Taking a Gap Year Before Starting College
If you're a high school senior, you've been in school for thirteen straight years and you may be ready to head off to college. But what if you're experiencing some burnout or need more time to form an education plan? What if you're not satisfied with your college admittance offers or aren't sure you are ready to start that next chapter of your life?
Some students who fit any of these descriptions consider taking a gap year, defined as a break after graduating from high school to explore a personally rewarding activity before matriculating at a post-secondary institution. A gap year can deepen personal awareness or be an opportunity to investigate practical experience for a future career. Some new high school graduates just need time to consider their goals and academic interests. Some want to see a bit more of the world and take a short recess from academics during this natural transition. Some want to participate in a hands-on experience where they can directly impact the lives of others before starting their college career. It is important to distinguish a gap year from a post-graduate (PG) year. A post-graduate year is designed to help a student get stronger academically, and typically happens at boarding schools with other students.
What are the benefits of a gap year?
The benefits of taking a gap year include establishing focus and a renewed academic commitment, as well as growing in maturity and communication skills and having the opportunity to learn new cultures and live independently, or at least manage a budget differently than in high school. Students gain material for their resume and learn to adapt to new places away from home, which make integration into college life that much easier upon arrival to campus. Students who take a gap year are often quite successful in college.
What should I know before taking a gap year?
Plan to apply to colleges first. It is harder to apply once you have been out of high school for a semester or more. Plan for college enrollment with your gap year as a component of that plan. You will enter college after your gap year as a first-year student. Some gap year programs do offer college credit, but you will want to check with the college you plan to attend to find out their policies on accepted credits from a gap year program.
What are the financial considerations of a gap year?
Organized gap year programs, especially international programs, charge a fee. If you are interested in free or low-cost programs, consider volunteering. As with most valuable experiences, good planning can reduce costs, and luxury often carries a hefty price tag. The benefits of a gap year can be so helpful that some colleges even offer scholarships to assist with the cost. As you finish up your gap year, you will need to apply again for need-based financial aid from the college you will attend. If you initially received merit-based aid, it may be possible to defer it until you begin at the college, but you should check the college's policy.
What are some good gap year options?
Planning effectively for your gap year is the key. Having a purpose for your experience will lay an important foundation for what most aspire to be a transformational experience. Programs are independently run and can be accredited by the American Gap Association, a nationally-recognized non-profit organization. Volunteering with an organization that you are passionate about is a win-win option. Starbucks has several ways that youth can be involved in meaningful community service work. Outward Bound is a leadership development program utilizing expeditions in the wilderness to explore remote locales and exotic places. If international experience is your goal, CIEE has several programs abroad.
Knowing college policy
College admissions officers are the most valid authority for delivering the policy and actions that need to be taken in securing your place of enrollment upon your return from your gap year. Most colleges are accommodating of gap year programs, but not all. You will surely need to put your request in writing and the enrollment deposit will need to be paid before taking the gap year. Be sure to meet any response deadlines and confirm with colleges that you will enroll when expected. You may need to report on your activities and learning outcomes of your gap year.
Where can I get more information?
Check with the American Gap Association for more details on taking a gap year. You'll find helpful videos, a list of programs, and tips on making the most of your experience.
Gail W. Holt has worked in financial aid nearly 21 years, and currently serves as the Dean of Financial Aid at Amherst College. She began her financial aid career at Boston University, where she served as a Senior Assistant Director, and has also worked as a Senior Associate Director at Northeastern University and Mount Holyoke College. Gail is a past President of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA) and a faculty member for the College Board Financial Aid Institute. She has a BA from Boston College and a Masters of Education from Boston University.