Not all college-bound students begin their journey into higher education a few months after high school graduation. Some may be eager for a new, non-classroom experience, or want to explore the working world before settling in for years of study. Others may not have planned to take time off, but were admitted to their top-choice college not for the upcoming fall, but for the following spring; and want to spend their break, or gap semester, productively.
One distinctive possibility for any student interested in a productive gap experience is American University’s School of Professional and Extended Studies Gap Program in Washington, D.C., also known as AU Gap. Leveraging the resources and relationships of its unique location, AU Gap Program offers high school graduates an internship experience in the capital city for one or two semesters, as desired, with up to seven credits per semester.
“One semester can be a great option for students spending part of the year overseas,” says Terrell Austin, AU’s GAP Program Advisor. “It can also be ideal for students admitted to college for spring term.”
Alternatively, students who want to spend the full academic year with AU’s Program can either intern at two distinct sites, or continue with their first semester site. “Most students who choose to stay a second semester — about 20 percent of participants — choose a different internship experience,” says Austin, “just to try another field and gain some different experience and insight.”
AU’s deep and growing database of more than 3000 potential internship sites, actively managed by Amy Morrill Bijeau, Director of Experiential Education, offers job experiences in a student’s career field interest — including business, communications, international affairs, journalism, justice, politics, psychology, and the arts and sciences.
It is important to note that students are not placed into an internship; instead, just like in the real world, they must secure their position themselves, with guidance and support from the AU Gap team, who work closely with the student to get them prepared. “We focus,” says Austin, “on giving students professional development right from the start.”
The process requires some introspection and self-knowledge. “Students first need to articulate who they are and what type of job experience they are looking for,” says Austin. They also get help with their resumes and cover letters, as well as interview preparation and assistance with navigating the internship database.
Once students have selected 10-15 potential sites from the database, they begin the job-hunting process — sending out their resumes, making contacts, scheduling interviews. “In almost all cases,” says Austin, “students find their internship position within two weeks.”
Students work at their job site three days a week, mentored by their site coordinator, and earn up to four college credits. In a few cases, they may also be paid. “It happens occasionally,” says Austin, “as an unexpected bonus.”
Gap Program students also participate in an interactive weekly seminar led by an AU professor, with graded assignments and class presentations; prominent guest speakers; and field visits that could only be possible in D.C. — to embassies, congressional hearings, the Supreme Court, government agencies, non-profit organizations, conferences on a topic they have been studying, and more.
Besides enhancing the internship experience by helping students build communication skills, develop their network, and gain insight on world issues, the three-credit seminar keeps study skills fresh. It is also an exclusive offering that participants share only with their fellow interns (approximately 10-20 students).
“We think it’s important to foster a cohort experience for the AU Gap Program students,” says Austin, “where they are getting encouragement from each other and can also talk out any challenges they may be facing.”
To further facilitate the cohort relationship, AU Gap students live in the same residential hall (among full-time AU students), making it easier to build social relationships. As with all AU students, they have a meal plan, metro pass, and access to all campus facilities. Expenses are estimated at $18,000 per semester.
Who is a good candidate for AU Gap? “High-achievers looking for a real-world work experience before college,” says Austin. Students also need to be enthusiastic about the program, because although there is a lot of support, it requires a lot of initiative, too.
The application is rolling, so students may apply any time during their senior year of high school. A 3.0 GPA is required (exceptions may be made in unusual circumstances), as well as two letters of recommendation, two essays, and a phone interview Austin conducts with both the student and parents.
One further point for any student considering a gap experience with college credit: if you will be applying to college later, you may be regarded as a transfer student at some colleges (rather than as an incoming freshman), depending upon the number of credits you have earned, so it would be wise to inquire about this ahead of time at the specific institutions you are targeting. If you have already been admitted and either plan to ask for a deferral or are starting in the spring, make sure to receive permission for your specific gap program to avoid jeopardizing the original admission decision.