In recent years, more students are rethinking the traditional path from high school to college. Malia Obama notably took a gap year before matriculating into Harvard, and in some countries such as Norway and Denmark, as many as 50% of teens take a gap year before entering university. Taking a gap year can give you the chance to figure out what you really want to do. After having some time off, you can enter college ready to pursue your interests with confidence and certainty instead of just following the norm.
The recommended way to take a gap year is to apply for colleges during your senior year, but then defer your enrollment once you are accepted. The exact procedure for this differs for different schools, and you should discuss your options with an admissions officer. Most schools will allow deferment, but there will be different deadlines, requirements, and possible complications with housing and financial aid. Again, make sure you are very familiar with the guidelines at your school, and it’s always better to ask questions than make a consequential mistake.
You might be wondering why you have to apply and then defer, instead of just applying a year later. The fact is, even if you’re certain you want to take a gap year, having already been accepted to college will give you peace of mind, and a solid plan for what happens when the year is up. Applying to college alongside your high school peers, with your teachers and college counselors present as resources, will keep you on track. Furthermore, if you’ve already been accepted to a college and paid a deposit, you have a backup option just in case your gap year plans fall through. If you’re wondering whether a gap year may be right for you, this article will give you some ideas of the pros and cons.
What is a gap year?
A gap year is simply a period between high school graduation and college matriculation where you do anything other than school. You can design your gap year however you want. Many people have a stereotype of gap years as being a completely carefree time of traveling abroad and partying, but this is not the full picture at all. According to the Gap Year Association, less than 2% of students chose to defer college enrollment but that number is steadily growing. Common activities during this time are volunteering or service projects, internships, working and traveling.
Why should I consider a gap year?
More and more experts, including the administrations of several elite universities such as Princeton and Harvard, are supporting and encouraging students who decide to take a gap year. Students who take a year off develop maturity, direction, and independence. Depending on how you choose to spend your year off, you can gain work experience, life skills like budgeting and cooking, and a foreign language or intercultural communication. Learning how you react to new and unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—situations will provide self-knowledge and resiliency that can aid you as you figure out your next steps.
Another benefit of taking a gap year is the chance to recharge and avoid academic burnout. After spending almost your entire life sitting in a classroom, it’s completely understandable to need some time off before feeling ready for college. This is especially true for students who had a very competitive or rigorous high school experience. If you are truly exhausted by the thought of academia, it might not be the best time to enter your college years.
Some parents worry that their child will face a disadvantage academically if they wait a year before enrolling in college. To the contrary, according to the New York Times, kids who take gap years actually show higher academic performances than their peers and end up in more fulfilling careers. Rather than fall behind, they get the chance to apply their knowledge to the real world, gain practical skills, and broaden their perspectives.
What are the downsides to a gap year?
One criticism of gap years is the potential financial cost. It is still seen as something only available to the privileged or elite. Doing a pricey study abroad program can certainly be pricey, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Many students choose to spend half their gap year living at home and the other half traveling. There are also many gap year options, such as AmeriCorp’s City Year program, that provide their participants with stipends. Given the steep cost of college, many students also find a year off to represent a valuable opportunity to work and save up money.
Financial aid and tuition might be a complicating factor in considering a gap year. Check with your financial aid officer to see if your original financial aid package will carry over to the next year if you defer your enrollment. You might have to resubmit the FAFSA and go through the whole process again, so that is something to keep in mind. Furthermore, the cost of college has been steadily increasing for years, and the longer you wait to enroll, the higher the tuition will be, potentially causing a problem if you do not have much financial aid in the first place.
The emotional challenges of a gap year are just as important to consider. Are you prepared to watch all of your friends go off to college while you take a different route? Some gap year students experience alienation, loneliness, and self-doubt during this time, feeling as if they have been left behind. Taking a gap year means going against the crowd and learning to be independent, which can be hard. Reach out to your support network if you are feeling isolated, and remember that this is a time to learn who you are as an individual without your familiar structures and routines. It might be a steep learning curve, but it can also be well worth the challenge.
When you enter college after a gap year, you will be a year older than your classmates and you will have had quite different experiences. This might make you feel a little lonely at first, but you should also feel proud and eager to share your perspective. Taking a gap year gives you a different way of looking at the world. If this is the right path for you if can be a truly life-changing experience.