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22December2012

Gap Years

by Originally published in Hindustan Times Education Supplement

As the time draws near to submit college applications for programs abroad, even some of the most qualified students opt to take a gap year – i.e. a year off between high school and college. How do you decide if this is the right choice for you and if you are planning to take a gap year what should you do to use the time wisely?

In my experience gap years are best for students who cannot or do not want to manage the pressure of a rigorous 12th grade curriculum, extra curriculars and other requirements along with SAT and application preparation. It is a lot of work! And the process is unforgiving of those who are too overburdened to put together a good application. For some, the chance to prepare without all the pressure is a better option and the entire application timeline can be pushed out by a year – students can prepare for standardized tests (SAT/ACT/TOEFL), explore college options, and start writing essays in post-12th peace.

Besides using the time to apply for colleges without distraction, a gap year can also be used to enhance an existing interest or develop a new one. Some students take the time to decide on the course of study – law or medicine? Spend a few weeks doing an internship with both a doctor and a lawyer to discover what suits you best. Other students use some of the time to gain experience in an existing field of interest – e.g. engineering students take internships at IT companies or those keen on international relations join short programs with policy think tanks or government organizations.To find compelling opportunities for the gap year there several options: You can find a structured program that specifically caters to students on a gap year (check: http://www.usagapyearfairs.org/programs or http://enroutegapyear.com/programs.html  OR http://thinkingbeyondborders.org/). Unfortunately most of these are directed at European or American students looking for a unique experience.

For Indian students, there are a few short-term structured programs that offer interesting training and exposure. Two good ones are Volunteers India: http://www.volunteersindia.org/index.htm and Magic Bus http://www.magicbusuk.org/news-articles/the-magic-bus-international-youth-leadership-programme/. Otherwise students can directly approach a local NGO, explain their goals and see how they can work together.Another interesting choice are the Study at Sea Programs: (http://www.seamester.com/upcoming-voyages/  and  http://www.studyabroadlinks.com/search/Detailed/8749.html). Though these programs are expensive, they help students earn college transfer credits while providing exciting travel and learning opportunities that can help students discover their passion.

There are so many great things you can do with an extra year. But be realistic, I have seen several applicants who take a gap year and should not have. For example, students who have applied and been admitted to good schools, but not their top choice, dream college. Unfortunately a gap year does little to enhance the application and waiting a year to go through the process again usually yields similar results. The only thing you can change in a year are you SAT scores and some work experience. The main part of your academic record (i.e. grades, exam results, school reports and teacher recommendations) are fixed after 12th grade. I recommend a gap year if you need time and exposure to something new, but not if you need a miracle.

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