum of your experiences will be made up of unclear morals that don’t have a consistent identity.

Your life shouldn’t be rated on your list of accomplishments, but on your quality of life on a day to day basis. Be nice to everyone, everyday. Work your hardest and do things that make you proud, everyday. Still, forgive yourself and allow yourself to grow. Tomorrow is right there and it’s a whole new day where you should decide to be the best you, again. In college, you will definitely have ups and downs but as long as you know what kind of qualities you strive to be defined by, you can be yourself through it all. This is you thinking long-term. This is the only way to grow and improve productively in order for you to reach your full potential.

On an astronomical scale, nothing really matters. Evolutionarily speaking, we are too miraculous to make sense and the most assuring solution to this loneliness is a religious outlet that no one can truly understand. We are small, lost, but we are also everything. When nothing matters, you realize that everything matters. Everything is the meaning of life, every moment is the most important moment, and one day is just as worthy as your entire life. So make it count by deciding who you are and living by it everyday, and college will suddenly be anything but scary.

Had I not taken my Gap Year, I wouldn’t have learned all of realized all of these things that truly brightened my future. I wear an invisible backpack of unforgettable times from my gap year at all times, and I can’t imagine what kind of college student I would be without it. What I left behind was short-lived and amazing, but it’s the fact that I will carry the lessons with me forever that made my gap year so, incredibly worth it.

How a Gap Year Consultant Can Help Make Your Gap Year Better

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You’ve read a few Gap Year related articles. You’ve started marking a map with your dream
destinations and your room is littered with guidebooks. You’ve puzzled over budgeting and
savings and you’ve told everyone who will listen that you’re planning on taking a Gap Year. But
how will you put all of the pieces together? Planning a Gap Year can be an intimidating task. As
the idea of traveling the world for a year before entering university gains popularity, the list of
available Gap programs and resources grows. Every student wants something different from
their Gap Year: work experience, animal encounters, internships, cultural integration, to learn a
new language – the list goes on. So how do you pick the perfect program when googling “Gap
Year” brings up thousands of results?

If you’d like to relax and save yourself some time, consider meeting with a professional Gap Year counselor. Gap Year counselors work one-on-one with students to help them plan and personalize the experience of a lifetime. These counselors have in-depth knowledge of a number of Gap Year programs, can connect students to alumni, and work with students throughout the planning stages, the journey itself, and the transition back to university. Based on an applicant’s personal preferences, a counselor handpicks a few potential programs out of the many available, or helps to design a custom independent Gap Year.

Gap Year Counselor vs. University Admissions Counselor

What’s the difference between a university admissions counselor and a Gap Year counselor?

While university admissions counselors may recommend a Gap Year, their jobs are to focus al-most entirely on the transition back to university. Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, puts it this way:

“A major difference between the two fields is timing. Most admissions counselors work with
students during high school and not once the student is in college, whereas a good Gap Year
counselor stays with a student from junior or senior year in high school right through the gap
year. Gap year students’ plans invariably change through the year itself so Gap Year coun-selors are ideally staying on top of the changes and continuing to offer viable options all along. ”

Julia Rogers of EnRoute Consulting clarifies:

“Gap Year advisers concentrate solely on Gap Year planning, so we are much more specialized in our focus. When I am not working directly with students, I am researching new gap year op-portunities, traveling to visit programs and working closely with colleagues in the Gap Year field. The biggest difference is the process. With admissions to college, you are trying to market your-self to a school, and the counselor is helping to get you admitted. Gap Years flip that process on its head: a Gap Year is about what you want to do, who you want to become, and what pro-grams and activities can make that happen. The entire college admissions process is about be-ing chosen whereas (with) the gap, your planning process is about choosing what do you want to do. Some gap year programs have an admissions process, but it is not nearly as stressful as trying to get into college!”

Many Gappers work simultaneously with both a gap year counselor and an admissions
counselor. While an admissions counselor helps students get into university, a Gap Year
counselor focuses on Gap Year planning and the transition from Gap Year to university.

Working with a Gap Year Consultant

Most Gap Year counselors offer a first session for free. This is a great chance to brainstorm for
your Gap Year, get to know your counselor, and ask any questions you might have about their services. First sessions also include an initial pick of potential Gap Year programs that suit the client’s needs. Further counseling will include “in-depth knowledge of a wide range of program options, many of which do not show up at Gap Year fairs or in general searches on line,” access to alumni pools from potential gap year program fits, and assurance of program quality.

Brainstorming is the first step. Gap Year counselors work directly with clients to customize their Gap Year. When the Center for Interim Programs begins working with a student, they quickly hone in on program possibilities:

“We start with students’ basic interests from their initial application and proceed right to the brainstorming process. Most students are not aware of the range of possibilities until they hear concrete options being outlined. Based on what they respond to most favorably, we help them zero in on specific programs and combinations to match their most important interests and goals.”

Consultation providers such as Taylor the Gap, the Center for Interim Programs, and EnRoute Consulting will typically vet 20-25 program options based on personal preferences and budget. With years of professional experience, Gap Year counselors stay up to date on potential oppor-tunities for their clients and can make adjustments to the Gap Year as necessary. All Gap Year counselors provide ongoing consultations throughout the planning process, the Gap Year itself, and the transition back home.

Marion Taylor, owner and founder of Taylor The Gap, shared the basics of her process with us:

“I provide a free preliminary consult at the onset-either in person, via skype, or phone. I then re-view their questionaire (which they have submitted online to me) and provide a set of gap pro-gram recommendations (these are usually several drafts/renditions) based on both their inter-view and questionaire responses. I work with the students and parents in choosing the best match based on their talents, skills, language, budget, timeframe, etc. This might involve provid-ing alumni references, liaisoning with gap program staff, editing an application (but not changing the content), following up post-acceptance, prep for departure, post-gap evaluation, pre-college/transition advising, request for testimonials and feedback.”

The Center for Interim Programs provides the following services to its clients:

• A free 90-minute brainstorming session by phone, Skype, or in person with one of our three expert Gap Year consultants
• In-depth knowledge of a wide range of program options, many of which do not show up at gap year fairs or in general searches on line
• Our “stamp of approval” regarding program quality based on site visits and/or alumni feed-back
• Our alumni pool of over 6000 students since we began doing gap year counseling in 1980
• Once a student signs on, we provide all program details and ongoing consultations through the gap year and beyond

So when should you hire a Gap Year counselor? EnRoute Consulting suggests that:

“A Gap Year counselor is a good idea to consider if you are excited by the idea of a Gap Year but don’t know where to start or feel overwhelmed by the planning process. Working with a consultant makes the process deliberate and much less stressful. Any program can create a shiny website, but counselors know which programs really deliver on quality of experience. We keep tabs on how to travel safely in various areas of the world and have first-hand knowledge of opportunities on every continent! For parents, working with a counselor offers the peace of mind of knowing that their child will be pointed towards reputable programs and that their concerns will be validated and addressed.”

Planning Forward from Your Gap Year

Most importantly, Gap Year counselors can help students to apply their Gap Year experiences to university life, what Marion Taylor (Taylor The Gap) stresses as an “essential component” to her work. She goes on to say:

“I not only conduct an evaluation (in person, Skype, or written) at the end of their gap experience, but I prepare the student for what they might feel post-gap during adjustment to college… I work with them to try and negotiate a balance with what they learned and experienced during their gap year into integrating that into college and the social/academic environment. Most often their gap experiences help them to navigate the social decisions in a much better way as well as hone their focus on their academic studies.”

The Center for Interim Programs also let me know that, “We coach students through the transition to college, or back to college, following their Gap Year. We also recommend pursuing experiences during the Gap Year that might help clarify a major or career choice. Many of our students apply or reapply to colleges during their Gap Year, or are doing transfer applications.”

Julia Rogers of EnRoute Consulting believes that taking a Gap Year can greatly influence a student’s future studies and career. With help, students can more easily build their resumes and pursue extracurriculars during their gap year that will help them work towards their goals. As she puts it,

“Most Gap Year students have a better idea of what they want to study after their year, so ad-justing your intended area of focus based on what you learned about your interests on your Gap Year is a natural first step. One of my students thought before her Gap Year that she wanted to major in business, but after a series of volunteer placements decided that she’d rather go into public health. Knowing this before she started college allowed her to adjust her course load to be more relevant to her new interest… Another aspect of transitioning to post- Gap Year life is figuring out how to translate those experiences into bullet points for a resume.”

Finally, some counselors believe that universities and colleges across the U.S. could be doing a better job of providing programs to integrate Gappers back into an academic setting. Katherine Stievater of Gap Year Solutions points this out, saying, “I would like to see colleges take a more proactive approach with Gappers. These students bring amazing perspectives and skills that can truly enhance the school community, and allow them to continue to deepen their learning.”

So, What Can a Gap Year Counselor do for You?

“Many students come into the process not understanding some important aspects of Gap Years – for example, that they usually consist of several activities, and that many students are now looking at gaining work experience and taking part-time jobs to help pay for Gap Year programs. The idea of learning about Gap Years and researching options can immediately seem over-whelming. Gap Year Consultants bring hundreds of hours of experience, they know pros and cons of different programs, have connections to many Program Directors, and can quickly re-search new ideas to complete the student’s Gap Year plan. While Gap Years often change after they begin, it is important to start with a plan.” – Katherine Stievater

Want to get in touch with a gap year counselor? We’ve listed some of our favorites for you in our
Resources section.

International Experience and University

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How many extra credits can I pack in? Will this essay work for my college admissions? Which school is going to be the best for me? Will I make friends?

What if we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong questions all along? What would happen if we stopped focusing on how to “make college work” and instead focused on personal goals for the college experience and the years beyond?

Setting those personal goals begins with a deep understanding of what we want. Unfortunately, most of us truly don’t know what we want from the future right out of high school. I didn’t. It takes some time for most students to get to know their interests, passions, and goals for the future. International travel can help to clarify what we’re shooting for over the next 5-10 years. What’s more, it can help us to succeed in the world of college applications and new social scenes. Here are a few ways international travel can boost your college experience and help you to set your own goals:

Successful College Admissions

University admissions have become increasingly competitive as pursuing higher education becomes the norm. College admissions officers are looking for students who stand out from the crowd. Nowadays, students trying to land entry to their dream college will need something more unique than a top-notch GPA under their belts. Luckily for you, a combination of travel and personal study can build a killer college application.

What about the time you spent hiking in the Alps, studying local flora and fauna along the way? Or the time you went scuba diving off the coast of Australia? Put it on the application to show your interest in environmental studies! With a bit of intentional thought and study along the way, travel experiences can turn into application gold. I used travel to prove that I was passionate about my major and was already diving in on my own.

International Experience & Competitive Uni Clubs

This is a benefit of international experience I´d never heard of until it happened to me. A year into my university experience, I discovered a campus club I was interested in joining. An offshoot of WUSC, the club provided mentors and support to incoming refugee students sponsored by my university. But there was a catch. Entry to the club is incredibly competitive. I needed to prove that I was passionate about helping people, sensitive to the experiences of moving to a new country, and open to cultural differences.

With tons of international experience under my belt, I aced the interview and was immediately accepted to be a mentor! It turned out to be one of my best university experiences yet. As you work through college, you’ll find that a travel background can open doors to competitive experiences.

Score an Internship

When fellow students and professors see that you’ve had real-world experiences outside of a campus setting, they’re more willing to hand over responsibilities and opportunities. Makes sense, right? Students who travel have already proven themselves to be capable, responsible, and dedicated to their goals. These are the kinds of people who are top picks for internships, mentorships, and leadership positions. Knowing that I had traveled before, my professor picked me for a two month internship at a research library in Guatemala.

Immersion in Your Subject Area

A Gap Year is a chance to explore your field of interest before committing to a major. Want to go into marine biology? Take a year to dive and study the ocean on your own. Interested in geography? Spend time studying landforms and unique cultures around the world. Interested in language arts? Take language courses and visit local theaters as you travel.

Not only will you be getting an in-depth look into your future degree program of choice, you’ll also be racking up the experience needed for a killer application. Worst case scenario: you discover you’re not as into your major as you thought. Better now than three years in!

Professional Networking

Be sure to network with people outside of your peer group as you wander, you never know when you’ll bump into someone in your field who can give you some insight or a boost in your dream career. Success is all about connections. Use your time wisely and intentionally connect with people who can help you towards your goals. Who knows? Your Gap Year could change your life through these people!

Personal Confidence, Clarity, & Vision

This is the big one for me. Going straight from high school to university gives you zero time to get to know yourself, to pursue your interests, and to get your feet under you as an adult. Before university, I backpacked Europe with my boyfriend. I drove across the U.S. And during that time, I learned a great deal about where I wanted to take the next 5-10 years of my life.

By the time I entered university, I felt confident. I knew my major was right for me, and I was ready to take on my university years with a vision for my future. As a result, I’ve been more committed to my schoolwork, more interested in what I’m learning, and have been able to say yes to the opportunities that fit with my goals.

If you’re not sure what college suits you yet.

If you’re not in love with the idea of picking a major. Travel.

If you want to give yourself a boost in the resume and experience department. Travel.

Feeling shy and unsure of yourself? Travel.

Think you’ve got it all together on your own? Travel.

There’s nothing to lose, and a world to explore.

College Applications and Gap Years

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Sterling College Senior Dinner

Sterling College Senior Dinner

What do college admissions officers think about Gap Years, and how might the decision to take a Gap Year impact your college application prospects? In this post Tim Patterson, Director of Admission at Sterling College in Vermont, sheds some light on Gap Years from the perspective of a college admissions officer.

More and more students are choosing to take a gap year between high school and college. For college admissions officers like me, the growing popularity of gap years is a trend that merits close attention. Personally, I am a big fan of gap years because I believe that students who take a gap year arrive at college having gained a clearer sense of purpose that helps them focus and succeed in their program of choice. However, Gap Year students need to figure out how to approach the college application process, including the question of when to apply.

Should I Apply To College Before Taking A Gap Year?

Students often ask if they should finish their college applications and defer enrollment before taking a Gap Year. Most colleges, including Sterling College, allow students who receive an offer of admission to defer for up to one year by submitting an enrollment deposit. Alternatively, some students choose to hold off and complete the application process during their gap year, or apply after the gap year is complete. There are pros and cons to each approach.

The conventional wisdom that I usually hear from college counselors and parents of gap year students is that students should finish the college application process before embarking on a gap year. The argument goes something like this:

Settling on a college before a gap year helps students because they can access all of the resources of their high school college counseling office while completing their college applications. Additionally, by deferring college enrollment before a Gap Year students can make the most of their Gap Year experience instead of being distracted by college applications.

If you stop and consider the perspective of many college counselors and parents this argument makes a lot of sense. After all, counselors and parents have been known to worry that a Gap Year might somehow lead a student off track, and they want the reassurance of knowing where and when the student will go to college. Also, since high schools keep track of the plans of graduating seniors and often look favorably on graduating a high percentage of college bound students, guidance counselors can sometimes feel pressure to successfully “close the file” on each student before graduation. However, I think a different approach is often the right call.

You can apply to college during a Gap Year

You absolutely CAN apply to colleges during a Gap Year, and for many students I think that doing so is the right choice. Here’s why:

A Gap Year is a time of growth and change

Students almost always gain a great deal of perspective and maturity during a Gap Year, and many emerge from the experience with new academic interests and a more evolved sense of purpose. Applying this new perspective and self-knowledge to the college search can lead to students to consider college options that are a better fit given the self-knowledge gained during the gap year. Precluding that possibility by choosing a college before the gap year might be the “safest” option, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Not going to college right away isn’t a catastrophe

The average age of a student here at Sterling College in Vermont is 22, and generally speaking students who have life and work experience before college are more focused and successful in their studies. There is nothing wrong with delaying college until you’re fully ready, clear-headed, and prepared. If your Gap Year leads you to other opportunities, it’s OK to take advantage of them instead of imposing a fixed end to your gap year experience.

A Gap Year can make your college applications stronger

When my colleagues and I are evaluating applications, we look for things that set an applicant apart. Students who are able to describe their Gap Year are often our most captivating applicants, and we know from experience that students who have completed a Gap Year are often better prepared for success in college than their peers who attend college straight out of high school.

Students with a clear sense of purpose thrive in college

I keep coming back to the phrase “sense of purpose” because I think it’s a pivotal part of the whole conversation about Gap Years and college applications.

Like many colleges, Sterling College has a clear mission and purpose – we happen to be focused on a mission of environmental stewardship, with majors in Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems, Ecology, Outdoor Education, and Environmental Humanities. It takes a very focused student to succeed at Sterling, and we look hard for evidence of that sense of purpose during the application process. A gap year is a great opportunity to hone in on a sense of purpose, and then approach college applications with clearer focus and intent.

Gap Year students can be savvy about financial aid

Finally, a word about affordability. I believe that we are in the midst of a student debt crisis in this country, and I am often shocked at how little students and parents know about financial aid and college affordability in general. I could write a whole series of posts about financial aid, but here are the points that are most relevant to gap year students:

  • Financial aid packages can change from year to year.
  • Students are in the best position to advocate for an affordable financial aid package BEFORE they commit to a college.

By committing to a college before receiving the financial aid package for the academic year in which they plan to attend, students sacrifice all of their leverage and are unable to compare financial aid packages and find the best fit at the best price.

The choice is yours

Ultimately, the choice of whether to apply to college before, during, or after a gap year is up to you. If you have already have a clear sense of where and why you want to go to college, by all means go ahead and lock in your plans before your gap year. Just don’t feel as if there is only one path that you need to follow. One of the most important lessons of a gap year is that you are free to make your own choices, and use your own compass to navigate the world. This is true in life, and in college as well.

To contact Tim Patterson, or learn more about Sterling College, please visit

Taking a Gap Year After College

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Why I opted for a gap year abroad after college

Due to scholarship requirements and an eagerness to launch my undergraduate career, taking off for a year after high school wasn’t in the cards for me. However, that didn’t mean I was going to pass up a Gap Year all together, and four years later I found myself face to face with the invaluable opportunity to live abroad for a year.

In March of my senior year of college, I received a long-awaited email with a few short sentences informing me that I received a Fulbright grant to teach English in Germany. The months leading up to the final decision had been a pressure cooker of anticipation that would decide whether walking across the stage on graduation day was impending doom or the closing of one chapter before starting life’s next adventure.

Taking a chance on a Gap Year after college was never an easy, clear-cut decision. As my four-year undergraduate journey came to an end, friends and classmates were being snatched up by graduate schools, picking up stable full time jobs, or even exchanging vows at the altar. Society’s expectations and the desire to finally settle into the “real world” as an esteemed adult more or less dictated where everyone’s priorities lied. That’s not to say I didn’t want the same. I had a set list of goals I wanted to achieve in my 20s, which included obtaining a master’s degree, starting a 401(k), earning a stable income, and growing professionally, just to name a few. A slightly delayed timeline was the only difference.

Before running off to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to a career and tying myself down to a rental agreement and car, I wanted to squeeze in one last hurrah of youthful exploration. Shooting for a structured program abroad that guaranteed an occupation and stipend gave a peace of mind that I would have a clearly defined purpose for the next year. Professional development and an immersive environment to advance my German skills? Check and check.

Taking a Gap Year was a responsible, sound decision, but I couldn’t muffle the nagging voice in my head questioning if it really was the right thing to do.

The Post-College Gap Year Stigma

Seniors in college and recent graduates are constantly drilled with questions about their near future. What’s next? During the buildup to my departure to Germany, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives alike curiously asked what life had in store for me next. After announcing my plans to live and teach abroad for the upcoming year, the reaction was always the same— “Wow, that’s amazing…but why?” No one got it. Rather than proudly revealing my achievement, I instead had to constantly justify to myself and others why I was “taking a year off”.

Whether a result of the United States’ education system or a deeply embedded hustling go-getter culture, there’s a certain stigma behind taking a Gap Year in the United States. During high school, the college-bound crowd is encouraged to apply to every scholarship under the sun, many of which are restricted to high school students. Missed the application window? You might have to scramble for smaller awards or take out financially crushing loans. Although some scholarships and higher education institutions may allow recipients to defer for a year or two with good reason, it’s not easy. Students are consequently steered from high school straight into college. After college, you naturally continue education, or settle into a job and start paying off racked up loans.

There’s a strict sequence of life events to check off before true adulthood, otherwise you run the risk of being perceived as a slacker or confused millennial trying to figure life out. Even so, gap year participation has skyrocketed in the last few years. International travel is the cheapest its ever been, Millennials are ditching the antiquated view that travel is a luxury reserved for retirees, and internet culture has inspired an inescapable wanderlust.

The benefits of taking a Gap Year, whether it’s after high school, college, or a relief from career burnout, are widely advertised. It’s no shock that a Gap Year spent volunteering abroad, exploring diverse careers, or simply traveling for the sake of adventure results in personal and skill development. You might not find your life’s purpose while meditating under a waterfall in Thailand, but stepping out of your comfort zone and drastically overhauling your reality shapes you at the core over time.

A Different Perspective: Germany

Teaching in Germany comes with many perks, one of which is gaining an insider perspective of students’ attitudes and a general feel for how education is approached.

Germany is no stranger to the concept of the Gap Year. Until just a few years ago, all young German men would have to serve a term in the military or do civil service such as volunteering. Putting their lives on hold right after schooling was common, and since mandatory service was abolished in 2011 it has remained popular to travel abroad for an extended period or do freiwilligenarbeit (volunteer work) before deciding on what to do next. Young students taking a year to live abroad is quite popular, often as an au pair to fine tune language fluency or volunteer at a local school for a few months for career insight.

When compared to the United States, universities in Germany are laughably affordable, with public ones only costing a few hundred euros a semester in fees (tuition at private universities are slightly steeper). With admission deadlines much later in the year, significantly less stress over funding, and a laxer attitude toward taking time off, the education system in Germany might lend a good explanation as to why the Gap Year has become a cultural staple. It’s not uncommon for students to be in their mid-20s by the time they receive their first bachelor’s degree.

Living in a rather small town off the usual tourist route, I’m regularly asked what a young American woman is doing in the German countryside. Instead of raising eyebrows at my year-long transatlantic jaunt, students and strangers give me an understanding nod and conclude that I’m doing an Auslandsjahr, literally a “foreign country year”.

No single cultural perspective has the right answer, and Gap Years are definitely not for everyone. The host of Gap Year Benefits are constantly cited, but who’s to say that the direct plunge from school to career doesn’t also have its own advantages?  As young Americans continue to collect passport stamps and effortlessly gallivant across country borders, the attitude towards taking time off for a global education outside a classroom will undoubtedly continue to evolve.

Ultimately, a Gap Year abroad is an intimate experience of personal growth unique to each person. The only person who can decide whether a year abroad will be beneficial and when it’s best to take it is you!


raquel headshotFreshly graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in tourism management, Raquel spent the last few years trekking through Peru and Argentina, farming in Japan, teaching at a summer camp in South Korea, and exploring her parents’ heritage in Mexico, Spain, and Germany. Now during her fifth time in Germany, Raquel’s teaching English through the Fulbright program for the next year before pursuing a career in international education. She’s also virtually working as a junior editor at hoping to spread the international love.


Attending University Abroad: How & Why

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The university or college experience is life changing for many, and with more and more opportunities available for young adults to study abroad, as part of, or in addition to their Gap Year, having an affordable and memorable post secondary education in a country other than your own is easier than ever. Over 313 000 students studied abroad in 2014/15 alone, with 63% of these students studying abroad for up to three weeks, and 3% studying there long term, for a full academic or calendar year. But besides the benefits of simply living in a different country, how is studying abroad more beneficial than simply studying in your home country?

Why Study Abroad?


The biggest myth surrounding study abroad programs is that they are over expensive and catered to the upper class. This is 100% myth. Many countries, including Germany, France, Norway, and Iceland, offer free tuition to all students (excluding low administrative fees), with many courses and programs specifically to foreign students.

Language Opportunities

One of the biggest benefits of studying in a foreign country is the opportunity to learn a new language. In today’s globalized economy, the ability to communicate effectively is one of many key skills needed to succeed in your job. A recent survey completed by an LA-based business found that nearly 9 out of 10 employers in Europe, Latin America, and Asia believe that being bilingual is crucial for success in the business field. Not only does the ability to communicate in another language give you an advantage, it also allows you to understand more about the country and culture the language is from.


Each country’s educational system is unique, meaning that what may be considered “normal” for some, is completely different to the way things are taught in another place. Having the opportunity to experience the educational system of two different countries forces you to adapt and become more flexible in your learning habits and allows you to better understand the country that you are learning in. Whereas the American educational system places more of an emphasis on individual learning and problem solving for example, the Japanese education system may be more focused on group problem solving and the “collective” rather than the individual.

Preparing to Study Abroad

There are countless study abroad programs available to students, however finding the perfect program or university abroad requires research, time and patience. There is no “one fits all” study abroad program for students, so there are a variety of factors that should be considered when considering which foreign program or university you wish to attend.

There are typically two factors which most influence which study abroad program students attend.


Many students choose to pursue to their studies at a certain university due to the country or location it is in. This could be due to simply already having a connection or personal history to the place or already knowing the language. Other factors which can go into choosing a program based on location is the affordability of the city as well as “employer activity” within the city. QS Top Universities has an in depth list of the best student cities in the world, as well as universities rankings by region

University Ranking

Another method to determine which study abroad to attend is to simply research the top universities for your major or minor. By then knowing which universities are most accredited for chosen field of study, an informed decision can be made in regards to which top ranked university you wish to study at. QS Top Universities also has World University Rankings based on subject, as well as faculty.

By being aware of the best student cities to live in as well as the top universities for your chosen field, an informed decision can be made which will guarantee you the experience of a lifetime.


While tuition fees for study abroad programs may be cheaper than at home, living costs (as well as airfare back and forth) can add up quickly. Here is a list of organizations that have compiled lists of various scholarships and grants that can ease the financial strain of being a student studying in a foreign country.

There are so many factors to consider when deciding to study abroad, and while staying in your comfort zone can be reassuring, the benefits of studying abroad are infinite. Exposure to a new culture, language, and education system widens your horizons and gives you advantages in the work force. It allows you to better understand the globalized society we now live in and makes you more marketable to future employers and grad schools. It allows you to travel and study at the same time, to work towards your goals while at the same time experience a different culture, place and way of life than back home.

While the decision to study abroad is not one that should be taken lightly, anyone who joins the millions of Americans who have ventured across the globe in their studies will find that studying abroad is an experience like no other.

Should I go to College After my Gap Year?

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You’ve tackled the world. You’ve marched confidently off the beaten path (even if your heart broke a little as your friends all shared first-year experiences as college freshmen). You’ve grown leaps and bounds, and are excited at the prospect of continuing to grow and learn. But you’re wondering: is college the next best move for me in my life? Is it a conducive environment to the type of growing and learning I want to do?

The Value of a College Degree

There are a lot of benefits to attending college and earning an undergraduate degree. Oftentimes, these benefits are intangible (and don’t necessarily make their way onto your transcript). While classes are important and developing solid relationships with your professors ideal, there’s a lot of growth that happens out of the classroom, too.

There are myriads of clubs and causes to get involved with. There are passionate, weird, different, eclectic, normal people – all within close confines – and you learn how to interact effectively with each of them. There are folks with mindsets and philosophies and perspectives you’ve never been exposed to. There is training in how to think critically, how to argue productively, and how to compose logical statements. Plus, it’s fun (late night pizza, anyone?!).

That Being Said…

A college degree isn’t for everyone. Some might opt for a community college experience instead of a sleep-away-school ← totally awesome option for the money conscious/savvy student. Some students might end their Gap Year and want to keep traveling and learning experientially. You can get a job – part-time or otherwise – and bump up that piggy bank. You might want to sign up for the military, an apprenticeship, or another trainee program.

In short, there are many paths you can opt to take. But going to college should be a choice you weigh considerably. Here are some general questions to ask yourself as you navigate these waters:

What are your goals?

Certainly, not all career paths require college degrees; however, others do. How will this chapter of life – college – contribute to your overarching life mission? If you want to work with refugees or other marginalized populations, perhaps more direct-experience with these peoples through an internship would add value to your eventual formal studies in global development. If you want to devote your life to teaching English as a second language, there’s nothing wrong with taking a teaching gig abroad instead of attending school yourself, but understand that those with a degree are making a lot more money than those without.

To be clear: college can benefit you in ways beyond the actual degree, but it’s up to you to decide if it is necessary to accomplish your goals in life.

What Are Your Motivations for College?

If you feel motivated to go to college because it feels like the “right” thing to do or because you’re feeling pressured from outside sources (here’s lookin’ at you, mom and dad), you might need to go back to square one. College is a significant investment. Very significant. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars here. If your only reason for going to school is to make others happy – and not because it is what you truly want – your motivation to attend classes and perform well scholastically might decrease over time, potentially undermining the endeavor altogether.

Are You Crazy-Passionate Right Now & in Need of an Outlet?

College campuses are hotbeds for change, full of individuals hungry to make a dent in the world and help others. Living in this community can be jarring and exciting for a young activist in the making. If you’re on fire for any given cause (Women’s rights? Education equality? Access to clean water?) in light of your Gap Year experiences, consider channeling that fervor in a healthy, fertile environment – like the kind you can find on a college campus.

Does College Have to Happen RIGHT NOW?

Or, can you hold off for a year or more? You might decide that you definitely want to go to college, but the idea of term papers and sororities and three-lattes-per-day sounds off-putting at this stage of life. Attending college is a full-time job (a badass one, if you consider your only tasks are to learn and read and try to better understand the world); if you’re not ready to take on the commitment yet, hold off until you are.

Do You Know What You Want to Accomplish, Academically?

One of the perks of the Gap Year experience is clarity towards your life purpose and vocation. If you return from abroad, ready to hit the ground running and know exactly what you’d like to study and where, then you might be a great fit for going to college. Not wasting precious time (and money) on an undecided major will help you feel focused and accomplished in your collegiate career.

Do You Have the Resources?

If you thought your Gap Year bills were expensive, wait ’til you get a load of a tuition invoice. While financial aid, work-study programs, scholarships, and grants are all well and dandy, there’s still typically a good deal of money you have to fork out independently. Some students are fortunate in that family members will foot their college bills or subsidize their living expenses. Others might not be as lucky. Ask yourself if this is debt you’re willing to take on.

Then, think creatively. Perhaps combining the best of your international Gap Year experience with university would work. Check into the countries, abroad, where even foreign students can attend for free, or at rates far less than the ones found at US schools. There are international options, at excellent schools, for a fraction of the costs inside the USA.

Are You Ready to Make This Decision?

Whether you send off that application to (insert dream college here) or choose another path to postpone college life, you need to feel confident in your decision.Much like it took a degree of bravery when you chose to do a Gap Year, aim to have an equivalent sense of purpose towards your college decision.

Should You go to College Right Away After Your Gap Year?

Maybe. Should you go right now? Maybe not.

Don’t feel rushed to make a decision. Make sure you have many conversations – with friends, parents, other friends’ parents, your favorite high school teacher, your manager from your after school job, your mentor, whoever you look up to in life – and use all of their insights to come to a decision that feels right for YOU and you alone.

Remember: being “successful” is subjective and there are plenty of “successful” people who have lead meaningful, lives of impact with (and without) a degree in tow.

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