More and more students are taking gap years between high school and college. This is when the student doesn’t go straight to college after graduating high school and instead spends a year traveling, volunteering or working. But how exactly does the college application process work if you’re taking a gap year? And when should you be applying? This guide covers the nuts and bolts and gives expert tips on ensuring a seamless transition to college. Learn more about the pros and cons, and what you can do to get back into the school mindset after stepping away for a year.
Interest and participation in gap years has grown significantly in the past decade. But just because they’re trending, doesn’t mean they’re for every person or every situation. There are plenty of variables to consider before committing to taking a gap year. Below are some of the big pros and cons to think about:
You’d think 13 years of school would be enough to figure out what you want to study and who you want to be. But sometimes you need just a bit more time and space. High school can sometimes feel like it’s all about fulfilling others’ expectations — from teachers to parents to coaches. “What if I asked you what your definition of success was,” says Ethan Knight, executive director and founder of Gap Year Association. “Most of us haven’t taken the time – certainly not at 18 – to figure out what success looks like to us individually, and how could anyone be successful, by definition, attempting to live another’s definition of success?” A gap year gives you time to really think about and explore what you want away from the hubbub of high school.
A gap year alone isn’t enough to pump up the resume. After all, a year devoted to catching up on Netflix won’t help any candidate get into college. But a year spent volunteering, travelling or interning is something potential employers value. Knight recalls he had one student who took a gap year and worked in Alaska, interned in Norway and volunteered in Bolivia. The student eventually went on to attend Yale University but said every job interview he had post-graduation focused more on his gap year experiences than his studies.
According to Knight, 86 percent of Gap Year graduates report being satisfied or very satisfied with their careers once they’ve hit the job market, a much higher rating than the national average. “Most students are reporting having a clearer sense of purpose in academics and life, less burnout and better job prospects,” he explains.
Knight says Gap Year graduates tend to have higher college GPAs than non Gap Year students. He believes this is because a gap year can motivate students to go above and beyond. “The experiences gained during a gap year – even ones with a lot of adversity – are bound to help a student with resilience/grit and focus in the years to come,” he says. He also notes that taking a gap year can get students excited for new things. “Personally, it’s been my experience that a gap year ‘activates’ a young person’s curiosity in a way they’d often let wither, and a curious student makes for a great college student.”
It’s easy to get comfortable and although there’s something nice about comfort, it’s only when we’re challenged that we learn more about ourselves and grow. “If a thing looks familiar and feels familiar, then we related to it in familiar ways,” says Knight. “I think humanity learns best by trial and error, and if you only know the narrowest slivers of ways to do this thing called life, then you’re bound to live confined to what you know.” A gap year can force you out of your comfort zone and make you see things in very different ways; ways you may never have realized if you just kept doing business as usual.
Many students decide to take a year off to travel abroad but some choose to work either as an intern or part- or full-time employee. Those who take this route, can put their paychecks towards their college education. (However, keep in mind that when the school assesses student need, your assets count against you more than the assets of your parents.)
In college, you must apply for federal financial aid each year. That money is calculated differently when parents have multiple children in college simultaneously. The expected family contribution is split between the number of children. Therefore, for some families, having the older child take a gap year may lower their overall cost of college.
It will never be easier to travel than when you’re straight out of high school. New high school grads typically have few responsibilities so it’s a perfect time to take advantage.
Students who travel abroad have the opportunity to pick up a foreign language. And if you become fluent enough, you may be able to test out of your college’s foreign language requirement upon returning.
According to 2015 research conducted by Temple University in conjunction with Gap Year Association, the six top reported outcomes of a gap year were personal, rather than career- or academic-oriented. Ninety-seven percent of alumni who responded indicated that their gap year experience increased their maturity, while 96 percent said it increased their self-confidence.
Stef Mauler, founder and director of the Mauler Institute, works with families navigating Ivy League admissions. When asked about taking a gap year, she says, “I find that most families are worried about ‘falling behind’ in some way. I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation of what students would be falling behind on as education is (hopefully) a lifelong journey which is made up of many experiences and interactions, both in and out of the classroom.”
Gap years give students the opportunity to explore and experiment with less on the line. Sometimes the path you envisioned for yourself isn’t exactly what you thought it would be. By taking a gap year, you can test the waters and explore other paths. In some cases, it may end up saving you money on a mistake college major choice.
While spending a gap year working obviously helps students save up for college, traveling extensively can involve huge outlays of funds that could otherwise go to higher education costs — not to mention the cost of a gap year program itself, which can run well into the thousands. To counteract this, students should come up with a solid game plan to ensure what they’re doing adds skills and resume bullet points that will pay dividends after the year is over. Knight also points out that a gap year can be low-cost or even pay you money but finding an opportunity like that will require lots of research and thoughtful planning early on.
If you decide to travel instead of working, a late start means one less year of earning potential. One more year when you could have been working and spending money instead of making it. Moreover, it could mean lost momentum if not planned appropriately. (See Tips for Getting Back into the Swing of Things for advice on keeping momentum.)
Depending on the school you choose, getting a deferral to take a gap year may require additional steps in the application process. (See How to Take a Gap Year.) Some colleges don’t even allow deferment, which means you’ll need to apply to college at the end of your gap year. Even if your chosen college tries to make it “easy,” it’s definitely not as straightforward as just going straight to college right after high school.
For most people, lack of time isn’t the enemy so much as lack of planning. Students who choose to plan out a gap year on their own instead of utilizing a program may find themselves viewing more television than anything else. Even students who do use a program must put in almost as much effort to selecting one and applying as they do to the university application process. Knight also points out that poor planning and research can sometimes put students in dangerous situations abroad. Although a gap year is fun and exciting, you still need to take planning it seriously.
In the beginning, you probably had every intention of keeping it to just a year. But before you know it, it’s eleven months later, you’re still backpacking through Europe and there’s still so much more to see. Or you’ve been interning at the company of your dreams and was just asked to stay onboard for another six months. It can be difficult to come back and continue on to college when you’re having such an amazing experience, and it’s even harder if you don’t have a clear and solid plan in place after the year is over.
You can dramatically alter your expected family contribution by sitting on the sidelines for a year, especially if you do so while older siblings are still in college.
The truth is, you won’t get as much out of a gap year if you’re only in it for “time off.” Yes, a gap year is a time to recharge but that doesn’t mean sitting around and catching up on Netflix. To make the most of it and to ensure you’re still setting yourself up for life after college, you’ll have to be ready to get out of your comfort zone and try new things; only then will you grow and develop new, valuable skills.
Although you don’t have to declare you’re taking a gap year to anyone — at least if you’re not looking to do a program — there is a way to make it official. The Gap Year Association vets colleges with favorable gap year policies and lists four steps for interested students to follow when applying to school:
Mauler says: “For high achieving students who are risking burn-out or are not yet ready to go to college and want to explore an interest without the pressures of school, they should still apply to college during senior year.” That way students can also take advantage of high school connections to counselors, teachers and referees. A year later and they’ll have new students to help through the process.
In some cases, all you have to do is ask your admissions office if you can take a gap year. Some colleges strongly encourage it, while others – such as those within the California State University System – don’t allow deferment. It’s best to know either way before applying. “If you are interested in taking a gap year, reach out to the admissions offices of all of the colleges you are considering as soon as possible,” recommends Christine Miller of Carpe Diem Education, a popular gap year program. “Be sure to also ask the school if you are eligible to receive college credit while on your gap year — many schools will not allow you to take classes, so keep that in mind.” Some colleges may also require you to check in with them throughout the year. This may include sending status updates on the goals you told the school you were setting out to achieve.
We can’t help you with this, but our fingers are crossed for you. Once you decide where to attend, you may have to put down a tuition deposit to secure your spot.
Many colleges offer deferrals for gap years. The Gap Year Association keeps a list of colleges’ deferral policies. According to Mauler, “Requests should be made, in writing, to the institution after the student has been accepted and tuition deposit has been paid.”
Those are the basics, but there’s no one-size-fits-all process for college admissions prior to a gap year. Other variables may be at play and schools may make decisions on a case-by-case basis. For instance, theater, art or music majors often have to try out to earn a spot in the program. At some schools, students may have to get departmental approval again after their gap year.
Moreover, financial aid could shift. Says Mauler, “It’s important to check with each college for their policies. Generally speaking, as long as a student’s financial situation doesn’t change across the year, they would still likely qualify for federal financial aid; however, they will need to resubmit the application for the appropriate year of matriculation. Scholarships or grants offered by the institution or a third party may or may not carry over, depending on availability.”
Of course, applying to college is just half of the process. If you’re interested in participating in a gap year program, there’s also that application process, which has its own list of steps. Here’s Miller’s advice:
“Do your due diligence,” she says. She goes on to say students should extensively research all their options and the different programs they are considering. How do the programs set themselves apart from the rest? Students should also speak with program alumni and program directors. “Make sure you ask questions regarding risk management, curriculum, the experience of your program leaders, student support, challenges you can expect to face in the program and anything else you're curious about,” says Miller.
“Don't be afraid to ask questions throughout the process! All gap year programs will be happy to talk about their programs, walk you through itineraries, explain the admissions process and support you through the decision process. Asking lots of questions indicates your interest and investment, so it’s a good thing!”
“Be proactive throughout the admissions process.” This can include checking in on your application and making sure y'7;re familiar with next steps. “Program admissions staff will be happy to hear from you,” says Miller.
Once you're accepted to a program, you'll receive much more information about next steps and how to prepare. Make sure you review this information closely and are familiar with what’s expected of you. Program staff are always available to help you navigate this next step, but you should also do your own research online.
Both Mauler and Miller contend that it’s actually not so hard for students to get back into a school mindset, provided they took a gap year for the right reasons. Says Mauler, “Of my many clients who have pursued a gap year, I have never had a client who regretted the experience. Nor have I ever had a client who failed to transition to college successfully after completion of a gap year.” Here are seven tips to help you make a smooth transition:
As Mauler points out, the key to a successful college transition begins before the gap year even starts. “Students who go into a gap year with an eye toward how they will be better at the end of the year see the experience as a stepping stone on their educational journey,” she says. “These students have no trouble moving right into college as the next logical step.” Those goals might include gaining work experience in a field of interest, learning a language, volunteering for a non-profit organization, conducting a mission trip or immersing oneself in a different culture.
Breaks are hard to recover from. Mauler says students who think about a gap year in terms of a break are those who are least likely to move onto college. “They sleep in, hang out with friends, play video games. Pretty soon, days turn into months and months can, sometimes, turn into years. These are the kids who fail to launch,” explains Mauler.
“When a gap year is taken as a means to deepen self-awareness, expand skill sets, dive deeply into service learning, and discover passions/interests, there really is no downside,” says Miller. All of this will culminate in a student who is more mature, self-directed, self-aware and more motivated than the majority of college applicants.
To compare, if the intent is to "backpack" the world, party or simply "chill", the experience won't manifest as something meaningful and transformative. This isn't to say that this style of travel doesn't have a time and place; it can certainly be fun. However, too much of it can lead to a lack of motivation when it comes time to return to academia and it doesn't promote a deeper level of engagement with self, local cultures or global issues, argues Miller.
If you wait to apply to college until after your gap year, Mauler notes, you may not start college for another two years, which might make transitioning a bit harder. It may also make collecting transcriptions, test scores and letters of recommendation more difficult. If possible, it’s best to get this done while still in high school when you still have easy access to this information as well as access to resources, teachers and counselors if you have questions or need help. Applying during your senior year also means you’d be going through the process with your peers. Applying at the same time as the rest of your class can be much more motivating than applying solo at the end of your gap year.
Mauler reminds students to register for housing as early as it is available. This small detail can get lost in the shuffle if a student is traveling or working during the gap year. Registering for housing early can also help students get into themed housing, such as one for international studies majors, with peers who share similar interests. That can help ease the transition.
The end of a gap year and the beginning of college doesn’t have to be a strict division. Sure, one day you’re trekking through Borneo and the next you’re in a western civilization course with an exam looming large. But the mindset you had while travelling could be valuable while in college – you’ll be more open to exploring new things and could discover new interests and passions while in the classroom.
Miller says that by taking a gap year, students oftentimes discover their passions and areas of deep interest. They can then connect the dots to create a college experience that deepens those interests, rather than attending college from a stance of obligation or feeling like it's the only option.
Some students decide to apply to college after a gap year rather than defer. Mauler points out this may be a good option for students who either lack the grades and test scores or simply started the college application process too late in the year. Waiting until after the gap year can help these students put together a more compelling application. However, going this route means there are a few milestones you’ll have to schedule and plan during high school and your gap year. Below, Mauler and Miller offer tips for students who plan to wait until after their gap year is over to apply to college.
Mauler: Whether you are working in a job or traveling overseas, it’s very challenging to stay on track when your peers aren’t going through the same things. Know the college requirements and deadlines and start working on college applications at least three months in advance of those deadlines.
Mauler: It can be difficult to get into study mode when you’re out of a structured school environment. Set aside dedicated study time each week or work with a test prep company to make sure you go into that test fully prepared. A strong test score can indicate your potential and ability in cases where your transcripts are lackluster.
Mauler: Request recommendations before you graduate high school. It can be tricky to find old teachers and get them to write a compelling recommendation letter when they haven’t seen you for one to two years and they’re busy writing recommendations for their current students. You can always set up a Common App account now, invite your recommenders to submit a letter through the system, and roll over your account to the following year when you are ready to submit applications.”
Miller: If you participated in a gap year program or if you interned or worked, get letters of rec from program leaders or employers. They'll have amazing insights into your recent experiences and can highlight aspects of growth such as responsibility, maturity, leadership and commitment.
Mauler: It can be difficult to get transcripts sent after you have graduated from high school, especially if they are sent electronically through a software system like Naviance, which is only accessible to current students. Meet with your counselor, discuss your gap year plan and make arrangements to ensure your transcripts will be sent on time.
Mauler: In addition to your personal statement, be sure to also write the optional essay to detail why you decided to take a gap year, how you grew through the experience and what new skills or talents you have acquired that you will bring to your future college. In fact, I advise students in this situation to write the outline of this essay before they embark on their gap year because it can be used as a roadmap to ensure they are meeting the goals they set out to achieve.
Miller: It's a ‘stand out’ element in an application and will help distinguish you from other applications. Highlight your areas of interest, and what you'd like to focus on. Be as specific as possible. This will again distinguish you as someone who is dedicated, self-directed and ready to take advantage of the academic setting.
The best gap year program will really depend on your personal goals. Take your pick between service, travel, learning and self-discovery. Below are 10 programs that highlight the diversity of gap year experiences.
For Jewish students who have completed high school, Aardvark runs nine-month programs split between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Students live like locals, volunteer or intern with local businesses and community organizations in the morning, and take college-level courses from the American Jewish University in the afternoon. These include Hebrew and other Israel-related topics. Participants can add the Selah Program to study Judaism more closely.
Lovers of the Italian renaissance can get their fill of paintings, sculpture and architecture via these four- to six-week programs. The art courses start four times throughout the year and take participants around Rome, Venice and other major art-producing towns. Students who want a longer time away can take the semester course, which adds time in London, Paris, southern France and Tuscany.
Camps runs volunteer-centered programs — everything from two-week excursions to Ecuador to four-plus month trips that span Central and South America. Not to mention retreats to Kenya and Southeast Asia. Volunteer projects focus on improving community infrastructure (often schools) and protecting shared resources.
With journeys from Morocco to the South Pacific, Carpe Diem strives to make every student “a safe and smart traveler.” That goes from constructing a budget to learning about the history of where they’re traveling. The three-month excursions, which combine service and cultural exchange with a bit of travel, are led by overseas educators who speak the language and know the terrain. Participants can get credit through Portland State University.
New Zealand is the backdrop for The Gap’s four- to nine-week programs held during the country’s summer (January to February), winter (July to August) and spring (September to November). The program splits into four stages: learning, exploration, self-direction and reflection. In short, after some group bonding, the group plans its own journey via service learning.
IPW is a bit different from standard gap year organizations, as its programs are for adults of any age who “have an intense need to find personal direction.” After coming to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, participants spend time at classroom-based training and in the woods. The training, which seeks to expand creativity, self-awareness and harmony with nature, lasts for four to six months and is nonresidential.
This wilderness expedition school calls an organic farm in rural New Hampshire home. But students won’t be there much — the winter semester involves an epic 700-kilometer expedition to Quebec and back via ski, snowshoe, rowboat, canoe and mountain bike. The summer semester in Ecuador is 800 kilometers through the Amazon and across the Andes. Students can choose between excursions or do both.
LEAPNow’s LEAPYEAR program combines group travel with a solo internship and multiple residential retreats in Colorado. Participants travel together for nine weeks to either India or Latin America, where they delve into a foreign language, conduct service work and explore. The Naropa University-accredited life skills curriculum is in play throughout, with students even using a month-long home break in the middle to contemplate their journey.
Ridge is designed for student-athletes who grew up on the X Games. The rural Montana organization plans semester-long programs in the winter for skiers and snowboarders, with plenty of mountain biking and skateboarding as the weather warms. Students assist disabled athletes once a week and can also intern in a sport-related industry. They may seek University of Montana core credits during the experience.
Sail away for 20 to 90 days on a small boat manned by you and your peers. Schooners depart from the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean and go as far as the Mediterranean. When not manning the riggings, students take classes in areas such as marine biology and oceanography, which are accredited by the University of South Florida. There’s also time ashore at each island destination.
For personalized assistance in finding a program that fits your personal goals, try Center for Interim Programs. The initial consultation for this bespoke counseling service is free.
CIEE facilitates gap year abroad programs. Its website conveniently breaks down programs into three groups: language and culture, service and leadership, and global internships.
Built for Americans intrigued by all things abroad, this review site has a dedicated section for gap years. Reviews are searchable by program or country and cover five aspects: housing, support, fun, value and safety. Pages link directly to the program website.
This is the go-to source for gap year advice and resources. It’s an advocacy organization that also accredits programs and maintains a directory of reputable gap year consultants.
Teen Life maintains its own list of featured gap year programs, along with links to their websites.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.