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The Truth About Gap Years

Across the country, high school seniors are making plans for life after graduation. For many colleges is the obvious choice, but not for all. Gap years, where students take time off between high school and college, are becoming increasingly popular in the US. They allow students to gain real-world perspectives and experiences before stepping onto a college campus.

Evolution of the Gap Year Historically, a post-grad or gap year was used by student-athletes who needed another year of athletic exposure or emersion; typically to help in the recruiting process. It is also a very popular practice for international students, who often take a year off between secondary school and college to travel.

Should You Take a Gap Year: What Are Colleges Saying?

Over the last ten years, however, there has been a dramatic shift toward academic and service gap years within the US. Many students are deferring college admission for a year to study, travel, work, or volunteer. According to a 2012 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, about 1.2% of college freshmen chose to take a gap year before college Some schools have recognized the advantage gap years can provide in allowing students to attain valuable work and life experiences.

Princeton has a university-sponsored program for students who were admitted but feel they need a year off.

Princeton’s Bridge Year program allows students to spend nine months focusing on community service and cultural immersion in China, India, Peru, or Senegal.

Harvard is also known for encouraging new students to consider a gap year upon admission.

The opportunities for gap years are almost unlimited. Some options include:

  • Language immersion
  • Teaching abroad
  • Conservation and sustainability projects
  • Volunteer corps
  • Adventure travel/Sailing
  • Combination of work and travel

Some colleges may offer academic credit to students who complete organized gap year programs or may waive foreign-language requirements.

How to Determine if a Gap Year Is Right for You?

There are many reasons why a student may opt to take a gap year. The rigors of high school may have left them drained and wanting to reenergize. Maybe they are unsure of their course of study or feel like they are not yet ready to adequately balance academics and college life. Perhaps they realize that gaining some real-world experience will allow them to enter college with more focus on their goals and choose courses that will be helping them in future endeavors.

Gap years are meant to inspire and excite students and help them grow before they enter into the college world. Taking a year off can give students experiences and skills that can be translated into college life, and can make the transition onto a college campus smoother.

One of the biggest concerns that parents and students have about a gap year is that by not immediately entering college after high school, students could get off track and lose the desire to go back to school. However, many students who take a gap year find themselves hungry for more education.

Studies have also shown that students who take gap years also have higher retention and graduation rates, compared to their peers who went straight into higher education after high school. At Middlebury College and the University of North Carolina, students who took gap years were found to have higher GPAs than those who didn’t.

Review Your Goals and Intentions

Reserve some time to reflect on why you are interested in taking a gap year and how you will use this time to pursue your interests and goals. While it is perfectly normal to want some time to recharge after four years of high school, a gap year isn’t designed to be an extended vacation. Instead, it’s a time to pursue learning opportunities outside of the classroom. Think about what kind of opportunities you would be interested in exploring during this year and what role these experiences will play in achieving your long-term goals.

Factor Education In

Don’t forget to factor your post-gap year plans into the equation! If you have already been accepted to your top choice college and which to defer for a year,  research their policies regarding gap years and deferrals. Check to see if you will need to pay a tuition deposit for the fall term for which you want to enroll, and when this needs to be paid. If you plan on using your gap year to apply to other colleges, create a timeline for when you will tour schools and work on each application.

Weigh Your Options

Students may be drawn to the idea of a gap year for a variety of reasons: some may feel like they need some time to refresh after high school, while others may be less than thrilled with their current college admissions outcomes. Regardless of your scenario, it’s important to weigh every option before making your final decision. Consider the pros and cons of different colleges you were accepted to, as well as potential opportunities you could pursue during your gap year. There are several different ways to spend your year off productively, from volunteering to interning to conducting an independent research project, so it’s important to get specific before making your final decision.

Do Your Research

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of options, it’s time to do some research to make an informed decision. Look into each gap year agenda you are considering and map out every possibility. Students who are interested in doing volunteer work should investigate specific opportunities, while those with an independent project in mind should create a timeline for their work. It’s important to remember that a gap year shouldn’t be used as a months-long vacation; instead, it should be an opportunity for students to grow and expand their horizons. Instead of looking at a gap year as an easy option, recognize that it requires tremendous maturity and personal motivation in order to spearhead your own project and step outside of the box.

Seek a Second Opinion

Ultimately, taking a gap year is your decision, but it can be beneficial to gain insight from those close to you. Discuss the opportunity with your family as well as your guidance counselor and teachers. If you know anyone who has taken a gap year in the past, reach out to them to learn more about their experience and gather some first-hand advice. Approach your gap year decision with the mindset of a journalist working on a major story and strive to gather input from a multitude of different sources to complement your own research.

Plan For Your Return

If you do decide to take a gap year, it’s also necessary to think beyond the year in question. Consider whether you wish to defer your enrollment in order to accommodate a gap year or whether you would prefer to undergo the college application process from scratch. For students who were disappointed with their admissions results, a gap year can be an opportunity to revamp their college application materials and reconsider their list of best-fit institutions. Other students may wish to enroll at a university they were already admitted to, in which case deferring enrollment is typically your best option.

Create an Itinerary

Creating a gap year itinerary is a great way to stay organized and begin to plan your experience. Map out when you would participate in any specific programs or learning opportunities, how much time this would entail, and any other pursuits you are interested in balance. If you plan on applying to colleges during this gap year, set aside time for each part of the application process to ensure that you don’t over-book yourself.

How to Apply to College After a Gap Year: Your Gap Year Strategy

Plan Early and Do Your Research

You should begin considering your options at the end of junior year/beginning of the senior year and talk with your school counselor. This will give you enough time to develop a plan of action. Yale also has a great website with resources for planning and researching gap year options.

Know Your Top-Choice School’s Policies

Applying and deferring your acceptance for a year will help keep you on track for admission. Go through the college application process and know your school’s policy regarding gap years and deferrals. Make sure the schools you are applying to have a clear deferral policy and find out if you will have to pay a tuition deposit for the fall term for which you want to enroll. If you decide not to apply now, make a clear plan for when you will visit and apply during your gap year.

Make an Itinerary

Make sure you have a clear vision of how your year will be spent. Some schools may require a summary of your gap year plans in order to allow you to defer your admission for a year, so make sure you have your plans clearly laid out. A gap year is not a vacation; it’s a learning and growing experience.

How to Make the Most of a Gap Year

While gap years can be an incredible opportunity to gain real-life experience, it’s important to plan ahead and make the most of your time outside of the classroom. Keep reading to learn more about what you can do to ensure you lay the foundation for a gap year that’s enriching and exciting.

Start by Goal-Setting

Students shouldn’t view gap years as an extended vacation. Instead, the experience is a chance to explore the interests and passions you care most about on your own terms. Consequently, the first step every student should take is to create a detailed plan outlining what they wish to accomplish during their gap year. Start by reflecting on your academic journey, the extracurricular activities you most enjoy, and where you see yourself in the next five and ten years. Use this information to brainstorm a list of three to five goals that you wish to accomplish throughout the coming months.

Do Your Research

Once you have identified your core objectives, seek out specific experiences and opportunities that will help you achieve these goals. For example, if you’re passionate about writing, pursue internship opportunities at a local newspaper, compile your own independent reading list, and consider taking an online course taught by an author that you admire. The possibilities for students who are eager to learn are near-infinite, so it’s important to review multiple opportunities to pinpoint the experience that best aligns with your needs and goals.

Stick To a Schedule

Even if you’re not bound to a strict course schedule the way you were in high school, every student should structure their time in order to maximize their efficiency. After identifying the opportunities you wish to pursue, begin to build a routine that will enable you to work productively on a consistent basis. This could mean penciling in several hours for academic work in the morning or setting aside time each day to read independently or journal. Having some consistency will help students stay on track to meet their goals.

Reflect on Your Progress

Students in the midst of a gap year may not receive formalized report cards, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take time to evaluate your own progress. Every week, review the learning experiences you have participated in, what you took away from these events, and what you hope to learn in the future. By setting aside reflection time each week, students can maintain their motivation, identify any roadblocks early on, and devise workarounds to make sure they stay on track to meet their goals.

Try Something New

Even if your main goal is to deepen your understanding of a passion you’ve honed throughout high school, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore new opportunities as well. Gap years are a unique chance to diversify your experiences and broaden your skillset. Whether it is learning a new language, advancing your PhotoShop skills, or picking up an entirely new hobby, take advantage of any additional free time to step outside of your comfort zone in some capacity.

The Ins and Outs of the School-Sponsored Gap Year Programs

A common concern among newly matriculated college students is that the rapid transition from high school to college life can be disorienting, jarring, and counterintuitive to the idea that college is the gateway to the “Real World.” After all, most high school students haven’t had the chance to explore all of the major and career options available to them because they’ve been busy, well, being high school students.

Gap years are one solution to this problem, but, while popular in Europe, they tend to have a less-than-favorable reputation in the US. They’re oftentimes seen as a method of postponing the inevitable, or only applicable to students with less than stellar academics. Despite their reputation, there’s no denying that for some students, gap years are the best option.

According to the American Gap Association, a federally recognized organization dedicated to the quality control of American students’ gap years, 60% of gap year participants felt that the experience helped elucidate their future career paths—and nowadays, the numbers are on the rise.

Getting out of the stressful high school bubble can be a nearly impossible task. Thankfully, there’s been a new trend surfacing among the nation’s top universities that’s been designed to remedy this problem: the school-sponsored gap year.

Institutions for higher learning like Tufts, Yale, Princeton, and UNC-Chapel Hill are beginning to offer fully-funded gap year programs for admitted students. These programs aim to take incoming first-years to various locales so that they can experience living in a new environment before starting their academic careers.

Tufts University

The Tufts 1+4 program is need-blind and really focuses on making a national or international gap year affordable for all students, even those coming from low-income households. It’s a program that’s perfect for a school that’s as dedicated to accessibility as Tufts University. Even the application is simple: students interested in the program just have to write one application essay in addition to their preexisting Tufts application.

University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Where Tufts offers aid for students in the form of a school-sponsored program, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship aims to set adventure-seeking students on a more independent path through their highly competitive Global Gap Year Fellowship. The program, which offers a $7,500 stipend to students accepted to Chapel Hill during its Early Action admissions round, orients Global Gap Year Fellows as they propose their gap year destination. The mentorship continues through the nine-month program, and the university even offers a student advocacy group called Gappl that assists gap year students transition into traditional campus life, post-gap year.

Princeton University

Princeton University’s Bridge Year Program chooses to focus on international community service. Taking place in countries such as Brazil, Senegal, and China, incoming first-years who are accepted to the Bridge Year Program are given a primer in the language and culture of the location of their choice. Students live with selected families and are encouraged to forge relationships not only with other Princeton students but also with the native inhabitants they encounter over the course of the program.

American universities are beginning to recognize the legitimacy of the gap year. Gap years are no longer thought of as lazy breaks from school and work responsibilities — they’ve evolved into tools that actually provide directionality for students who employ them. These universities are beginning to address the questions of affordability and usefulness that are associated with gap years—and that’s a trend that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Make Your Gap Year Experience Smoother With IvyWise

IvyWise experts frequently counsel students regarding gap year decisions. If you are considering a gap year but need expert help finding programs, laying out your vision, and/or ensuring that you have covered all the bases for your deferral process, don’t hesitate to contact us. This is an exciting time in one’s life and we are here to help ensure that students make the most of it and make the right choices for themselves.


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