The ‘Gap Year’: When It’s a Good Idea to Take a Year Off Before Starting College

A 'gap year' -- a year taken off between the end of high school and the beginning of college -- is no longer just a fad embraced by slacker teenagers unable to decide what they want to do in life. Instead, it is becoming a viable option recommended by some high school counselors and looked upon favorably by almost all undergraduate admissions officers.

Who should take a year off?

There is no correct answer to this question other than to say that if you want to take a year off, you may. However, here are a four situations that are highly conducive to a gap year:

  1. Low GPA - Applying directly to college with a low high school GPA will often set you up for disappointment. Taking a year off to grow, mature, and explore your interests will help separate you from your grades, and not just temporally. In applications, you will have the opportunity to emphasize your personal growth during that year and de-emphasize your grades. Make sure to explain in your personal statement how you feel you have changed and why your high school accomplishments no longer define you. You would be surprised how much universities prefer mature, worldly 2.5 students to fresh, immature 3.5 students.
  2. Unsure of what you want - If you're not positive that college is for you, or you're not sure what you want to get out of additional schooling, consider taking a year off to regain perspective. You may discover that after a year outside of academia once the constant college push no longer surrounds you, that there are many other things more fitting for your life. College is a long and expensive investment, and pausing for a year to make sure that it's right for you is a smart investing strategy.
  3. Tired and stressed from high school, AP tests, etc. - Perhaps you are sure that college is for you, but you're simply burnt out from your four-year stint as a top student. A gap year is the perfect chance to refresh and recharge so that you can return to schooling with a reinvigorated lust for learning that may have otherwise been missing if you pushed yourself straight out of high school. If you carry your stress and burn-out into your first college year, your grades and ultimately your entire experience will suffer as a result.
  4. A gap year program interests you - Perhaps none of the above apply, but you are interested in programs that you can take between high school and college. Not only do some universities offer special programs, but you can also take the year to individually learn a new language, explore a culture, volunteer, join the military, do missionary work, study abroad, or a number of other experiences. See below for suggestions for what you can do during a gap year.

Routes to the gap year

There are two primary ways that students approach taking a year off: by delaying their applications, or by deferring an acceptance. You can choose not to apply to colleges during your hectic senior year and instead send applications during the closing months of your gap year. This approach works best for categories one and two above (if you have a low GPA or are unsure if college is right for you).

Alternatively, you can apply to colleges during your senior year and defer admission at the colleges that accept you (this works best for the categories three and four above). While deferral is not always an option at every university, many colleges offer the ability to defer if you have a good reason for it, such as the ones listed below.

Remember that applying a year later or being forthright in the possibility of deferred admission will likely not negatively impact your chances of admission. If you are concerned, contact the colleges you are most interested in and inquire as to their perceptions of the above two routes.

What do to during your gap year

It is important to know that taking a year off to watch TV or play video games is not the purpose of the gap year. Instead, you should be looking into one of several possible opportunities. A small sampling of what you could do is listed here:

  • Study abroad - Studying abroad is not just for college students to do during the summertime, but is also appropriate for the year before you start college. Consult a database like the one found at StudyAbroad.com. Trips abroad are great for learning foreign languages, working at foreign embassies, exploring other cultures, or for almost any other purpose.
  • Be a humanitarian - Volunteer opportunities exist in the hundreds both domestically and overseas. Consider working for a year with Habitat for Humanity, Global Learning Across Borders, Youth Corps, or any one of a number of volunteer organizations that may interest you.
  • Sample careers - Intern or shadow professionals in fields you are interested in. Working for a few months with a doctor, lawyer, politician, or any professional will show you either that the field is perfect for you, or that it's completely wrong for you. Either way, you have learned a lot about your future.
  • Serve your country or faith - Colleges often grant deferral requests for students interested in engaging in military or missionary work for a year. Both are great ways to gain experience and undergo personal growth.
  • Use university programs - Several colleges -- like Princeton University for example -- offer gap year or 'Bridge Year' programs that incorporate one or more of the above plans. Consult with any school you may be interested in to see if they offer such a program.
  • Anything else you can imagine - As long as you're not wasting time, you can come up with almost anything to enrich your gap year. Be productive and explore yourself and your interests.

Bottom line: Is a gap year right for you?

I am a big fan of any gap year plan for the right student. Naturally, you will need to make determinations as to your own personal financial situation and program opportunities before deciding to take a year off. The important thing is to not get caught up in the pressure to go immediately to college or the temptation to take a year off. Instead, consider your situation and weigh both choices with positives and negatives. Then, decide which one would be most beneficial to you personally. Speak with your parents and high school counselors to see what they think about your two alternatives.

Only you can make the decision that's right for you. Remember that as long as you are productive, taking a year off can never hurt you and should always be considered a viable choice.

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