Guide to the Gap Year
Every year, more students, parents, and educators come to see a gap year as an important part of the transition to college.
What is a gap year?
Is a gap year right for you?
Plan a gap year
While we hope you'll consider our industry-leading gap year programs, we know they're not right for everyone. This guide will help you choose the best gap year option for you. Rather talk to a gap year expert? Submit in the form below. Don't worry, we'll never share your contact information.
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What is a Gap Year?
A "gap year" is a period between completing highschool and beginning college. This time can either be a semester or a full year away from traditional classroom studies. Gap years come in all shapes and sizes. They include participating in organized gap year programs abroad or domestically, working in a field of interest, civil service in the military or a national service organization, pursuing arts or athletics, and traveling the world as a tourist.
Who Takes a Gap Year?
All kinds of students take gap years — from those at the top of their class to those who struggled in high school. We talk to hundreds of students each year who are considering a gap year. They say they’re considering a gap year because they feel burned out and need a break before heading back to the classroom. Students finish high school feeling their education has been about getting grades and test scores to get into college. Their learning isn’t about pursuing burning questions that are important to them and the world. Their schooling has been about achieving rather than learning. And, this story is the same for students who struggle in the classroom and those who are headed to Harvard. Students should arrive at college thrilled their responsibility is to become an expert in whatever they are most passionate about.
Do Gap Years Work?
Research shows gap year students perform better in college. The NY Times highlighted research from Middlebury College and the University of North Carolina showing that students who took gap years performed better academically than they would have without a gap year. In surveys conducted by the American Gap Association, students report feeling more confident and focused in college because of their gap year experiences. For these reasons, colleges and universities are following the lead of Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard University, who has endorsed gap years for many years.
Will a Gap Year Help Me Get Into My Top Choice College?
Some students start considering a gap year when they don’t get into their top choice college. The pressure to get into the best college possible is huge. The question “Do you know where you want to go to college?” is often the first things adults ask students. It seems logical to take a gap year to add exciting accomplishments and experiences to a new round of college apps.
This is a good reason to take a gap year. A gap year can help you get into a college of choice if: 1) you were already a good fit for that college, and 2) you can demonstrate that your gap year is about learning and growth that will make you a great contributor to that campus. College admissions staff want to see that you can succeed at their school and help it be a special place. If your gap year is about gaining perspective and expertise in an subject you’ll study passionately in college, your application will definitely stand out. Charlotte Robertson, a TBB alumna, pursued her passion for social justice issues during her gap year and received a full scholarship to continue that learning at Ithaca College.
However, not getting into your college of choice is not a good reason to take a gap year if you do not take it as an opportunity to learn and grow in meaningful ways. College admissions staff look for warning signs that students aren’t driven to engage and learn. The questions an admissions director will ask when reading an application from a gap year student are: “Why did they take a gap year?” and “What are they gaining from it?” If your gap year doesn’t reflect an honest passion for and commitment to your own learning, that will count against you.
What Does a Good Gap Year Include?
The benefits of a gap year don’t come just because a student takes time away from school. To gain the learning and growth that leads to greater success in college and a more fulfilling life, each student must have a plan for their gap year that is intentionally designed for their particular needs. Gap years can consist of many things, but, successful gap years include the following components:
- New and Challenging Learning Opportunities – These can absolutely be outside of traditional classrooms. But, the best learning comes when you’re part of a community of others who are also there to learn.
- Adult Mentorship – This is someone who is committed to supporting you and old enough to add perspective. This person will push you to take risks but help you see when you might be going too far.
- Peers – While the notion of moving alone to a new city or wandering with just a backpack can be romantic, it gets lonely very quickly. During this time of life more than any other, our peers are our most important sources of support.
- Goals – Know why you are taking a gap year and what you hope to gain. Then, build your plan around pursuing those goals.
Gap Year Myths
Finally, there are a number of myths about the gap year that are important to dispel.
- They are too expensive – Opportunities range from those that cost the same as a year of college to those that will pay you a stipend and an education award to participate. Everyone can afford a gap year.
- They are only for students who aren’t ready for college – Programs and individual options vary greatly, offering opportunities for essential learning and growth for all types of students.
- There is a strong risk that students won’t go back to school – While there is always this risk, experts with decades of experience in the field estimate that 98% of gap year students who were on a college track go back to school immediately following their time away from the classroom. (Read why some college counselors discourage gap years.)
Can I Find a Sense of Direction on a Gap Year?
Many students feel like they are supposed to know what they want to be when they grow up. This leads to anxiety, particularly when it comes to selecting a major in college. How can you be expected to know who you want to be when you’ve spent the last 13 years in school, gaining little real world experience? Statistics show a high percentage of students change their major in college, suggesting that even those who say they know who they want to be aren’t actually sure. What’s even more scary is that changing majors can add to the time and cost to graduate from college.
A gap year can absolutely help you find a sense of direction for your college and professional careers. By gaining the perspectives of what it is really like to work within a given field or explore a particular interest, you’ll be far better prepared to take advantage of the incredible learning college offers. Here are testimonials from alumni sharing how their gap year after high school prepared them for college, career, and life.
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- Students Who Take a Gap Year Get More Out of College – Bob Clagett, former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, was quoted in Time Magazine saying that the gap year was the single best indicator for success of students on his campus. Gap year students report being more focused and directed during their college years. With as many as 50% of students dropping out before graduation, a gap year may be the best way to ensure college tuition will be well spent. You can watch student and parent testimonials to get a clearer sense of how a well-designed gap year can help prepare students for college.
- Gap Years Can Help Pay for College – There are a number of gap year options that pay students a living stipend and an education award. City Yearand AmeriCorps provide a range of service learning opportunities. A year of service is rewarded with a $5500 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award toward college tuition. Many colleges around the country will augment that award, sometimes even doubling or tripling its value.
There are many gap year options, and the best fit for you may charge tuition or a fee. While cost is a factor when comparing programs, it’s important to not let it limit your search. Ultimately, you want to find a program that is both affordable and the right fit for what you want to learn and gain. Here are some things to consider when evaluating the cost of the programs you are considering:
- You Get What You Pay For – Look carefully at what you get for the money you spend. Small groups, safety, support services, itinerary details, and quality of learning are all details to investigate. Be sure you understand what is included in program fees. Tuition may not include travel, visas, room and board, or other expenses.
- Scholarships and Financial Aid – Many gap year programs offer need-based scholarships ranging from a few hundred dollars to full tuition. Some programs will assist students in raising funds to cover tuition, as well. The American Gap Association offers resources and information regarding financial aid and scholarships for gap year students. If you are planning to apply for scholarships or raise funds it is critical to apply early.
- Earn Your Keep – Students should plan ahead and schedule time over weekends, summers, or holidays to earn money for their gap year. Some students spend the first few months of their gap year working locally to finance programs or travel later in the year.
- Beware of College Credit – While it seems logical to earn college credit from your gap year, be sure to do your research first. Many colleges prohibit deferred students from enrolling in other institutions. Those that do accept credit earned during a gap year often list them as “empty” credits, meaning they show on the college transcript but do not count toward graduation requirements. In the worst case scenario, earning credit during a gap year without your college’s approval can result in students losing their freshman status, impacting financial aid, housing, and enrollment on campus.
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Determine What You Need from Your Gap Year
A gap year is not a vacation. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow in ways that will prepare students for a meaningful and fulfilling life. A gap year should prepare you to arrive on your college campus filled with excitement and confidence.
Your gap year should help you identify burning questions that matter to you and to the world. This is the best way to take full advantage of college and ensure the investment pays off. The video here includes gap year alumni sharing their thoughts about why taking a gap year is so important. You can find more gap year testimonials here.
Determining the right gap year plan starts with determining your needs and interests. Below are some important questions to consider. We strongly recommend discussing these as a family, whenever possible.
- In what ways do you need to learn and grow to arrive on campus ready to take full advantage of college?
- What types of experiences and supports will help ensure this growth? Will you need “real world” experience, social or academic confidence, inspiration, or a combination of all of these? Make a list and be as specific as possible.
- In what ways do you like to learn the most?
- What kinds of support do you need in your daily life to stay safe, healthy, and challenged?
Apply & Defer from College
If you’re planning to go to college after your gap year, definitely apply during your senior year. You have all of the support and resources that your school is providing, and your friends are all going through it, too. It can be challenging to apply to college during your gap year if you are traveling or away from the support you’ll need. Note that while most colleges will allow students to defer to take a gap year, you should avoid mentioning your gap year in your application. You want the admissions staff to know you are serious about their school.
If you are admitted to a college you are excited about and feel confident in your gap year plan, ask the admissions office for a deferral. Most colleges will allow students to defer. Many will hold scholarship and financial aid awards, as well. The deferral process varies by campus, but it ranges from simply notifying the admissions office to submitting your plan for your gap year.
If you are not admitted to a college you are excited about, you have a decision to make. First, you can defer from the best option to which you were admitted. Many students make this choice, then reapply to schools during their gap year. Second, you can choose not to accept admission anywhere and reapply during your gap year. Beware: Most deferral agreements forbid students from earning college credit during their gap years or reapplying to other schools. A deferral is an agreement that the college will hold a spot for you with the expectation that you will actually return and take it. While it’s rare, students have been caught violating their deferral agreement and losing admission to both the school they deferred from and the school they were accepted to during their gap year.
Create a List of Ideas
The options for what you can do during your gap year are nearly limitless. As mentioned above, knowing what your goals are for your gap year will help you narrow down the options. Start by building a list of gap year ideas by answering this:
If you could spend all day doing one thing that would leave you feeling excited, fulfilled, and ready for another day of it, what would you do?
Now, as you make this list of activities, don’t worry yet about how you’ll make this happen. Your list might include things like making art, caring for animals, traveling, running a business, playing a sport, or solving a social problem. Don’t worry if it’s not a long list; it’s easier to narrow down the options if it’s shorter!
If you’re planning to participate in a program, narrow the options to 2 or 3 before you start applying to them. Check out the American Gap Association for a list of gap year programs accredited for meeting high safety and quality standards. You can also find student and parent reviews of gap year programs on GoOverseas.com.
Do Your Research
The final stage of choosing a gap year program is determining which among your finalists is the highest quality.
The American Gap Association is a great place to start, as they have certified gap year programs that meet strict safety and quality standards. Additionally, a little bit of research will help ensure you’re making a great choice. If you know what to look for, it’s fairly easy to tell which of your final choices is best.
Start with a review of the program’s website. Here are a few key questions:
- What does the program do for students? – Beyond the basic itinerary, what does the program do to ensure student growth and learning? Is there structure and/or curriculum that challenges and supports student learning
- Who designs and runs the program? – Considering education and previous experience, are they well prepared to deliver the education and mentoring your student needs? Be sure to look at the qualifications of those actually working with students each day, not just the administrative staff.
Next, make a phone call. Speaking with the marketing staff is a good place to start, but don’t hesitate to ask to speak with a Program Director. Here are a few key questions:
- What do you do to prepare for safety emergencies in the field? – Listen carefully for a clear description of how their staff prevents emergencies, prepares for any eventuality, and uses all resources available. No program can or should guarantee absolute safety.
- What was your worst health emergency and how did you handle it? – Every program faces health emergencies at some point. Listen for evidence that their emergency plan worked and that the organization learned how to better prevent and deal with such emergencies from the situation.
- How does your program support students in their learning and growth? – Listen for specifics, including that the Program Director understands the needs of your student and has a clear vision for how to provide support for all of those needs. The program should offer the balance of independence and structured support appropriate for your student.
Finally, ask to speak to alumni parents and students. Asking the same three questions above, you’ll get a sense of what the student and parent experience was within the program and whether it lines up with what those running the program are trying to offer. This will help you understand two things about your final choices. First, you’ll hear a difference in how closely each program aligns with your needs. Every program is built differently, and what might be a great fit for one student won’t necessarily fit well with another. Second, you’ll hear a marked difference in quality with regard to safety and student learning. It doesn’t take expertise to recognize this, just common sense and careful listening.
Once you’ve made your choice, apply! Gap year providers’ admissions policies vary, but many offer rolling or periodic admissions. This makes it easy to apply and receive your admissions offer fairly quickly.
Individualized plans can be very specific to your interests and sometimes cost less than programs. But, they require much more planning on your part. If you intend to get a job or internship in a specific field, contact a few companies or organizations and ask if they would hire someone your age. If you’ll be living away from home, look into housing costs, visas for international travel, and travel insurance. You may find it helpful to reach out to a gap year consultant like Marion Taylor at Taylor the Gap, Julia Rogers at EnRoute Consulting, Susan Martin at Seize the Year, or the team at Center for Interim Programs. They can help you identify great opportunities including jobs, internships, travel, and service placements, while also helping to handle the finer details of your plan. There will always be bumps in the road in a gap year, but the more you can confirm your plan will work, the easier it will be to focus on the things you’re most interested in.
Deal with the Details
Now you can focus your attention on diving into your gap year! If you’re plans include a program, apply to the programs you’re interested in.
Most offer online applications and will interview you and your parents. Many programs operate on rolling admissions. The sooner you apply, the sooner you’ll know what your options are.
Whether you’re participating in a program or following an individualized plan, here are some of the most common and important tasks:
If you’re traveling internationally:
- Safety – Check with the US State Department for travel advisories and recommendations.
- Health Insurance – Check with your health insurance provider to ensure you’ll have adequate coverage while abroad. For peace of mind, you can also purchase traveller’s insurance that is both affordable and provides coverage for all potential bumps in the road. You can find more information about travel insurance at ConsumerAffairs.com and purchase at InsureMyTrip.com.
- Travel Documents – You will likely need a valid passport and may need visas and vaccinations. While regular doctors can sometimes meet your needs, ask your health care and insurance providers if they can recommend a travel clinic.
- Communication – Be sure you are clear on your plans for communication with your family and friends. Some programs do not allow students to bring devices, so setting clear expectations of how often loved ones will hear from you is important. Those traveling independently and planning to bring a cell phone should check their service area and that the rates are reasonable. If rates are high, research what is required to attain a local phone at your destination or if mobile apps like WhatsApp will meet your needs.
- Pack – Programs provide complete packing lists to make this process easier. However, if you are traveling internationally, we strongly recommend following this alternative packing list to ensure you’ll be ready for what may come.
Leap into Life
You’ve taken your gap year ideas and made them into a plan. You’ve figured out the logistics, finances, and details. You’re ready to go. There’s one thing left to do: take the leap. Taking a gap year is not an easy thing. Few if any of your friends or family have done it, and the path to college seems so much easier. But, don’t let that scare you away from stepping into a gap year. Trust your plan. Leap.
Convincing your parents that you should take a gap year can sometimes be challenging. More and more people see a gap year as a crucial part of the college transition (including Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, Forbes, and the NY Times), parents often have real concerns. Here’s how to make your case. (Oh, and if you're a parent, try the next tab on convincing your student to take a gap year.)
Convincing your student to take a gap year can sometimes be challenging. While many see a gap year as a crucial part of the college transition (including Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, Forbes, and the NY Times), students often have real concerns. Here’s how to make your case. (Oh, and if you're a student, try the previous tab on convincing your parents to let you take a gap year.)
Some Parents Don’t Want Students to Take a Gap Year
Let’s start by trying to understand why your parents might not want you to take a gap year. Here are the most common reasons we hear:
- It would be a waste of a year — Students often identify “burnout” as their reason for needing a gap year. Parents assume this means the gap year is going to be about sitting on a beach, playing video games on the couch, or something that looks like an extended vacation.
- You might not go to college afterward — Generally speaking, parents really want their kids to go to college. They want them to prepare for their future, a profession, and a fulfilling life. The idea that you might be having doubts about college as a next step can be a scary thought for parents. Some parents assume a student asking for a gap year is unsure about or avoiding college.
- It’s too expensive — It is no secret that college is really expensive. The idea of adding to the cost of higher education with a gap year can seem hard to justify. And, many parents assume gap years are inherently expensive.
Why You Should Take a Gap Year
- Your gap year has purpose — You are asking to take a gap year not because you want a vacation, but because you are burned out on the classroom. You still love learning, but you want to connect with real issues in the real world. Your education up to now has been entirely theory — math, science, literature — without any clear relationship to things that matter to the issues facing people, communities, and our global society. Your gap year is an intentional effort to find a clear purpose for your college learning. Making an effort to connect your learning to real world issues can help you prepare for an engaging, powerful, and fulfilling college career.
- You’re going to college, and this is an important part of the process — College is an incredible learning environment where you’ll spend four years surrounded by the world’s experts in everything who are there to help you learn. You are excited for this. You want college to be more than parties. But, to be ready to make college all it can be, you need to be passionate about what you are going to study. You want to arrive on campus with burning questions that matter to you and to the world. Your gap year is about identifying the questions and passion that will help you get excited for the learning opportunities college offers.
- College is a HUGE investment and this is how you’re preparing for it — Over four years, you are going to make an enormous investment of money, time, and energy in your college education. While you were a good high school student, the burnout you feel now won’t necessarily go away when you get to college. You want a gap year to ensure you are ready to make your college years about preparing for the professional career that awaits. Here’s a strong argument from a parent that the investment in a gap year for her son more than paid for itself in tuition savings.
Tips for Making Your Case for a Gap Year
Here are the steps you can take to make your case:
- Know your goals. Create a list of your learning and growth goals for your gap year. Then, identify the things you’ll need to ensure you will be supported in your learning and growth.
- Make a plan. Research gap year programs and options (GoOverseas.com’s student and parent reviews, American Gap Association’s accredited programs, USA Gap Year Fairs program listings, are great resources), paying careful attention to the ones that will help you achieve your learning and growth goals. Consider also how you’ll pay for your gap year. If you start planning early enough, there are fantastic options available with scholarships and fundraising opportunities.
- Sell it. Present research on the power of gap years (here’s some from the American Gap Association and Thinking Beyond Borders). Talk about your goals, your plan, and include examples of the options that aren’t right for you. Present options for funding your gap year, and be sure you take responsibility for helping to fund it.
- Share testimonials from students who have taken gap years. Here’s a powerpoint Ozanne Alexander used to convince her parents.
- Talk it out. Listen to your parents’ questions and reactions. Ask questions to be sure you understand what they are thinking and feeling about this option. Be patient and give them time (sometimes days or weeks) to think about this. Offer other sources for research. Be open to alternative plans or thoughts about how to make a gap year work for you. While they may not say yes to your initial plan, your parents may be able to help you make your plan stronger.
Just remember — the clearer you are about why you want and need a gap year, the easier it will be for your parents to buy into the concept.
Some Students Don’t Want to Take a Gap Year
Let’s start by trying to understand why students might not want you to take a gap year. Here are the most common reasons we hear:
- I’ll fall behind my peers — To many high school seniors, the idea of taking a gap year holds the same stigma as repeating a grade. It would mean not taking the “next step” of their education while all of their peers are. Students who feel the need or desire to do anything other than head straight to college often feel anxiety and doubt leading to questions like: Everyone else seems to transition to college without a problem, so what’s wrong with me? If I’m celebrated as a high achiever, shouldn’t I push myself to the next level? We should expect students to have these doubts because the path from high school to college is rarely questioned in the US.
- I’m ready to go to college — High school students work really hard. And, they should. But, many believe that because they achieved good grades in high school, they are ready for college. The demands were high, and your student took on every challenge. They got the grades and test scores to get into a good school. To suggest there is a need for a gap year leads some students to assume you think they haven’t achieved everything that was asked of them.
- College is going to be fun, and I’ve earned that — College is sold in US culture and media as a party that good high school students earn entrance to. From Greek systems to spring breaks to study abroad, college is a good time. Many students look forward to this exciting and intense social scene.
Why Students Should Take a Gap Year
- This is an important part of going to college — Many high school seniors approach graduation feeling burned out. They aren’t burned out from hard work. They are burned out on schooling that was about getting grades and test scores to get into college. They’re tired of their extracurriculars, evenings, and weekends being filled with activities meant to make them a more attractive applicant to schools. A gap year is an opportunity to fall in love with learning again. It’s the chance to pursue knowledge that is meaningful in the real world by actually being in the real world. When this is done well — with clear intention and planning — students arrive on their college campuses after their gap years ready to take advantage of everything their campuses have to offer. They’re filled with questions that matter to them and matter to the real world. And, they have a deep appreciation for the chance to spend 4 years surrounded by the world’s experts in everything and the resources to study things that matter.
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Slide from a Student’s PowerPoint Convincing Her Parents to Let Her Take a Gap Year
- A gap year sets you apart from your peers in really important ways — College freshmen often struggle. They struggle socially, academically, and personally. A well planned gap year is an opportunity to learn and grow outside of the classroom. Gap year students and their parents share that their gap year was a critical opportunity to develop the maturity and focus to be ready for the transition to college. Students who took gap years often report that their biggest challenge as college freshmen is having a sense of purpose and direction among students who are lost, unsure why they’re on campus, and partying their way through freshman year.
- College is a HUGE investment and this is how you prepare — Higher education requires an enormous investment of money, time, and energy. The burnout high school seniors so often feel at graduation doesn’t go away easily. And, college demands a lot of students. A gap year is the best way to ensure students are ready to make their college years about preparing for a professional career and personal life that is meaningful and fulfilling. Here’s a strong argument from a parent that the investment in a gap year for her son more than paid for itself in tuition savings.
Tips for Making Your Case for a Gap Year
Here are the steps you can take to make your case:
- Ask questions. Inquire about how your student is feeling about heading off to college, if they have any fears or anxieties about the transition, and if they have any older friends who have struggled when they’ve gotten to college. Ask them to imagine they are stepping onto campus for the first time as a freshman. Who do they want to be? What do they need to feel ready to take on those four years confidently and passionately? Make a list of those things. Explain their gap year is about getting from who they are as a high school senior to who they want to be when they arrive on their college campus.
- Make a plan. Research gap year programs and options (American Gap Association’s accredited programs, USA Gap Year Fairs program listings, GoOverseas.com’s student and parent reviews are great resources), paying careful attention to the ones that will help your student learn and grow in the ways they want and need to before starting college. Consider also how to pay for this gap year. Don’t let this be an inhibiting factor. If you start planning early enough, there are fantastic options available with scholarships and fundraising opportunities.
- Sell it. Share testimonials from students who have taken gap years. Watch videos and read blog posts from students who have participated in the gap year programs you’re considering. Talk to friends and families who have recently sent their students off to college to hear about their transition and the value of a gap year.
- Talk it out. Listen to your student’s questions and first reactions. Ask questions to be sure you understand what they are thinking and feeling. Be patient and give them time (sometimes days or weeks) to think about this. Encourage them to research other options. Students often change their minds about gap years as senior year progresses.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to take a gap year should be the student’s. But, with strong support when considering the option, many students will find it to be the best path for their college transition.
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Frequently Asked Questions about Gap Years
Why Should I Take a Gap Year?
What's the Value of a Gap Year?
What do Colleges Think of a Gap Year?
Will I Fall Behind if I Take a Gap Year?
How do I Know if a Gap Year Program is Safe?
How do I Pay for My Gap Year?
Does a Gap Year Have to be International?
Pros & Cons of Solo vs Group Gap Year
How do I Defer College for my Gap Year?
When Should I Apply for my Gap Year?
Can I Earn College Credit for my Gap Year?
Gap Year Internships