Gap Year Benefits from a Parent's Perspective


Sep 26, 2023

When your child expresses interest in taking a gap year instead of attending college right after their high school graduation, it's natural to feel a mix of emotions.

As a parent, you may wonder if this is the best choice for their future and how to be supportive while prioritizing their education and career goals. You may be wondering how much you should help with the planning process and how much you should trust your child’s instincts in this process.

It's important to gain a deeper understanding of the various factors that influence a gap year decision and how it can be a valuable experience.

Key Takeaways

  • Taking a gap year before starting college can lead to personal growth, experiences that enhance college applications, soft skills that lead to stronger academic performance, and like-minded lifelong friends
  • Helping your child ease into young adulthood means learning to understand their motivations for considering a gap year and helping them navigate the process
  • Foster open communication and offer guidance without imposing your own beliefs or expectations, ensuring a supportive environment for their decision-making process and a productive gap year

Lucy_Eichenauer_BajaSB-8Photo by Lucy Eichenauer

Why Take a Gap Year Before College?

When considering the path from high school to college, a gap year can offer a transformative bridge. More than many other gap year organizations, NOLS offers gap year programs that are thoughtfully designed to serve as a catalyst for personal growth in young adults.

By participating in these programs, gap year students can develop leadership skills, gain self-awareness, learn about the world from diverse perspectives, and become environmentally conscious through experiential education. 

Understanding the benefits of taking a gap year, especially with an experiential education-based program like NOLS, can help you connect with your child and understand their motivations for taking time off before college. The right gap year program can help your child achieve lasting success in college and on their future career path.

ella-bruijn-rm-backpacking-bridge-riverPhoto by Ella Bruijn

Understanding the Gap Year Benefits Your Child Already Sees

A gap year before college can be a life-altering choice for your child, and it’s important to consider what’s influenced them to consider this step as well as the many benefits that can result from it.

Their decision to take a gap year can be inspired by various factors, such as their want to bulk up their college admissions materials, their need for personal growth, and their desire to explore the world around them and have unparalleled experiences before embarking on their college journey.

Here are some common factors that lead gap year students to their informed decision:

Strengthening College Admissions Materials
One common motivation for taking a gap year is the desire to enhance college admissions materials. Many college admissions teams view gap years positively, as they provide students with the opportunity to gain real-world experiences and develop transferable skills. In fact, research from the Gap Year Association indicates that those who take a gap year may even perform better academically once they enter college.

During this time, your child can explore and reflect on their interests and passions, allowing them to make more informed decisions about their academic and career paths. Our gap year programs also feature the opportunity to earn academic and college credit, and the experiences your child will have may help them gain clarity on their college major.

Personal Growth and Leadership Development
Another compelling reason for embarking on a gap year with NOLS is personal growth and leadership development. During this experience, your child will step out of their comfort zone, learn to manage risks and navigate stressful situations, and assume responsibilities in new and unfamiliar situations through immersive experiential learning.

This journey can have a profound impact on their confidence and self-awareness, equipping them with the unique skills, self-confidence, and growth mindset needed to become effective leaders and contributors in their future endeavors.

Broadening Cultural Perspectives
A gap year can also significantly contribute to your child's maturity. Through domestic or international travel and engagement with different cultures, they will gain a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Through interactions with other cultures and communities during their NOLS cultural immersion gap year, your child will gain a broader perspective on the world. They'll develop cultural sensitivity, empathy, and an understanding of global issues, all of which can enrich their educational journey. This newfound perspective will enable them to navigate various social situations with greater empathy and respect.

Environmental Consciousness
NOLS places a strong emphasis on environmental stewardship and sustainability. Your child will gain a deep appreciation for nature and learn how to protect and preserve our planet. This environmentally conscious mindset can be applied to their future studies and career choices.

Focusing on Mental and Emotional Wellbeing
Many students experience stress, anxiety, and depression as they transition from high school to college or the workforce. A gap year can provide a much-needed opportunity to regroup and recharge. It is important to consider how your child's mental well-being may influence their choice and how participating in a gap year program can help them build self-awareness and social-emotional skills.

Lifelong Friendships
Our gap year programs bring together like-minded individuals with unique and insightful world-views. Your child will forge deep connections and lasting friendships with fellow participants during their NOLS gap year. These bonds can provide a support system that extends far beyond the gap year experience.

Embracing the Gap Year Experience for Your Child

As you support your child's decision to take a gap year, remember that this period can be an essential stepping stone in their personal and educational development.

Encourage them to make the most of this experience by fully engaging in their chosen activities and exploring new opportunities for growth.

A gap year represents a unique chance for your child to embark on a transformative journey that can shape their future in remarkable ways.

Baja Sea Kayaking 2 Lynn PetzoldPhoto by Lynn Petzold

Parental Perspective on NOLS Gap Years

While NOLS encourages students to take the lead in shaping their gap year decisions, we also extend a warm welcome to parents to join in the conversation. In this spirit, we caught up with a group of parents of students who took a NOLS gap year to gain insights into the gap year experience from a parent's perspective, and they offered valuable advice on the power of a gap year as a transformative learning tool and how to create a meaningful gap year.

Here are the top 5 key takeaways from NOLS parents:

1. Listen to Your Child's Aspirations

The most important piece of advice offered is to listen to your child's desires and goals for their gap year. It's crucial to support what they want to accomplish during this time and ensure that their experience is personally meaningful.

2. Trust Your Child's Choices

Trust your child to make their own decisions regarding their gap year. Planning for and taking a gap year can be a significant opportunity for young adults to develop maturity, sense of self, and problem-solving abilities. When parents get too hands-on in this process, they risk taking away from their child’s growing autonomy. Allow them to explore options and choose what is meaningful to them, which will demonstrate your confidence in their ability to make responsible choices.

3. Preparation and Resources

The parents also found it important to help their child prepare for a gap year by researching and finding resources in collaboration with them. They highlight the value of connecting with programs and consultants to ensure the year is not solely a resume booster but more importantly a transformative experience.

4. Positive Impact on College Preparation

Many parents shared that the NOLS gap year experience had a positive impact on their child's college preparedness. One parent said that her child’s college professors noticed her maturity and seriousness and attributed it to her gap year. The gap year provided her with leadership skills, group dynamics experience, and self-assurance. Read more about Molly’s story here. 

5. Benefits of a Gap Year

The parents emphasized that a gap year can be beneficial for almost every student. It allows them to take a break, grow, and enter college with more focus and commitment. Many parents saw a significant increase in personal development, leadership ability, confidence, and maturity in their child after their NOLS gap year.

cass-colman-tea-house-india-1Photo by Cass Colman

Navigating the Gap Year Decision Together

When it comes to your child's decision to embark on a gap year, fostering a strong, supportive parent-child relationship is paramount. This section explores how to actively engage in your child's journey by promoting open communication, building trust, and effectively managing conflicts during the gap year decision-making process.

Fostering Open Communication

The cornerstone of a supportive relationship during the gap year choice is open communication. Engaging in constructive discussions and truly listening to your child's motivations will provide invaluable insights.

Here's how to create an environment conducive to open dialogue:

  • Create a Safe Space: Establish a safe and non-judgmental environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas and feelings. Let your child know that their thoughts and concerns are valued.
  • Mutual Sharing: Share your thoughts and feelings with your child, and encourage them to reciprocate. Honest conversations build trust and understanding.
  • Respect Independence: Recognize when it's time to step back and give your child space to explore their thoughts independently. Trust in their decision-making process.

Building Trust

Trust is the bedrock of a supportive parent-child relationship. During the gap year decision-making process, demonstrate your trust in your child's abilities and intentions by:

  • Respecting Autonomy: Respect your child's autonomy in making their choice. Offer guidance and constructive feedback when needed, but avoid attempting to control the outcome.
  • Honesty and Reliability: Be open, honest, and reliable in your interactions with your child. Consistency and integrity convey that you're a dependable source of support.

Handling Conflicts Effectively

Conflicts may arise during the gap year decision process, but addressing them constructively is key to maintaining a supportive relationship.

Follow these steps to navigate conflicts with empathy and resolution in mind:

  • Problem-Solving Approach: Approach conflicts with a problem-solving mindset, striving to find solutions that benefit both you and your child.
  • Active Listening: Actively listen to your child's perspective before expressing your own. Understanding their viewpoint can pave the way for more productive discussions.
  • Respectful Disagreement: Respect your child's feelings and opinions, even when you disagree. This fosters an atmosphere of mutual respect.

By fostering open communication, building trust, and effectively handling conflicts, you can nurture a supportive relationship with your child throughout their gap year decision-making process. This approach will empower both of you to navigate this important decision with confidence, understanding, and compassion.

Patagonia-Cultural-ExpeditionPhoto by NOLS

Frequently Asked Questions on the Benefits of Gap Year Programs

What are the benefits of a gap year for your child?

A NOLS gap year can offer several benefits for your child, including personal growth, leadership development, and the opportunity to gain life experiences outside the traditional classroom setting. Your child can develop critical risk management skills and a deeper understanding of environmental stewardship through exposure to once-in-a-lifetime remote locations. Gap years can help students gain a new outlook on life by providing unique experiences they might not encounter in a typical educational setting.

How can a gap year influence your child's future education?

Taking a gap year can positively impact your child's future education by increasing their motivation, focus, and maturity level when they return to academics. Students who take a gap year often demonstrate a better understanding of their goals and a stronger sense of responsibility toward their education. Gap years also provide students with valuable experiences and skills that can be applied to their future studies, enhancing their overall educational experience.

What are the key factors to consider when choosing a gap year program?

When choosing a gap year program for your child, consider factors such as program goals, location, duration, and structure. Make sure the program aligns with your child's interests and objectives. Look for programs that highlight personal growth, leadership development, and environmental stewardship. Ensure that the program offers opportunities for gaining risk management skills and emphasizes exposure to unique, remote locations.

How can you support your child during their gap year?

Support your child during their gap year by maintaining open communication, actively listening to their experiences, and offering guidance as needed. Encourage them to embrace new challenges, develop new skills, and learn from their experiences. Support their goals and help them stay on track to make the most of their gap year. It is important to be understanding of your child's needs while also respecting their independence.

How can your child make the most of their gap year experience?

Encourage your child to fully engage in their chosen gap year program by setting specific goals, maintaining a positive attitude, and embracing learning opportunities. You may want to help them develop a realistic plan that outlines their objectives and the steps needed to achieve them, but make sure that you are allowing them to put in the effort to allow them personal growth and maturity. Remind your child to take advantage of every opportunity for growth and to learn from their experiences.


Written By


NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.

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What I Learned from My Child’s Gap Year [Interview]

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Seeking leadership opportunities is key to a meaningful gap year. Photo by Ellen Humphreys.

"Just listen to your child."

A little while back we shared Molly Hunt’s story of her gap year, which included a NOLS Semester in New Zealand. We caught up with her mother to hear about what the gap year experience is like from a parent’s perspective, and she offered some great advice on why a gap year is a powerful learning tool and how to build a meaningful gap year.

Read More