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The biggest mistakes families make when planning a gap year

The idea of a gap year has gained prominence in both American culture and in the media. Malia Obama made news when she took a gap year in 2016 and it seems that the whole idea gained new attention. In fact, this season on Blackish, Junior decided to take a gap year. It made for some pretty funny episodes with him wandering around the house and trying to decide how to spend/waste his time. His mistake (and the one I've seen quite a few families make) was a lack of structure.

Mistake 1: Lack of structure.

“Figuring it out as you go” is not a good plan. When August rolls around friends will head to college and begin posting pictures of their cute dorm room and freshman welcome parties. Students who are still home “figuring out” their gap year can feel like they are missing out and begin doubting their decision.

Avoid this problem by creating a clear plan during a student’s senior year that begins at the same time as their peers leave for college. If the gap year includes travel, which I highly recommend, this is a great time for their travel to begin. Even if a student plans to work part of the gap year, perhaps travelling first is still a good idea. While friends are sharing their new and exciting experiences on social media, gap year students will have their own unique experiences to share as well. Whether designing your own gap year or participating in a program, having a structure in place sets students up for the best experience.

Mistake 2: Not knowing your "why"

A gap year may sound fun to a teen. A break from school? Sign me up! But students need to be looking for more than a year long study break. A worthwhile gap year isn't a year "off" but a year of focused learning, outside the traditional classroom.

In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn in ways that a busy high school schedule probably didn’t allow. Whether it be acquiring a new skill, reading more from a favorite author, taking a painting class, learning to cook, completing a financial literacy course, or a language immersion program, a gap year provides the margin students need to focus on something other than strictly academic pursuits.

For families and students interested in spiritual development, the opportunity to develop a Christian worldview before heading off to a secular university is compelling. Possessing a Christian worldview will help students base their future decisions on a solid foundation rather than the shifting sands of our culture. If a student can answer the questions of “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” they are more likely to have clarity as they step into the future.

Mistake 3: Low risk and No responsibility

Sending your teen on a swanky trip around the world, paid for by YOU will not yield the positive results you are hoping for. In fact, it could result in a teen who is more entitled and less mature than when they started. Travel alone will not mature your teen. They need to take some risks and take some responsibility.


The thought of sending your teenager off to a less developed foreign country can be scary. We may be tempted to find an experience completely free of risk. But, protecting our kids from negative or difficult experiences handicaps them from assuming adult responsibilities. We end up protecting them from the making real decisions and gaining the confidence that comes from failure and success. Taking a gap year to a country that you wouldn't visit for vacation can open their eyes to the needs of the world and let them experience some of the difficulties that are more common in less developed areas.


In addition, when we foot the bill for everything, our teens don't appreciate it nearly the way they do when they have some skin in the game. Becoming a contributor and not just a consumer is a crucial part of growing up. Maybe the program your teen is considering is way out of his/her price range. But, could they be responsible for fundraising for the gap year? Could he/she work and save money to help pay for the program? The effects of a gap year will be multiplied when your student has invested in it themselves.

So how DO you plan for an effective gap year? My new book The Gap Year Guide is full of information about the essentials of a great program, an overview of some of the best Christian gap year programs in the US and stories from students who have participated in each of them. It is available now on

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