Should You Consider a GAP Year?

You’ve probably heard about students taking a year off before starting college or even in the middle of their college journey. If you’re curious about a gap year, what it means, its benefits, and how to do it, we’ve got you covered! 

Pros of a Gap Year

A gap year is a period (often a year or two) after high school dedicated to experiential learning. High school is tough, and the academic and social pressures can cause severe burnout. That’s why many high school graduates take a gap year to travel, find paid work, intern, and make connections outside the classroom. A gap year can reset your practical, professional, and personal awareness, helping you gain confidence, become independent, and clarify your college and career goals.

Cons of a Gap Year

Taking a gap year isn’t for everyone. Think about the last time you took a vacation. When you returned from your trip, was your motivation to do homework or clean your room low? Some students fear losing momentum or falling behind. They struggle with the transition back to school. If you choose to move forward with a gap year, go into it with a clear plan and specific goals. If you don’t focus on your goals, you may miss out on the positive advantages of a gap year.

Should You Take a Gap Year?

Don’t take this decision lightly. You are the only person who truly knows the answer to this question. Consider the pros and cons and weigh all your options. A gap year has the potential to be the most amazing adventure of your life. Taking some time off can benefit your mental health and help you discover yourself, your interests, and your passions.

But, as always, go with your gut and remember that no matter which direction you take, Encourage is here to cheer you on and prepare you for your next steps! 

Taking some time off can benefit your mental health and help you discover yourself, your interests, and your passions.

7 Tips for Choosing a Major During High School

Choosing a major while you’re still in high school can feel like a huge decision, especially if you aren’t sure what you want to study or what career you want to explore. While you don’t need everything figured out, choosing 2-3 majors you like will help you pick colleges that fit your academic interests. Here are some tips to help you choose a major:

Think about your interests and strengths.

Think about what you like doing in your free time and what subjects you enjoy. Look for majors that use those strengths.

Read about different majors.

Check out My Majors in Encourage to learn about majors and the colleges that offer them. See which classes you could take within each major and which majors match specific careers. Use this information to build a list of majors perfect for you. 

Consider your career goals.

What careers interests you? Use My Careers in Encourage to explore thousands of careers based on your interests. Learn about the training paths and education requirements for each career.

Talk to people who work in jobs that interest you.

Reach out to people who work in careers that interest you. Ask them about their experience and the education you need for that specific field.

Take a variety of classes.

Take classes in different subjects to learn what you enjoy and where you do your best work. You may discover some new classes you love!

Get to know your high school counselor.

Your high school counselor can help you understand your college and career options. They can provide guidance and information about majors, careers, colleges, and academic requirements.

Visit college campuses.

Visit your favorite college campuses during school breaks. Take informational tours, talk to current students about their experiences, and ask academic advisors about the school’s majors and programs.

Choosing a major is exciting and personal to you! Choose a major that matches your interests, career goals, and values. You’ve got this! Encourage is here to help. 

What’s Next After High School?

The value of a college degree is a hotly debated topic. Whether you’re swiping through TikTok or talking to your school counselor, everyone has an opinion. 

While some research shows that adults with degrees are more likely to earn more and achieve high levels of career satisfaction, no path has a guaranteed outcome. It’s important to explore your options, learn what works best for you, and do what brings you the most joy. Below are some common paths students take after high school graduation.

Start Working

Some high school graduates want (or need) to start working right away. Full-time employment could include apprenticeships or simply working 35+ hours a week. 

Top Tip: If a job interests you and you don’t meet 100% of the qualifications, apply anyway! You never know who is in the applicant pool and doesn’t hurt to put yourself in the running. 

Work/Attend College 

Many employers have created programs to help keep solid employees. Employers like UPS, Starbucks, and Target offer tuition support for eligible employees at partner colleges. 

Top Tip: Make sure your schedule is balanced. It’s hard to work more than 20 hours a week and attend college full-time (4-5 classes). Pace yourself and take time for self-care. 

Go to College

If you graduate from college, you’ll have a wide variety of career options. Remember, not all colleges are created equal. From price tags and degrees offered to the social scene, each college has its own vibe. Whether you pursue a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree, pick a program and college that fits your academic, social, and financial expectations. 

Top Tip: Make a list of 3-5 top “must haves” for your college experience. Choose a college that fits your expectations. 

Military/Military + College

When you enlist in the military, you commit to four years of active duty and four years of inactive duty. Some military options combine military service with education, including the National Guard, military academies, and ROTC. If you’re interested in a military career and want to pursue life as an officer, you can earn your degree while enlisted. 

Military Top Tip: There are many jobs within the military, and many aren’t combat. You will take an aptitude test when you enlist in the military to determine your placement. To increase your placement options, take some practice tests and brush up on your English, math, and science skills.

Military + College Top Tip: Start early. ROTC programs and scholarship spots are limited. Choose a college that offers ROTC, and speak to a recruiter before your senior year about how to pursue the opportunity. 

Take a Gap Year

Some students take a gap year after high school to travel or volunteer. Gap years can be formal, planned overseas experiences, while others are less structured or self/student-directed experiences. The best way to structure a gap year is to have a goal in mind and a set end date. 

Top Tip: Apply to college first and then defer your admission for a year. You’ll have to file FAFSA again, but you’ll have the support of your high school team/counselor before you leave to pursue your year of experiential learning. 

What are the Different Types of Colleges?

Not all colleges are the same! If you’re wondering which college is best for you, here are the most common types of colleges and universities.

Private College/University

Private colleges/universities are four-year schools that don’t receive government funding and rely mainly on tuition, fees, and private funding sources. Private donations allow some private schools to provide generous financial aid packages, which helps offset tuition costs and makes the price comparable to public schools. If you like seeing familiar faces around campus, you may enjoy this type of college because they tend to be smaller and more intimate. 

Public Colleges/Universities

Public colleges/universities are four-year schools that receive funding from the government. This funding allows them to offer lower tuition and fees. Public schools classify students as either “in-state” or “out-of-state.” In-state residents pay lower tuition since their tax dollars are supporting that institution. Public colleges and universities tend to be larger in size and student body and offer many majors and on-campus clubs.

Junior/Community College

Junior/community colleges are two-year schools that offer courses parallel to the first two years of a four-year school. Admission is open access, so the school will admit you if you apply and meet all of the basic requirements. Although the school may be open access, some programs may implement selective admissions and enrollment limits. The price tag for these colleges is lower than private or public four-year institutions because they don’t offer everything you’d get at a four-year school. If you’d like to take basic courses at a lower cost and transfer to a four-year school later, or you want to pursue a career that only requires a two-year degree, you should consider this type of college.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges are typically small, four-year schools with an intimate campus setting and a diverse, well-rounded curriculum. As a student at a liberal arts college, you can expect to take courses in literature, history, languages, math, and science to complement the classes within your major.

Vocational or Technical School

Vocational and technical schools offer certification or training within a highly specialized field like welding, culinary arts, or dental hygiene. Most programs lead directly to a career in a short period of time.

If you already know what career you’d like to pursue, find out what education and training you need to land a job in that field. If you don’t know what you want to pursue, that’s ok too! Pick a school that offers a variety of programs and classes so you can explore all your career possibilities!

Top 10 College Towns

There are thousands of college towns across the country. The size, ambiance, and offerings vary from one town to the next, but there’s something for everyone within these communities. Here are our top college town picks!

1. Chapel Hill, North Carolina

University of North Carolina

You can get a bit of everything in Chapel Hill. This cozy college town, nestled within more than 700 acres of natural parks, has delicious restaurants, lively bars, quirky museums and galleries, and beautiful Georgian architecture.

Chapel Hill’s claim to fame is the University of North Carolina and its Tar Heels basketball team. The university is also a part of the Research Triangle, whose three points are Raleigh (NC State), Durham (Duke), and Chapel Hill (UNC). This foodie, sporty, and outdoorsy town offers plenty of opportunities in tech and healthcare.

2. Ann Arbor, Michigan

University of Michigan

College students make up a large percentage of the Ann Arbor population. The active nightlife, restaurants, and bars provide entertainment to students and other residents of Ann Arbor, but it is not the number one source of entertainment.

The Michigan Wolverines are Ann Arbor’s top entertainment. The competitive football team is the number one reason the Big House fills up every Saturday. Ann Arbor also offers countless career opportunities for post-graduates, including employment at Google AdWords, JSTOR, and Toyota.

3. Madison, Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin is an active, outdoorsy city and home to large companies like Microsoft and Google. The University of Wisconsin lies in the center, surrounded by lakes and rolling prairies. Madison radiates a unique charm and has many restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and bars. The entire community supports the school’s athletic teams, who regularly dominate many sports.

4. State College, Pennsylvania

Penn State-University Park

Penn State University is the centerpiece of the city of State College. This beautiful, medium-sized town has a thriving art and live music scene. The most prominent source of activity is the school’s college football program. Companies like Raytheon and AccuWeather offer employment opportunities for graduates. 

5. Iowa City, Iowa

University of Iowa

The University of Iowa has established itself as a community focused on giving back. The hospital system hosts numerous events concentrated on service. The university holds a dance marathon that raises millions of dollars annually for the children’s hospital. This town also has lots of school spirit, supporting the Hawkeyes in their top football and basketball programs. The university is known as a top party school, perfect for social butterflies. Iowa City is also associated with well-known writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Frost, and Flannery O’Connor. Every year the city hosts a book festival and a Literary Walk attracting visitors from all over the country.

6. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

University of Illinois

Champaign-Urbana is not your average urban city because it’s surrounded by farmland. This extra greenery provides a breathtaking landscape for the University of Illinois, one you wouldn’t expect in a metropolitan setting. Champaign-Urbana has an active music scene with several museums and festivals. The city also offers low living costs and little traffic. Large companies like Kraft Foods offer plenty of employment for students and graduates.

7. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Carnegie Mellon University
University of Pittsburgh

Steel City is home to two top universities: Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.These universities strengthen Pittsburgh’s status as a research city, as it is the federal headquarters for robotics, energy research, and cyber defense. Steel City has some of the most famous sports franchises in the country, including the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. You can also find many libraries, cultural districts, and bars. Pittsburgh’s wide range of offerings makes it an ideal metropolis to attend college.

8. Charlottesville, Virginia

University of Virginia

The elegant and historic town of Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia. Former presidents James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson also resided here. Known as one of the “Public Ivies,” it’s no surprise that UVA is the central focus in Charlottesville. The university’s prestige, coupled with its sports, unites the town. They also have one of the largest outdoor shopping malls in the country.

9. Ithaca, New York

Cornell University
Ithaca College

Ithaca is a small, picturesque town nestled amongst serene lakes and trees in tranquil upstate New York. Cornell University and Ithaca College both call Ithaca home. Academics and research are selling points, but the town offers much more! Ithaca’s community, music, restaurants, and beauty make it a phenomenal place to study.

10. College Station, Texas

Texas A&M University

Sitting on barrels of oil, College Station has more to offer than its abundance of natural resources. Located in the heartland of the Lone Star State, the town is home to Texas A&M University. The Aggies have a rich football history but also boast impressive academic programs.

Texas A&M prides itself on its commitment to explorative studies, giving grants to land, sea, and space research. The town continuously ranks high among all US cities as one of the most educated places in the country.

5 Tips to Help You Make Your Final College Decision 

Congratulations, you got into college! If you got letters of admission from more than one college, you’ll need to choose one. It’s hard to know whether to go with your head or your heart. Here are a few tips to help you sift through the information overload and choose a school that’s perfect for you.

Focus on fit.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by opinions, college rankings, and information from each school. But remember, you’ve got this! Just break down fit into a few key elements:

  • Financial fit (Does the tuition/cost feel manageable?)
  • Social fit (Does the school offer the campus culture you’re looking for?) 
  • Academic fit (Can you study what you hope to/want to study?) 

Double-check your list.

As you were touring colleges or applying, there may have been some programs, experiences, or “must haves” that stuck with you. List them out. Maybe you loved the city location, access to Greek life, athletic programs, study abroad opportunities, or the support for your identity through LGBTQI or Black student union centers. Make sure the college you choose has everything on your “must have” list. 

Pulse-check the code of conduct.

No one wants to be surprised by housing rules, curfews, dress codes, or limits to guests or transportation in their first week of college. Do a little digging on each college’s website to make sure their student code of conduct aligns with your expectations. 

Weigh your financial investment.

Consider all outside and school-based scholarships, grants, and loans. What will your financial investment be yearly and after you graduate? Compare your financial aid award letters using one of the net price calculators available online. You can even find tools to calculate your monthly repayment if loans are on the table. 

Create your own rankings.

If you’re still struggling, pick three to five elements of college that are the most important to you. Then, rank each offer on a 1-10 scale according to how well that college meets your needs. Sit with your numbers and highest-ranking college to see how it feels. 

Remember, deadlines are essential. Colleges will want to know whether or not you’ve accepted their offer (many by May 1). Once you decide, inform your top college by following the directions in their admission letter. It’s a good idea to decline your other offers. It will also help you declutter your inbox!

5 Reasons to Choose the Affordable College

If you’re experiencing pressure to choose a college, you’re not alone! When you factor in cost, the choice gets even more confusing. If you’re caught between choosing your dream school with little to no financial aid or a more affordable school further down your list, here are five reasons to choose the more affordable college for your undergraduate degree.

You’ll experience peace of mind.

Transitioning to college can be stressful. Choosing a cheaper school will keep you from stressing about finances today and in the future. When you choose the affordable option, you can enjoy more of the college experience because you’re not working three jobs to make ends meet. You’ll sleep better at night knowing you will have less student loan debt.

You’ll have more spending money.

If you choose an affordable college and work part-time, you may find you have a little extra money at the end of the day. You can use the money for weekend activities or save it for graduate school, a study abroad program, or a dream vacation after graduation!  

You can start your dream career early.

If you’re worried about money, you may look for a job to simply pay for school debt and life. Your additional bills may mean you have to turn down internships or other opportunities that don’t pay as well. When you choose an affordable school, you can accept internships that will enhance your resume, provide you with experience, and give you an advantage in the job market.

You can choose your dream school for grad school.

If you’re determined to attend your dream school, consider going there for grad school. You may be able to get a graduate assistantship or fellowship to offset the cost of tuition. 

The name isn’t everything.

It’s easy to get swept up in a school’s name or reputation. You may equate big-name schools to academic prestige or athletic prowess, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to the best fit for you. Your second or third options may be better fits and come with cheaper price tags.

A college degree matters more than where you get it. Success doesn’t always equate to attending a university with a big reputation and a hefty price tag. Whatever school you choose, your education is what you make of it.

Financial Aid Packages 101

For many students, the financial aid package is a huge factor in determining which college they’ll attend. Financial aid packages differ by school, but the types of awards are similar. If you understand the awards, you can decide what financial aid package works best for you.

Here are three important terms to remember:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA)
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
  • Need

The Cost of Attendance typically includes your estimated tuition and fees (generally based on full-time enrollment). It also estimates room and board, transportation, books, and other costs. Pay attention to the COA for each college because some include more factors than others. 

Your Expected Family Contribution is the number your FAFSA application generates after you input your information. This dollar amount is what the government believes you/your family can contribute toward your college education per academic year. Since you renew your FAFSA each year, your EFC can change throughout college.

The difference between your COA and your EFC is known as need. Financial aid offices do their best to cover your needs by providing various forms of financial aid. 

Grants and Scholarships

Grants and scholarships are free money you don’t have to pay back. They come from colleges, the government, the state, and outside sources. Let colleges know if you earn any outside scholarships because they can impact your financial aid package. Some grants, such as the TEACH grant, convert to student loans if you do not fulfill the associated service obligation post-graduation. Make sure to read the fine print!

Direct Stafford Loans

Eligible students can receive Direct Stafford Loans to help fund their education. Backed by the federal government, these loans typically have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than most private loans. Students are capped on the amount they can take per year. For example, a first-time college freshman classified as a dependent can only utilize $5,500 per academic year. The amount increases each year, up to $7,500 per academic year. There are two kinds of Direct Stafford Loans: subsidized and unsubsidized.

Subsidized loans DO NOT accrue interest while you are in school (enrolled at least half-time) or during the loan’s grace period. The grace period is for six months after you leave school or drop below half-time status. A portion of your direct loans may be in the form of subsidized loans if you have a high financial need. 

Unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest as soon as they disburse (are applied to your bill or direct deposited to your bank account). All interest accrued while in school is added to your principal balance. It’s a good idea to make interest-only payments while still in school so the amount does not continue to grow. 

For Direct Stafford Loans, you must complete a master promissory note (loan contract) and entrance loan counseling (covers terms of loan, repayment, etc.)


The acronym PLUS means Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students. You may see a PLUS loan estimate on your financial aid package. This means your parents can apply for the PLUS loan to cover your remaining cost of attendance. The PLUS loan is solely in the parent’s name, and approval is based on a satisfactory credit check. If your parents are denied the PLUS loan, they may request an endorser, or you can receive additional Direct Stafford unsubsidized loans. Repayment for PLUS loans typically begins upon disbursement unless your parent applies and is granted deferment.


The Federal Work-Study Program provides part-time jobs for students with financial needs. These jobs are typically on-campus. If you are interested in work-study opportunities, indicate this on your FAFSA application. Your work-study opportunity has a specific amount of money you can earn, and your hours will be capped once this amount is reached. The school will pay you directly, or the payment can be applied to your student account for tuition and fees.

Understanding the different types of awards will help you evaluate your options. Talk with your school’s financial aid office so they can explain your package and answer any questions. You can pick and choose what aid to accept and even reduce amounts. For loans, it is wise to take only what you absolutely need and be sure to ask about payment deadlines and payment plan options. Do your research before you agree to any amount of money. Understanding financial aid packages will pay off!