Do you love the idea of taking one year before starting college to travel around the world, gain valuable work experience, and learn something about yourself, all without the pressure of grades? Though I didn’t know that a gap year was even “a thing” when I was a high school senior, in my twenty years in education I have had the opportunity to touch on the gap year experience from a variety of perspectives as an admissions interviewer, college application committee member, essay reviewer, educational counselor, and general sounding board for students considering the potential pros and cons of a gap year. If I could do it over again, I would jump at this opportunity for self-exploration, but I also know it’s definitely not the right path for every student to take right after high school.
Until just a few years ago, taking a “gap year” or “bridge year” wasn’t actually a common path for many American students; over the past few years in my work as an educational consultant, I have noticed that a growing number of high school seniors are choosing to take time off before starting college. As the cost of tuition continues to rise and the stress of the high school experience increases, this trend makes sense. As an educator, it will be interesting to see how a gap year continues to play a role in the future of education. But what if you want to consider a gap year right now?
What are the potential benefits of a gap year?
- time to grow up in the “real world”
- opportunity to learn outside of the classroom
- experience a new culture, learning a language to fluency
- take a breather from the stress of constant deadlines and assignments
- pursue an entrepreneurial dream, get a job to earn money for college, or dig in to a creative pursuit
The list goes on and on…
What are some potential pitfalls?
- missing out on that first year of college with peers you have studied with for many years
- being unclear what you would do in this year “off”
- funding your experience
- having to take on daily responsibilities like cooking or navigating a foreign country all on your own
Gap years aren’t for everyone, but there are some high school seniors who are craving a chance to “take the road less traveled” and experience life outside of the typical classroom. Formal gap year programs have been popping up all over the world, even some sponsored by colleges such as Tufts University. For years I’ve heard rave reviews from parents and students about very well-organized overseas programs such as Youth For Understanding , Where There Be Dragons, and Thinking Beyond Borders , but not every student can afford these programs, nor are the programs the only thing that define what a gap year can be for many students.
I find when I speak with a student interested in a gap year, my first thought is “Cool, I can’t wait to hear what you’re considering,” and my first question is typically, “Tell me what you hope to achieve in this year between high school and college?” If the student’s response is, “I want to increase my chances of getting admitted to a more selective college than I got admitted to this year,” I usually pause the conversation right there.
In my experience as a former college admissions counselor, a gap year did not often change a decision for a student who had originally applied and was denied. There was rarely any new academic information to change the student’s profile and the quality of their application, so just having the experience of a gap year didn’t necessarily change the outcome. But for a student who may never have previously applied to a college and took a gap year to figure out what she wanted, a college application written by a student in the midst of a gap year could often sound more mature and self-reflective. These applications often painted a picture of a student who knew what she wanted out of college and was ready to bring that focus and determination to our campus.
For some students who may have gotten a taste of global travel or cultural immersion and language study, waiting until junior year of college for hands-on learning during study abroad might be longer than they’re able to wait. Some students will take the gap year to dig in to a topic more deeply, to master a language, to perform community service, or to take a creative pursuit and bring it to life. Just as homeschooled students often enjoy the beauty of being able to set their own learning schedule and pace, gap year students often tell me that they finally feel they have the time to pursue a dream that had been gnawing at them. Many choose a gap year because they were afraid this desire to follow their dream or instincts would distract them from being fully present in their first year of college, potentially affecting their academic performance.
In addition to the formal gap year programs listed above, there are many options for students to pursue internships, get paid work or do volunteer work.
As a former high school community service coordinator, I know the positive impact that community service almost always has on students. And as an Americorps graduate, I also know that dedicating yourself to a volunteer effort for one or two years is often life changing. It might even help you earn money for college more easily than a typical job might.
There’s no guarantee that a gap year experience will bring greater self-awareness or help a student figure out a future college major or life plan, but they often do help students to get more focused, make the transition to the first year of college more seamlessly, become more independent, live outside of their childhood home, and forge an individual path. And parents, guess what? Your student might also learn to live within a very tight budget!
Gap years can look very different for every student but my top two pieces of advice are:
- You MUST have a plan! (timeline/daily schedule/commitments/formal program/someone to keep you accountable in that year/a mentor)
- Deposit at a college where you’ve already been admitted!
You should deposit at one college by May 1st of senior if you have any intention of ever attending that college. When you deposit, request a deferral so that the office of admission can hold your spot for the year. You never know what will happen in a year, so why go through this application process again if you don’t need to?
Should you take a gap year? To answer the question, ask this question of yourself: what do you want to achieve in that year? And, if you are already in college, maybe you consider taking a Gap Year before you start working full-time.
About the Author:
Kara Courtois is a member of the college admissions team at College Coach, providing personalized college admissions consulting. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara spent years working as an educator as well as an admissions officer at Barnard College. You can learn more about Kara by visiting her bio.