Gap Year… A Good Idea?

The word ‘gap’ usually carries negative connotations – a space, a hole, an abyss. Gaps sounds dark, scary, possibly eternal and like something to be avoided at all costs. It is no surprise then that many parents become alarmed at the prospect of their student taking a gap year in between high school and college.

Traditionally, students have been expected to immediately follow high school graduation with matriculation into college, but a growing number of students are taking a gap year and reaping significant benefits that result in better and more focused study when they do begin their university courses the following year.

What exactly is a gap year? It is a structured two-month (yes, summer counts as a gap students!) to two-year period between high school and college to take a break from classroom study and to learn about self, others and the world. A gap year must be a year of action, challenges and learning – it is NOT an extended holiday, nor is it a reason to do little or nothing. In fact, a gap spent without structure or one during which a student does not extract lessons learned may have a negative impact rather than a positive one.

The idea of a gap year is not new. European students have long spent the year after high school engaged in activities such as travel, volunteering and even work. As many as 50 per cent of students in countries such as Norway, Denmark and Turkey take a year to engage in other activities before beginning college1. Of late, this trend has begun to find acceptance in the US among students, their families and yes, even among American colleges. In fact, many US colleges encourage and even support students seeking to gain life experience before they begin their university work. Surprised?  Don’t be. The common conception of a gap year being negative or symbolizing student apathy simply isn’t accurate. Taking time before college studies begin can be an excellent opportunity for some as a well-planned gap year can result in a significantly more mature, focused and passionate student.

With this in mind, I strongly recommend that students considering a gap year fully engage in college research and apply to college during their senior year. While many colleges are perfectly willing to accept students already involved in their gap year, it is significantly easier for students to prepare for admissions and apply during high school while they have the full support and assistance of their school counselors. In addition to at-school registration for the SAT and Subject tests, students benefit from being fresh in their recommending teacher’s minds, the momentum of their classmates applying for college and from school counselors who have access to a vast array of resources on gap year activities. Moreover, depending on student travel plans it may not be feasible to apply to college from remote locations.

Only once admission has been gained, students should write to their selected college or university and ask for a deferral. Note that deferral requests should include a well thought out explanation as to why a gap year will be beneficial and a plan of activities or engagements that will lead to the sought after benefits. Students should read their college website for school policy on a gap year. Some institutions provide a list of suggested gap year activities and some, such as Princeton University, offer specific planned gap year activities for accepted students. Parents take heart…universities and colleges would not support the idea of a gap year if they did not see positive resulting behaviors in their deferred admits. Moreover, 90 per cent of students who take a gap year return to college within a year2.

Who wants to take a gap year and why? There are several good reasons to take a gap year:

Youth. Separating from parents and going to college is sufficiently challenging, but doing so at 16 is infinitely more difficult as younger students may lack the physical or emotional maturity and self-confidence to advocate for themselves on a college campus. Additionally, younger students are less likely to find similarly aged peers, making it more difficult to resist drinking and other activities best left to older peers.

Grades that don’t reflect the true/full academic abilities of the student. The gap year can be spent addressing academic weaknesses by students taking or re-taking key classes at 5th year boarding schools or attending community colleges. In this case a student may benefit from reapplying after better grades have been registered.

Lack of focus or direction. During the race to college, many students don’t spend any time thinking about who they are and what they want. As a result, some students would benefit greatly from taking time out to get to know themselves better before they begin college.

Burnout. Student exhaustion from the effort and competitive pressure of high school is one of the primary reasons that students take a gap year2.

Need to further develop English language skills. In the rush to attend college, some foreign students underestimate the demands of English language competency in the classroom. It is a much better idea to take a year out to master academic English and develop university level writing skills than to be required to drop out due to poor grades.

What are some of the benefits of a year off? The positive effects of a deliberately structured gap are significant and statistically rational for some students.

Students matriculating into college after a gap year are more mature, self-assured and eager to attend school and study in a focused manner. Many students return to the structured school environment feeling a strong sense of ownership of their own lives.

Gap year experiences impact the choices students make in terms of academic major. Student interest in certain majors/careers is either confirmed by the experience, or students realize that their interest lies in another field.3.

Taking a one-year break between high school and university allows for motivation and interest in study to be renewed4.

Gap year students show a clear pattern of having higher GPAs than would have been predicted by high school grades. The positive effect of the gap year on grades lasts for all four years of university study5.

The benefits listed above represent only of few of the many possible gains to be reaped by students who enter their gap in a well-organized manner. Of course, the results of such time spent cannot always be seen immediately, but rest assured that the time spent out of college can set your child up for greater success than a more traditional path may have done.


1Nordic Institute for studies in Innovation, Research and Education. Oslo, Norway.

3 Karl Haigler & Rae Nelson, The Gap Year Advantage, independent study of 300 gap year students between 1997-2006.

4 Birch, “The Characteristics of Gap-Year Students and their Tertiary Academic Outcomes”, Australia, 2007.

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Tess Robinson