Deciding Whether You Should Take a Gap Year

By Joanna Nesbit

After considering all of the factors that go into your college-readiness decision, you may decide that a gap year is what’s best for you after high school. A gap year is the time you take off between high school and college, usually a year but sometimes more. 

In the past, gap years were more typical in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia than in the U.S., but they’ve grown more popular here. For some students, a gap year is a necessary next step after high school to work and save money for college. Others take a gap year because they don’t yet feel prepared for college and want some life experience, or they want a break from academics, need to focus on their physical or mental health, or want to try something new. 

Here is a guide to help you answer the question: Is a gap year right for me?

What a Gap Year Could Look Like

Traditionally, a gap year might include working, some travel experiences, volunteering for a meaningful cause, working for an organization like AmeriCorps, or interning in a field you’re interested in learning more about. If you have family in another city, state, or country, you could explore staying with them for a year and interning or working there for a new experience. Or you could try out a trade that doesn’t require an advanced degree. 

These days, there are many organized gap programs for students to join for a domestic or overseas group experience. A few organizations to check out for ideas include Gap Year Association, Education First Tours, and Go Abroad. The downside of formal programs is that they can be expensive, but scholarships are available, and many students work part of the year to save up. Alternatively, you can create a unique experience for yourself by combining one or more of these (or other) activities. It all comes down to the reasons you want to take the break. 

Pros and Cons of a Gap Year

Some families worry that taking a gap year will derail a student from going to college at all, but colleges generally applaud the move because they find that students who take a year away start college with a clearer sense of purpose and maturity. To make the most of the time, it’s important to think through your purpose for taking time off and plan out the year. 

You don’t necessarily have to have all the pieces figured out before you graduate, but knowing if you’re going to get a job in town to save money, travel abroad, or work for an organization like Americorps will help you sketch out your ideas and how you’ll achieve them. 

Pros of a gap year: 

  • Avoid academic burnout
  • Develop skills for your resume
  • Broaden your perspective and confidence
  • Gain clarity on next education steps
  • Earn money for college 
  • See new places and have new experiences

Cons (these aren’t really negatives but are things to think about): 

  • Unplanned time could feel not well spent
  • You’ll be entering college after your high school peers
  • It feels harder to get back on the academic track
  • Other life choices take over

Generally, however, a gap year can be a great opportunity to develop a clearer sense of yourself, your goals, and your values. It can also help you prepare for the college application process if and when you’re ready.

Learn more about taking a gap year to take care of your mental health

If You’re Planning on College, You Should Still Apply

If you decide you’d like to take a gap year and intend to go to college, it’s best to still apply to colleges your senior year. It’s easier to manage the application process while you’re still in high school and have access to your guidance counselor and teachers. Then, after you’ve decided where to commit, request a deferral from the college. Many colleges will grant them, but some may require you to reapply instead the next year. Some will have a formal deferral process, while others simply require a written request and possibly a planned outline from you. 

Questions to ask the admissions office: 

  • Will I need to reapply? 
  • Will any scholarships and financial aid be held for me?
  • When I fill out the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile during my gap year, can I expect similar financial aid?
  • Will any possible credits earned affect my scholarships (if a gap program includes college credit)? 
  • What happens to any private scholarships? (You’ll usually need to check with each organization and ask if they will hold it for you.)  

Talk about it with your family, close friends, and guidance counselor. Consider all of your options before coming to a decision. A purposeful gap year can be life-changing and refreshing, and set you on a college or future path you hadn’t considered. 

Check out these tips for telling your family you’re interested in a gap year and how to get them onboard

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