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Should You Consider a Gap Year?

students hiking abroad

Are you ready for a new adventure but not sure that starting college qualifies? A well-planned "year off" might make college more meaningful.

A gap year can take many forms and serve many purposes.  For some students, taking a year off between high school and college helps recharge their batteries and reengage with learning. For others, it’s a chance to pursue a passion, explore another culture, test-drive a major, or dive into the world of work.

What Kind of Gap Year is Right for You?

You can design your own program, pay a consultant to design a program for you, or enroll in a pre-structured gap year experience. For example,

  • You might spend a gap year living in a foreign country and learning a foreign language.
  • You might do community service in a developing nation, or in your hometown.
  • You might spend the year working full-time or developing a business idea of your own.

Whatever you choose to do, you may find it rewarding to discover activities that motivate and challenge you, furthering your educational and personal growth.

The Upsides of a Gap Year

Many colleges look favorably upon students who take a well-planned gap year. In fact, Harvard has long included a statement in its acceptance letter encouraging applicants to consider the benefits of a year off before enrolling. Some colleges even offer travel abroad during freshman year. In Tufts University’s Civic Semester program students perform community service in Peru or the United States before starting classes full time. Florida State University provides up to $5,000 in funding to students with financial need who plan to devote their gap year to intercultural service. 

According to a survey published by the Gap Year Association, an organization that accredits gap year programs, students who took a gap year reported positive results, including gaining:

  • A better sense of themselves and their values
  • A better understanding of other people, cultures, and ways of living
  • Additional skills and knowledge that contributed to their major or career

Note that colleges may expect you to provide a journal or other account of your gap year that includes reflections on your experience and what you learned about yourself and the world around you.

Potential Downsides of a Gap Year

You should also consider some of the realities of taking a gap year before you decide to take time away from your studies.

  • You’ll be a year behind and need to consider the fact that many of your close friends will already be well settled into university life by the time you get there.
  • It’ll add an extended period of time to an already potentially lengthy educational process, which could result in you missing out on an early start in your career.
  • A well-planned gap year takes time and thought to put together, almost as much time as applying to college.
  • You may need to reapply for financial aid. While many colleges will let you defer enrollment to take a gap year, and some colleges will hold scholarships you received upon acceptance, you may need to reapply for financial aid when you return.

Apply to College or Take a Gap Year? You Can Do Both!

Some students taking a gap year often accept admission to a college and then formally ask for an enrollment deferral. It's a good idea to find out the college's policy for such deferrals before you accept admittance. Make sure to pay your admission deposit, describe your plans, and explain how you will document your experience. 

However, if you were not accepted to your top-choice colleges, you might want to reapply to college during your gap year. Your gap-year accomplishments may strengthen your application.

How to Plan a Gap Year

To get the most out of your gap year, college and career advisors recommend careful advance planning and research. According to the University of Michigan’s career center, a few questions to consider include:

  1. How long should my gap experience be? Do you want your experience to take only a few months, or an entire year?
  2. What do I hope to learn or do? Do you want to sharpen particular skills? Travel? Contribute to a social cause or explore career interests?
  3. How much will my gap experience cost? Some formal programs can be costly, especially if they involve international travel. Other activities, such as volunteering in your community, may be relatively inexpensive – or even provide a stipend. Whatever you do, it will be important to consider all the costs.

Gap Year Resources

Here are some ways to begin exploring different gap year options.

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