Your homeschool high school student will be a senior this coming year, and he's been perusing college guides for the past six months trying to figure out where he wants to apply. There are only two problems: first, you think he still needs to grow up quite a bit before he heads off to an independent life apart from his family, and second, the kid has no idea what he wants to study or where he wants to go.

Perhaps your rising senior is making noises about wanting to take a year off from academics before committing herself to the intensive four-year college experience. She wants to spend her days sketching, painting watercolors, doing fancy needlework, and baking. Another time for such creativity and sheer freedom probably will never appear.

Maybe your senior needs to earn some significant money before he will be able to go off to college. He simply must take a year between high school and college to work full-time and save money for a car, insurance, and/or all the other expenses (like travel, books, shoes, and toothpaste) that come with life as a college student. In addition, Mom and Dad could use some help with tuition and room and board costs.

It could be that your family has had unexpected health problems, and your teen would be a real asset at home next year, helping with the younger kids--or possibly with a grandparent who is suddenly in need of constant care. Perhaps the opportunity to travel to another country and work with a mission organization beckons. Maybe your graduating senior wants to apprentice in a practical trade skill, like carpentry, for a year.

The reasons to consider taking what is commonly referred to as a "gap year" between high school and college are many and compelling. Interestingly, though colleges look approvingly on students who take a gap year, most parents and students have never heard of such a thing. The gap year is a tool that is highly underused and something that all parents and high school seniors should seriously investigate.

WHAT COLLEGES REALLY THINK

Across the country, colleges are inundated every winter with applications from high school seniors who are obviously not ready for college. Each year, college officials watch while many of the freshmen at their schools flounder with juggling schedules and responsibilities they are not yet able to handle. Then there are those students who foolishly abandon all semblance of studying in favor of wasting their first year or two at school. About the beginning of their junior year, students often wake up to their need to settle down and grow up, but by that point, the reality of what looms ahead of them can be daunting. Of course, there is no going back and reclaiming those lost months and years.

My oldest son took a gap year this past year, and every college where he applied loudly applauded his decision to take such a break from academic studies. During our tour of Northwestern University near Chicago, admissions officers commented that they wished many more students would follow such a route after high school. "We've found that students who take gap years tend to be more mature and self-confident than the general freshmen applicants. Gap-year students seem to know exactly what they want out of college, and they really hit the ground running when it comes to their studies," one official told us.

I recently conducted informal phone interviews, and when asked, schools as varied as Stanford, Wheaton, Cedarville Bible College, MIT, Illinois Institute of Technology, BJU, Claremont McKenna, and UC Davis were strongly positive in their view of gap years. Over fifty colleges, widely varying in size, cost, selectivity, worldview, and focus, reported that they believe a gap year between high school and college would be an excellent choice for many high school seniors. These colleges agreed that a well-spent gap year is a big advantage for the freshman applicant.

These comments come as no surprise to my family. As my son plans to double-major in Physics and International Relations, he applied to schools that offer solid programs in both of these fields, yet differ greatly in other aspects. One of these schools was a Christian college, strong in science and history, but generally open to all who apply. Another was a top engineering school, and another has a highly respected school of international studies as well as a great music conservatory.

The selectivity at the schools where my son applied ranged from 98% to 36% down to only 16% accepted. These figures mean that at some of these colleges, very few kids who apply are actually invited to attend. Homeschool parents should be reassured and encouraged that these schools not only accepted my homeschooled, gap-year son with open arms; they offered him their highest academic scholarships as well.

ACADEMIC AND ROTC SCHOLARSHIPS

So, what kind of scholarships and grants can a gap-year student earn? Are all of the large freshman scholarships the colleges offer open to a student that has taken a year off of school? What about the various ROTC scholarships? Can gap-year students be awarded those as well? Yes, gap-year students are considered to be incoming freshman; therefore, all scholarships available to the traditional first-year applicant are available to gap-year students, too.

Obviously, this fact doesn't guarantee your student will earn the top scholarships available. He or she will have to meet the various requirements set up for these scholarships: test scores, GPA, outside recommendations, essays, etc., depending on the particular scholarship. However, the gap year has no negative effect on the chances for these scholarships.

Actually, students who choose to take a gap year have a distinct advantage over traditional applicants in the areas of both acceptance and scholarships. That advantage is time. While most high school students are applying to their prospective colleges in the late fall and early winter of their senior year, gap-year students will not fill out their college applications until the winter after they graduate from high school. They have another full year to develop their essay writing skills--another twelve months to consider deeply what they want to do with their lives. This added maturity shows up clearly in the college application.

The added time also benefits the gap-year student when it comes to tests. While most high school students must finish taking their ACT, SAT I, and SAT II tests by November or December of their senior year, gap-year students have until the month they graduate to take these tests. That additional six months can prove to be a big plus for some students. Not only do the added months give more time to prepare for the tests or to retake tests for higher scores, but they also allow gap-year students to space out their tests in a more relaxed manner. For instance, most students perform better on the SAT II Subject tests if they can arrange to take only one or two at a time rather than three in one morning.

For those students taking AP (Advanced Placement) exams for dual high school and college credit, the additional time is extremely helpful. AP exams are given across the country only once a year, in May. Therefore, colleges only see the scores from AP exams taken up to May of the junior year. As most schools make their admission decisions by April 1st of the senior year, any AP exams taken in May of the senior year do not count at all towards acceptance and scholarship offers. On the other hand, the gap-year student can take several more AP exams in the last year of high school knowing that those scores will be seen and considered when his or her application is reviewed the following year.

As mentioned, military ROTC scholarships (Reserve Officer Training Corps) are also available to gap-year students. ROTC scholarships are challenging to earn, and they obligate the student to serve as an officer in that particular branch of the military for four years after college graduation. However, these scholarships cover up to full tuition at colleges across the country.

My son applied for and received a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship in addition to the academic scholarships he was offered by various schools. The added time afforded by the gap year allowed my son the opportunity to continue with his local Civil Air Patrol training and leadership, and during that year he earned the Billy Mitchell Milestone Award from the USAF. In addition, after being notified that he had won an AFROTC scholarship, my son was surprised to receive several admission and full scholarship offers from colleges where he had not applied, as well as a complete full-ride scholarship offer from the Army ROTC.

WHAT TO DO DURING A GAP YEAR

While colleges of all kinds think gap years are a great idea for most students, they do caution against them for certain young people. As one college admission official told me, "Some students would just waste such a year. They'd sleep in every day, go to the movies, hang out with their friends, and basically do nothing productive at all. That's not what we want to see."

Some people hear about gap years and confuse them with other post-high school options. For instance, going to a local junior college during the year after high school, whether for one class or many, is not a gap year. A student attending any classes at all during the year between high school and college is labeled a college student. He or she will not be considered on the same level as "regular" incoming freshmen by the four-year colleges when it comes to important things like scholarships.

A gap year signifies a gap in formal education, but informally, the learning can go on in a wonderful way. As homeschoolers, we are all familiar with informal learning, and a gap year is the perfect time for your young adult to adopt such an approach to education with a passion.

It doesn't really matter exactly what your student does during the gap year, as long as it is something which he or she wants to do--something which relates in some way to a bigger goal, a broader vision, a future dream. When it comes time, during the middle of the gap year, to fill out those college applications, students will need to write about what they are doing during the gap year and why it is meaningful to them and how they see the gap year as being helpful to them.

My son spent his gap year doing several things. He worked two part-time jobs to save money. He outlined a series of books he wants to write and wrote the majority of the first one. He continued to lead in his CAP squadron and to participate in his local drama group. He played games and had long discussions with his younger brothers and sisters. Most importantly, he spent a lot of time thinking and praying about what he wants to do with his future.

BE CONFIDENT!

Often seniors feel that their last year before going to college is rushed, hectic, and jam-packed from one end to the other with pressures of all kinds. A gap year can give young adults the space and freedom to think through and solidify their life plans and goals, while at the same time allowing them time to enjoy one last year with their family.

Homeschool high schoolers have nothing to fear when it comes to college admissions. Most colleges are clear in their support of both homeschooled and gap-year students. So relax--and feel confident as you and your teens decide what is right for them.

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Kim Lundberg is the busy mom of 9 great kids. She and her family have been homeschooling for 16 years, and they make their home in beautiful northern California. Kim enjoys teaching drama, writing, and world history classes, as well as reading mysteries, baking goodies, camping, and listening to her kids talk, sing, and make music.

This article was originally published in the July/Aug '07 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more details, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com