by Dot Kowal, Director of College Counseling
What is a typical “bridge year” like? Is it hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, working as a ski instructor in Colorado, and then taking a road trip tour of our national parks? Is a bridge year for students who would benefit from an extra year to mature before heading to college? Is it a good idea for students who would like more time to devote to the college application process? Is it participating in a service trip to Mozambique, Tibet, or New Orleans, or volunteering as a political organizer in a swing state? Is it working as a barista in the morning and at the movie theater at night while you save for college?
The answer is: yes.
Just as there is a wide range of college and university experiences, there is no such thing as a “typical” bridge year. A bridge year (sometimes referred to as a gap year) can offer students the space and time to travel, work, and/or reflect before heading off to college. While it’s not the right path for every student, bridge years are becoming more common, and some colleges even encourage their applicants to consider taking some time between high school and college to explore interests, travel, work, or serve their communities. A well-planned bridge year can provide valuable experiential learning as students approach the transition from teenhood to adulthood.
Although each bridge year is different, all successful bridge years have one thing in common: the student entered the year with a plan. We think that the most enriching bridge years have three elements: travel, language immersion, and some sort of work (paid or unpaid). There are many different organizations that specialize in gap year programs, emphasizing everything from cultural immersion to wilderness skills. Many programs are expensive, but some offer financial aid for qualified students. Some volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps also provide housing.
If your student is expressing interest in a bridge year, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Some students who take a bridge year choose to go through the college application process during their senior year and then seek deferred college admission after being accepted. Colleges handle this in one of three ways: some allow deferral in most circumstances; others require approval of the student’s bridge year plan; some do not allow students to defer and ask them to reapply during the next admission cycle.
A few colleges are now building a bridge semester into their admissions process. These schools may offer students admission for the spring semester, with a school-sponsored study abroad bridge program during the fall semester. This can be a great way to enjoy some of the benefits of a bridge year while also working with your chosen college’s admissions process.
Whether students participate in an organized program or design their own bridge year, they should have a clear understanding of the logistics: how much financial support, if any, parents will be able and willing to contribute; how students will manage travel arrangements, etc. Have these conversations early and often when planning out the shape of the year.
Some parents fear that after a bridge year, students will lose momentum and have a hard time getting back into a scholastic routine. We have heard from many students that the opposite is true -- after a year in the “real world,” they are excited to get back to academic life, refreshed and eager to apply what they’ve learned to their studies.
Recognize that bridge years, especially those that involve a lot of travel, are not an option for all students. For many, taking time off to work and save money before enrolling in college is a necessity. Please be sensitive and aware of the issues of privilege associated with bridge years.
Just as students should have a solid answer to the question “why do I want to attend college?” they should also have a strong understanding of what they want to get out of a bridge year. The best candidates for a bridge year are self motivated and eager to learn more about themselves.
In getting this article together, I came across this survey conducted by the American Gap Association 2015. Study participants were asked about the impact their bridge/gap year had on their lives. The graph below illustrates the statements that participants agreed with most.
The study demonstrates that bridge years can truly shape the trajectory of a young person’s life, especially in terms of self knowledge. If your child is curious about bridge year options, the first step is to have a family conversation about the desired outcomes and realistic expectations. Next, be sure to contact your college counselor to get a sense of bridge year options and possibilities. We can point you to a variety of resources and consult with you about whether a bridge year would be a good fit.