Does Your Teen Really Need a Gap Year?

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You’ve probably read about students taking a gap year after receiving their A-Level or International Baccalaureate results, and you may have wondered what that’s all about. 

Essentially, a gap year is a break from formal education, typically taken before starting university, where students engage in various activities like travel, work, volunteering, or other personal projects to gain experience and new perspectives.

In Singapore, there is definitely some interest in the gap year experience, and even a community of local “gappers” ready to offer support. If your teen is considering a gap year, this reflects a healthy shift towards experiential learning and self-discovery! Below, we’ll look at several compelling reasons to take a gap year before enrolling in university, with ideas to ensure that a gap year is meaningful and productive. 

We’ll also discuss who might benefit most from a gap year — is it best suited for teens who seek clarity about their career paths, or those who need a break from academic pressures? Conversely, we’ll consider the types of students for whom a gap year might not be the best fit.

We hope you find this guide useful, and please feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Benefits of a Gap Year

To some parents, a gap year may seem like an extended vacation, but it’s far more than just a break from studies. In Singapore, where the education system is highly structured, a gap year offers a chance to step off the track and gain experiences that classrooms can’t provide. 

Additionally, a ‘gap’ doesn’t have to be limited to a year — students all over the world have taken more than a year off school to work on their personal projects. (Read about a Harvard student who took two gap years to plan and develop a youth outreach initiative.)

For male teens undergoing the two-year National Service before university, do consider how this time can be used for personal development. After the initial basic training, a National Serviceman often has free time during the week, and it is possible to take on activities like volunteering, pursuing hobbies, or enrolling in a course. This approach allows for a continuation of personal growth and learning, even within the National Service framework. Some youths have also chosen to take an additional gap year after completing their National Service, further enriching their life experiences. 

With this in mind, here are three solid reasons to embark on a gap year:

Reason 1: Develop Soft Skills Outside the Classroom

While having academic prowess is an advantage, soft skills like adaptability, problem-solving, and interpersonal communication are equally important. If your teen is self-aware and has identified several soft skills that they may be lacking, a gap year can be an ideal time to hone these skills. Whether it’s navigating a new city, managing a budget during travel, or interacting with people from diverse backgrounds, these experiences build real-world skills that are valued in both higher education and the workplace.

Reason 2: Gain Career Clarity and Purpose

Although our education system is changing to incorporate flexible pathways, many Singaporean students still face the pressure of choosing a career specialisation before they are ready to do so. By seeking out internships or job shadowing experiences during the gap year, they can see the actual work that goes on in different industries, and the skills that are required to perform daily tasks. With greater awareness from hands-on experiences, your teen can choose a university degree course that aligns with their preferences, reducing the likelihood of switching majors or feeling dissatisfied with chosen career paths later on.

Reason 3: More Time for Financial Planning

Higher education can be a considerable financial commitment, especially if your teen wishes to study abroad. As this will likely amount to a five- or six-figure sum, a gap year allows families more time to acquire funds, potentially reducing the burden of loans or the need for financial aid. During this time, teens can also contribute financially through part-time work or internships, as well as explore scholarship options. This eases the financial strain on the family and instils a sense of responsibility and financial awareness in the teen, preparing them for the realities of adult life.

How to Plan a Meaningful Gap Year

To avoid disappointment, it’s essential that you and your teen are on the same page — a gap year should not be an aimless break, but a purpose-driven journey.

Step 1: Set Goals and Objectives

Start with a calm, non-judgmental conversation where you encourage your teen to reveal their reasons for wanting a gap year. 

  • Understand the ‘Why’: Ask open-ended questions like, “What are you hoping to achieve in this year?” or “What makes you feel a gap year is the right choice for you right now?”
  • Identify Specific Motivations: These could range from feeling overwhelmed by academic pressure (burnout), to a desire for self-exploration, to uncertainty about future career or academic paths. Recognising these motivations will help you understand their perspective and provide appropriate support.
  • Discuss Potential Outcomes: Talk about what a successful gap year would look like. For example, if the motivation is skill development, discuss what skills they are interested in and how these might be beneficial in the long run. If it’s about exploration, define what ‘exploring’ means — is it about travelling, trying different work experiences, or learning about new cultures?
  • Consider Personal Growth: Encourage your teen to think about some areas to develop in, such as independence, decision-making, or handling responsibilities.
  • Balance Expectations: Help your teen to see that a gap year may not be entirely rosy. Discuss the challenges they might face and the level of independence and responsibility required.
  • Collaborative Approach: Emphasise that planning a gap year is a joint effort. You’re there to support and guide your teen, but also expect them to take an active role in the planning and decision-making process.

Step 2: Researching and Selecting Activities

After establishing clear goals and objectives, your teen can research and choose activities that align with these goals.

  • Explore Diverse Opportunities: Together with your teen, research various activities and programmes in Singapore and abroad. These could include structured gap year programmes, volunteering opportunities, internships, online courses, or even self-directed projects like starting a community effort or developing a business idea.
  • Critical Evaluation: For each option, discuss the benefits and how it aligns with the goals set. Consider factors such as the skills they’ll gain, the experiences they’ll have, and the opportunities for personal growth.
  • Analysis: Weigh the pros and cons of each option. Take into account factors like cost, duration, location, and how each choice fits into the overall plan for the gap year.
  • Seek Guidance: Reach out to educators, career counsellors, or other families who have gone through similar experiences. Their insights can help your teen to make informed decisions.
  • Finalise Selections: Based on this research, help your teen select the gap year activities that best suit their goals and interests.

Step 3: Developing a Practical Plan

With activities selected, the next step is to draw up a detailed and practical plan for the gap year.

  • Create a Timeline: For a structured approach, plot out a timeline for the year, including the start and end dates for each activity. 
  • Budgeting: Work together to create a comprehensive budget. This should include all costs related to the gap year activities, such as programme fees, travel expenses, accommodation, and living costs.
  • Backup Plans: Discuss alternative options in case the original plans fall through.
  • Preparation for Travel: If travel is involved, ensure all necessary preparations are made well in advance. This includes visa applications, travel insurance, vaccinations, and understanding the cultural norms of the destinations.
  • Regular Communication: Agree on how you will stay in contact and how often you will check in with each other. Even if your teen plans to focus on local activities, regular communication helps to ensure their well-being throughout the gap year.

Throughout the process, encourage your teen to document their thoughts and experiences. This could be through a blog, a physical journal, or social media. It’s a great way for them to reflect on their experiences and for you to stay updated on their journey. The documentation will also be useful for university applications and future job interviews.

Is a Gap Year Right for Your Teen?

Will the gap year benefit every teenager? Not necessarily. The value and impact of a gap year will depend on your teen’s personality, goals, and actions.

Teens with a clear vision for their gap year, whether it’s to acquire a new skill, engage in volunteering, or explore career interests, are more likely to commit to experiences that will lead to personal growth.

However, teens who are adaptable to changing plans can also thrive during a gap year. This adaptability allows them to learn from a variety of situations and environments, enriching their perspectives and life skills.

Despite the potential gains, a gap year may not suit every teen. In particular, those who excel in structured, routine educational settings may find the less formal nature of a gap year challenging. Without the regularity and predictability of an academic schedule, they might feel lost or unproductive.

Furthermore, a gap year demands a high level of self-discipline and motivation. Without school deadlines, staying focused and achieving set goals can be challenging for teens who struggle with self-management.

If your teen has already shortlisted their ‘dream’ universities, it’s crucial to research each institution’s policy on deferring matriculation. Check how receptive these universities are to gap years, and verify the maximum duration allowed for deferment. This step ensures that your teen’s gap year plans align with the universities’ acceptance and enrollment guidelines.

For both teens and parents, saying “yes” to a gap year is a big decision. As you guide your teen through this process, keep in mind that this period can profoundly shape their life ahead. It’s a chance to step away from boundaries, explore untapped potential, and cultivate a broader worldview, ultimately paving the way for a future rich in both purpose and possibilities.

Want to chat with other parents about tertiary education? Join the conversation on the KiasuParents forum!