I’ve seen it time and time again – motivated high school students who have always planned to attend college, but reach senior year feeling like they are just not ready – yet. In some cases, they just aren’t quite prepared to leave the “nest” and be on their own. In other cases, they are simply burned out and feel they need some time to disconnect from being a student.
And it’s no wonder – senior year has become increasingly stressful, as students load up on AP classes, study for SATs and fret over college essays. It’s easy to see why a reasonable teen might want to take a break before diving into the demands of college.
If this sounds like you, perhaps you are a candidate for a gap year. Typically taken anytime between graduation from high school and junior year of college, a gap year is defined by the American Gap Association as “A structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, learn from different cultures, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working.”
Long the standard in Europe, gap years are becoming more popular in the US, backed by emerging data showing that taking a year off might actually increase a student’s chances of success in college.
It’s important to understand that a gap year is NOT a break spent sleeping and surfing the net. Rather, it is a break from school-based education, spent doing something else worthwhile. Many students use the time to travel or volunteer abroad. Others use the time to work, earning valuable job experience and of course, money. The most important thing is that the time is spent doing something productive.
And as long as that time is spent productively, the vast majority of colleges are very supportive of students taking gap years. Having benefited from both the time off from the stress of studies and from their experience, gap year students usually arrive on campus refreshed, motivated, and more mature than most of their peers, a major plus for the institution. Some colleges, like Princeton, Tufts and Oberlin, even offer scholarships and financial aid to students taking a gap year.
There are many, MANY organizations running gap year programs. Here are just a few places to start looking:
This list by Andover Phillips Academy has some of the more well-known and established gap year programs.
Middlebury College also maintains a good list here.
USA Gap Year Fairs holds informative events through the United States. Attending one is a great way to learn about various gap year opportunities.
A note about cost – if you are already concerned about paying for college, you’ll want to steer clear of the most expensive gap year programs. But a gap year does not have to cost a lot! There are many US based programs that cost very little. Or even better, you can use the time to make money, ideally by working in a field of interest to you. One popular option is the half-half approach: spend the first half of your gap year working and saving money which can then be used to pay for travel or an organized program in the second half.
So what do you need to do if you want to take a gap year before starting college? Most importantly – plan ahead. Start researching gap year opportunities in winter and early spring. Continue to apply to colleges on the same timeline as your classmates, and when acceptances arrive, simply contact the college you wish to attend and ask about their procedures for deferral. Most colleges simply ask that you file a form requesting deferral, along with the standard enrollment deposit. Some will need to know your plans and give official approval before deferral is granted. And the smaller colleges always appreciate if you stay in touch during your time off, to let them know that you’ll still be joining them the following year.
And a final note: You might be tempted to put off applying to college until the following year, but I don’t recommend this. It’s far easier to complete college applications when surrounded by peers doing the same. Furthermore, accessing your teacher and counselor recommenders is much harder after you have graduated. Finally, when you are trekking in Costa Rica or working a 9-5 job, the last thing you’ll want to worry about is college applications. Take my advice, apply your senior year, and have everything in place before you embark on your gap year adventure.