Gap Year 101: What Is It, And Is It Right For Your Student?

The Gap Year, a concept that has been commonplace in countries such as England and Australia for some time, is becoming increasingly popular with American students. As a gap year consultant, I have seen this trend first hand. College advisors, teachers and even universities, such as Harvard and Princeton, are discussing the benefits of a gap year and encouraging students not go to college right away. In 2016, the notion of deferring college for a Gap Year gained even more prominence when then first daughter Malia Obama took Harvard's advice and spent a year immersed in South America and interning in film production as a transition to the university.

So what exactly is a gap year and might it be right for you or your child?

What Is A Gap Year?

A gap year is any structured period of time that is intentionally taken away from formal education and/or employment to engage in a meaningful activity. Typically, this is done before proceeding to the next phase of life. So, the natural break between high school and college or college and grad school can be a perfect time for a gap year – though many students also choose to take a gap experience between some college semesters or years.

The typical duration is nine months, the same as two semesters of college, though it can be as short as two months or as long as two years.

Why Take a Gap Year?

I hear many reasons why students want to take a gap year. They usually fall into one of these categories: feeling “burnt out” academically; being unsure of their college studies; wanting career exploration; needing time to mature; not being excited about their college options; and/or they were granted spring admissions and have the fall semester open.

Regardless of the reason, the benefits of a gap year are many:

  1. Return to school refreshed, focused and ready to take advantage of new opportunities.

  2. Connect with and develop passions, interests and strengths.

  3. Develop concrete and soft skills – for personal, professional and academic growth.

  4. Gain a clearer sense of options for college studies and/or possible career paths.

  5. Take ownership for something and be successful at it.

  6. Develop more confidence, independence and maturity. 

  7. Re-evaluate and improve one’s college admission and/or career options.

Who Takes A Gap Year?

A gap year can benefit anyone and is not the right choice for everyone. There is no specific criteria for who should take a gap year.  Academically high achieving students take gap years and so do struggling students. When it comes down to it, the ideal gap year student has an open mind, a willingness to step out of their comfort zone and a desire to have a transformational experience.

How Does It Work?

Most college advisors encourage students to apply to college while still in high school as it is easier to put together an application while still having access to high school counselors and teachers who may be writing letters of recommendation. Once accepted, students then ask the school for a deferral. This is becoming easier (and more common) as schools are seeing the value in this time away. With this said, it is important to understand your own situation and to inquire about each school’s deferral policy.

What Can You Do on a Gap Year?

There are many types of gap years ranging from cultural immersion, leadership, language learning, internships, skill-building, wilderness, volunteer, adventure travel, academic, work exchange and more. Gap years can be composed of structured group programs, independently driven pursuits, or a combination of both. Some sample opportunities include:

  • Beach conservation in Costa Rica

  • Art history program in Italy

  • Teaching English in Thailand or China

  • Yoga and organic farming in Oregon

  • Group service semester in Central America

  • Fashion Internship in Europe

  • Trekking in the Himalayas

 Make it Happen!

Making the decision to take a gap year is often the hardest part. Once you decide to take the leap, the possibilities are endless! The most important thing is that it is connected to your interests and passions. A gap year consultant can help you navigate this often daunting decision and process of creating a meaningful gap year.

Is A Gap Year Right For You?

Here are some questions to help you consider a gap year:

  1. Do you feel burned out?

  2. Are you feeling unprepared for college?

  3. Do you want practical, real-world experience?

  4. Are you unsure of what you’d like to study in college?

  5. Do you want to pursue your passions and develop your strengths?

If you answered YES to one or more of the questions above, a gap year might be right for you!

Deborah Friedman Lesser is Everything Summer’s gap expert, and has years of experience working with students and their parents to create meaningful gap year experiences.