The pros and cons of taking a year to travel

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Many countries have a “gap year” tradition, whether it involves backpacking across a foreign country or getting a job and saving money. Mostly the idea is to gain practical experience of living and working in the world, and hopefully to meet people, and, of course, have fun. But is it a good idea? What are the risks involved? The answers depend on what you’re hoping to get out of it.

First off, while it might seem as though a gap year might help a subsequent college application, such is usually not the case. Colleges get mountains of applications and they simply can’t sit and sift through your life-affirming experiences -- they focus primarily on grades and test scores. So if you’re hoping to improve your desirability as a college applicant, you might want to think of something else (preferably something that directly affects your application).

That being said, it could help your college application if you could show you got a job and saved money for school. This would indicate that you’re industrious and take your education seriously, and a job related to your major would also demonstrate passion for that field (and you might make some contacts that could serve as references). And even if you’re not trying to impress anyone at an applications department, it can feel mighty good to have a little nest egg when you’re young.

One big reason to consider a gap year is to just plain take a break from school. By the time high school ends you might well be exhausted and dreading the prospect of jumping right into the next stage of your academic career. In that case, putting some time as a traveller or a volunteer might leave you recharged and rarin’ to go. At the same time, you might prefer to put it off till later -- chances are you might need a break before starting your senior year of college, and there are options your school can help you with, such as completing a semester abroad.

Don’t forget that taking a year off will very likely put you a year behind your friends. This might not be too big a problem, as your friends will (hopefully) always be your friends, while a gap year can end up with you making new friends. But it is something to keep in mind. And be careful financially -- the last thing you want is to get into debt before you even start college.

In the end, it really comes down to what you want, because a gap year will mostly benefit your inner life. Whether working or wandering, you can expect to meet new people, have new experiences and build some new ways of looking at the world. There will always be pressure to focus on school, and there are always financial issues to consider. So weigh the decision, and go with what works best for you.

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