Malia Obama’s decision to take a gap year has introduced the concept into many homes across the country. Hopefully, it has helped many people to take a look at something we have known here at Impact 360 Institute for a long time: gap year experiences can be a great choice for many students.

It’s not just us, many universities (including all Ivy League schools) encourage incoming students to take a gap year because they have seen the benefit. Some universities, like Florida State, even offer scholarship money for students who take one. So, what’s the big deal? Aren’t gap year experiences just ways for students to put off life for a year? Isn’t there a risk that once they get a taste of life without school that they will never go back? These are pretty common notions that we’ve found to be untrue. While most certainly one could look and find a gap year program that offers nothing of substantiate value and actually harms a student’s desire to learn the hard evidence is strongly against it. There have been many great articles about this in past weeks and author/professor Jeff Selingo writes a great one here.

The arguments that gap years are a positive choice for many students is compelling.

I’ve had the privilege of working with students for over 25 years now and I can tell you I’ve seen no other experience that so profoundly affects a student’s life and positions them for success both in college and after than the right gap year choice. Impact 360 Fellows, as well as several of our friends in other organizations, offers really compelling choices in how a student can spend a gap year.

Here are four things I recommend one consider if you are having the gap year conversation in your household:

  • Look for a gap year experience that teaches a philosophy of servant leadership. There are many experiences, both faith-based and secular, that offer ways for a student to learn about leadership. Much of this, however, can be reduced to simply providing opportunities and letting that experience be the instructor. A great gap year experience will not just provide experiences but also train one to develop their own philosophy of leadership. This is key in helping someone move from simply leading by authority to leading through influence and purpose. Make sure your gap year choice actually teaches leadership philosophy, preferable a servant leadership model, in order to get the most long-term benefit out of the experience.
  • Look for one that offers hands-on experiences. Now that you have examined the “why” of what a gap year teaches about leadership take a look at what hands on experiences they offer. Is it work of potential lasting value or is it a “one off” set of experiences? Is it investing in people and communities or is it just free labor? Make sure the organization providing the experience is thinking through these things and not just seeking keep students busy for the sake of being busy.
  • Look for one that can help create networks. A strong gap year choice will help create networks that can last for a lifetime. These can be connections in the community, ones with like-minded peers, ones that can lead toward academic and scholarship opportunities, or ones that can lead toward internships or possible employment someday. A strong gap year experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it helps facilitate connections for its participants.
  • Look for a path that ultimately can lower your debt. This may seem counter-intuitive as most gap years have a cost associated with them. A gap year experience, however, can be a solid financial investment. Many gap year programs can connect their participants to scholarship dollars for their upcoming college experience. On top of that, a strong gap year choice will help a student determine what they want to do as a career, thus cutting down on changes in majors in college and finishing sooner. As a matter of fact, Impact 360 Fellows, on average, finish college BEFORE their friends who went straight on to college (by an average of two years). When you are saddled with less debt you have the chance for greater influence. Given the annual costs of tuition that adds up to tens of thousands of dollars in savings and potential debt load. That makes the front-end investment of a gap year program a pretty sweet deal.

Choosing a gap year option can be a great choice for many students. As I have shared there are many good choices from which students may choose as a match for what they are looking for. If you are looking for a gap year experience that will help you to learn more about where your strengths are, how to engage those strengths for service and leadership, and how to critically examine life’s questions with a strong biblical worldview then I hope you will check out Impact 360 Fellows.

It’s a choice I don’t believe you will regret.

Go Deeper: