Gap Year: A Year Off…Or On?

Gap years often teach participants a skill, and can either require a fee or earn the participant money.
Student carrying books

Are you thinking about taking a year off between high school and college? Participating in a "gap year" could provide you with the opportunity to take a break from traditional classroom learning—and have an adventure! Organized gap year programs provide support and structure, while some students prefer the independence that comes from designing their own experience. And while taking a gap year may mean hitting the "pause button" in your formal education, it also means you'll get to hit "fast forward" in an area of your choice.

If you do a web search of "gap year," you'll find hundreds of articles offering definitions and advice, dozens of websites advertising programs all over the U.S. and world, and lots of blog posts about things to think about if you're considering a gap year.  This post offers some basic information and links to some helpful sites, but you should "search away" and have fun dreaming of the possibilities!

What is a gap year?

Taking a "gap year," as the name implies, means scheduling a "gap" between high school and college. Gap year programs take many forms; they may include non-university study, travel, volunteer work, internships, religious engagement, community service, language acquisition, or a wide range of other options. Some students want to spend a gap year living in and learning about another part of the world; others want to volunteer in a community close to home.

Why do students take gap years?

Many students take a gap year in order to develop a skill. Whether it's an "academic" skill like a new language, or a "practical" skill like farming, gap year programs provide a chance to enhance your abilities and tap into your talents. Along the way, students who do gap years tend to build leadership capacities, independence, self-sufficiency, and the ability to solve problems on their own. Organized gap year programs offer both structure and freedom; they often help participants feel more "ready" for college, as they focus on intellectual, physical, emotional, and/or spiritual development. "Do it yourself" opportunities might lead students to do internships, volunteer work, or non-traditional study.

Want to learn more? This article features 10 reasons to take a gap year.

What are some examples of ways students have spent their gap year?

The list is endless...but it includes...

  • Volunteering in South America, while learning Spanish
  • Interning at an Israeli high-tech company
  • Learning to take care of animals on a ranch in Wyoming
  • Working in a school helping students succeed
  • Honing leadership skills by pursuing rock climbing and wilderness adventures in the American West
  • Participating in religious mission work
  • Working, traveling, and studying in Ireland
  • Developing "life skills" while holding a job and living in an apartment
  • Attending seminars in American politics in Washington, DC
  • Building a house in Portland, OR

How can you find out about gap year programs?

There are several websites that can help you search for a gap year program; you might also ask a teacher in a favorite subject, an advisor, or your school/college counselor for assistance. Teen Life's website has ideas and opportunities to explore, as does Gap Year Association. Just like you would for any program or college, be sure to ask lots of questions and to try to talk with students who have participated in any gap year opportunity you might pursue.

How much does a gap year cost?

Costs vary widely. You may live at home and do a paid internship—and actually make money—or you may travel to Spain or Israel and pay $10,000-30,000 or more in expenses. As you can imagine, the costs associated with volunteering at an under-resourced school in Boston will cost less than volunteering at an under-performing school in Buenos Aires, but both options are viable ones for students looking to make a difference.

What's the procedure for deferring admission to college?

If you already applied and have been accepted to a college, there's a few steps to take if you want to take a gap year. Most colleges will support you taking a gap year. In fact, admissions officers at NYU and Harvard (among others) have informative posts on their websites about reasons to do so.

Typically, students accept an offer of admission by May or June 1st and then ask the college if they can defer admission for a year. (In other words, you commit to enrolling in a specific college, but just plan to begin a year later!) Sometimes you have to submit paperwork or send in a deposit to hold your place for the next year. There are colleges that won't "hold your spot" and ask you to re-apply if you want to attend. So it's important to know each college's policy, criteria, and deferral request deadline before you send in your enrollment deposit. And if you were offered financial aid or scholarship dollars, be sure to check with the college to find out what happens financially if you defer admission. You'll want to make sure you have all the information you need before you make the gap year decision.