What is a gap year?
Instead of heading off to college after graduating from high school, many students choose to take a gap year. This option has become more popular since the pandemic began. Generally speaking, a gap year should focus on experiential learning as you explore non-academic interests, volunteer your time, or focus on personal growth. Rather than thinking of a gap year as a way to avoid academic uncertainty, take the option seriously to prepare yourself for college and get some new experiences under your belt.
How does taking a gap year affect college admissions?
The effect of a gap year on college admissions might depend on when you choose to apply to college.
If you apply for college before you’ve decided to take a gap year, many schools will be accommodating in allowing you to defer enrollment. If you have specific schools you’re considering or have already been admitted to, be sure to reach out to each of them to ask what their policies are, e.g., would you be able to defer or would you have to decline your acceptance and reapply the following year? With more schools adopting flexible enrollment policies to accommodate gap years, some have even started sponsoring their own gap year programs.
If you apply to college during or after your gap year, you may be better prepared. Students tend to mature rapidly in the course of a gap year, enabling them to write compelling application essays and get a better sense of which schools will be the right fit for them. Gap years can influence students’ college experiences from their sense of purpose to how they want to contribute to life on campus, and even their choice of major.
Just keep in mind that if you apply to college after your gap year, you may not start college for two years after high school. This might make the transition back to school more difficult, but it can also be a good option for students looking to enhance their applications.
What should I do during my gap year?
There are any number of productive and enlightening ways to spend a gap year, so the most important thing is to avoid unfocused time that stalls your momentum. Whatever you choose to do with your gap year, make sure you go into it with clear goals.
Gap years might involve community service, paid or unpaid internships, a job, traveling, or devoting yourself to a passion project in art, music, theater, sports, research, etc. These options can be pursued through your own planning efforts or through a structured gap year program. The Gap Year Association lists many options on its website, including some for niche interests in the sciences and social sciences.
Traveling abroad has long been a popular option for students taking a gap year. Immersing yourself in a culture other than your own, exploring new geographies, and gaining independence will undoubtedly broaden your horizons and give you a better sense of your interests and priorities. Though travel restrictions have eased a bit since 2020, you’ll still want to carefully research the safety and protocols involved in travel. While planning deliberately for your gap year is always important, it may require more research now to be sure you are able to plan your time abroad.
Now that you know a little more about what a gap year is and how you might spend one, here’s a rundown of some of the major pros and cons:
- Recharge so you’re ready and motivated for college. Taking time to explore yourself and your interests is a crucial part of a gap year and something you may not have had time for under the pressures of high school.
- Hone skills, whether they’re useful for your future academic or professional career or simply excite you. You can use a gap year to get good at something you’ve always wanted to learn but didn’t have the time, like a musical instrument or foreign language.
- Broaden your perspective by getting some independence and exposure to new environments. Whether you travel abroad or gain work experience, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone will help you mature and feel comfortable in a wider variety of circumstances.
- Boost your resume with activities that show colleges you’re committed to something and willing to challenge yourself.
- Better school performance and outcomes after college are well-documented effects of taking a gap year. Students who take a gap year have higher college GPAs on average than those who don’t, and they report better-than-average job satisfaction after graduation, too.
- Wasting time can be a real obstacle to a productive and successful gap year. You shouldn’t think of your gap year as a time to take a break. Make sure you plan out a structured year so you don’t miss an opportunity for personal development.
- Cost can be a huge factor in how you spend your gap year and whether it makes sense for you to take one. International travel and structured programs can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. On the other hand, getting a job before you start college can help offset the cost of your education.
- Feeling like you’re behind can creep up on you as you watch your friends go off to college. Just remember that a year well spent will not put you behind in the long run. If you’re better prepared to enter college, you’ll get more out of it and set yourself up for success after graduation.
- It might mean reapplying to college. If you apply to college before you take a gap year and the school you want to attend does not allow you to defer, you may have to apply and get accepted all over again. Be sure you know in advance whether the schools you’re interested in will allow you to defer enrollment.
If you think you want to take a gap year, talk it over not only with your family, but with your college counselor as well. Reach out to the schools you’re interested in to find out their deferral policies. And most importantly, be intentional. Make sure you’re planning a meaningful gap year so that you come out of it with increased motivation and preparation for college.