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The Truth About Gap Years

Across the country high school seniors are making plans for life after graduation. For many college 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.

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 programs, or may waive foreign-language requirements.

Determining if a Gap Year is 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 want 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 helpful 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.

Your Gap year Strategy

    • Plan early – Do your research! You should begin considering your options at the end of junior year/beginning of 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.


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 them.


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