It’s been around for years—decades even—but now that Malia Obama has decided to take a year off before going to college, everyone wants to know about gap years, and if everyone should take one. Let’s review the basics.
Unlike students who get to the end of senior year and start to wonder if college is really the right choice, gap year students generally find a program, opportunity, or life experience they’d like to pursue that might not be available to them once they start college. This can include teaching English in another country, working with a nonprofit social agency, organized travel, career exploration organized by a gap year agency, or working to earn more money for college.
The process for taking a gap year is relatively simple. Students apply to colleges in their senior year as if they were planning to attend the following fall—they do not, and should not, mention they plan on taking a gap year. Once they’re admitted, they contact the college and explain their interest in deferring admission for a year or six months. Colleges that allow students to take a gap year typically ask for an enrollment deposit and give the student a deadline to notify the college if they aren’t coming—and that’s it.
Some school counselors will promote the idea of a gap year as part of their college counseling curriculum. At the same time, most students who feel the need for a gap year usually find their way to a program or experience they’re interested in, taking the initiative to make sure their colleges of choice will let them defer.
Given that track record, some counselors hesitate to present the idea of a gap year to a wider audience, since some students may misunderstand it as “a year off,” which puts them in danger of never going to college or delaying the development of career skills. Students who discuss a gap year with their counselor in the spring of junior year (or fall of senior year) have put in the thought and energy needed to investigate gap year options and create the opportunity. Students with firm college plans who come to your office two days before graduation to talk about a gap year may just be coming late to the party. More likely, they are having second thoughts about their college choice, or about leaving high school. It’s important to give each case the counsel it deserves.
Colleges granting deferred admission often require the student not to use the year to attend another college, and many will also freeze the student’s financial aid package—something to consider if a tuition increase will require the student to find more money for school. While more private colleges allow students to take a gap year, some public colleges will as well. It’s also important to note that nearly all colleges granting gap years do not allow the student to use the time off to attend another college. Understanding the details of each college’s conditions for a gap year is important—especially since some colleges don’t even over this option.
A handful of gap year students may inform you they plan on applying to college after they complete their gap year. This is generally a bad idea; not only is the student out of high school, making contact with counselor and teacher recommenders more challenging, but the student could also be out of the country, making contact with the college more challenging. A gap year is an opportunity to learn in a new way, not cut corners in applying to college. If that’s the student’s goal, it’s time to have a different conversation.