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Expert Advice: Should I Take a Gap Year?

July 18, 2014
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Most high school students can’t wait to go to college—the light at the end of the tunnel that promises freedom and fun in a new and exciting place. The majority of high school graduates continue straight on to college, but for other students, it’s more fitting to take some time off from formal education first to learn more about themselves and explore other interests.

Luckily, these students have the option of taking a gap year, which is a year off from school typically taken between the end of high school and the beginning of college. Taking a gap year is not the same as not going to college, since these students generally intend to enroll in college when the time is right. In fact, gap years are proven to benefit students academically: The American Gap Association reports gap year students have higher college GPAs than their peers.

That said, taking a gap year is a big decision that is not for everyone, and students considering it should be well-informed. To help students decide whether a gap year is right for them, NerdScholar asked the experts for advice.

Will my college help me plan a gap year?

In general, most colleges support students taking a gap year, but it is recommended that students apply to college before taking a year off. If accepted, a student can defer enrollment, which will secure the student’s spot and commit the student to returning the next year. Some schools may require validation of the gap year plan. John Sullivan, dean of admission at Florida’s Eckerd College, says that at his school, “students submit a letter of request outlining what they intend to do during their deferral year.”

Students should keep in mind how a gap year may affect their financial aid package. “In some cases, students may lose scholarship eligibility,” says Chester Goad, director of disability services for Tennessee Technological University. “In other cases, if students choose to work, it could alter their eligibility or qualification for financial assistance because employment can affect the overall family income, which potentially could affect financial aid or student loans.”

Deciding to take a gap year is a thoughtful process that requires communication and planning with the admissions and financial aid offices, and even after the gap year starts, the student needs to stay informed about the college’s requests. “It’s important to respond to the mailings you get from your college during your gap year,” says Sullivan. “Those are materials that the school needs to prepare for your arrival.”

What are some reasons to take a gap year?

Students take gap years for various reasons, but they often relate back to a desire for a meaningful experience and time to reflect on future goals before jumping into college life. Oftentimes, students graduate high school without really knowing what they want to do or why they’re even going to college. Raul Sanchez, coordinator of special programs at New York University, says that students who take a gap year “open a space to discover their own passions and kindle a profound sense of personal goals. No longer are they tempted to engage in activities simply because they will look good on a college application or meet the expectations of others, but instead they discover the freedom of seeking their own desires.”

A gap year offers students an opportunity to explore their academic and professional interests from a different perspective. More than anything, a gap year is a personal journey for students to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Gap year students “return to higher education with the fresh motivation and insight needed to succeed,” Sanchez continues. “After a gap year, these students usually gain higher self-awareness and self-motivation.”

Of course, sometimes the decision to take a gap year is out of the student’s control. Students may benefit from a gap year when facing stressful circumstances such as financial instability, unsatisfactory academic performance or personal issues. These students should still view a gap year as a learning experience that will help them refocus and get back on their feet. “Students should consider taking a break to avoid a situation in which things get even worse and they dig themselves into a hole that is very hard to get out of,” says Bill Rhinier, admissions financial planning coordinator at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. “Any sense on the student’s part that perhaps it is just not the right time for college may warrant some time off.”

What can I do during a gap year?

A gap year may provide time away from a formal education, but it is still meant to be productive and engaging. Students should keep in mind their impending return to school, and seek opportunities related to their possible academic route. “Students can pursue a stimulating internship, creative project, or travel opportunity,” says Sanchez. International travel is a very popular option for gap year students because it nurtures maturity, independence and a multicultural perspective. However, it may not be the best option for students who are financially strapped or have family obligations.

A gap year should not be a spontaneous, unguided decision, and before embarking on the adventure, students should plan out a detailed and organized agenda. “It has to be something that shows they are growing as a person,” says Sullivan, “not just working part-time or enrolling somewhere else full-time.” As with college, the objective of a gap year should be to learn, and the most beneficial experiences will be both challenging and enriching.

How do I present my gap year experience to future employers?

According to the American Gap Association, students who took a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their subsequent jobs. Even so, future employers may want to make sure a student stayed busy during a gap year, and it is the student’s responsibility to make that clear to them. “A student should always explain a gap year to a future employer in the context of his accomplishments and goals,” says Sanchez. “The student should describe a gap year as a part of a biography of success, because even a gap year that solely produced inner growth is sure to have been an experience that later fueled an external accomplishment or career achievement.”

Because so many gap year experiences spark career interests, students should highlight activities and projects related to the job industry. Even if the gap year is not directly relevant to the job in question, the student most likely developed qualities that all employers want in a candidate, such as passion and independent thinking.

“Just as with gaps in employment history, a future employer will likely ask ‘What did you do during this time,’ or ‘Why did you take this time,’” says Rhinier. “Be prepared to answer the ‘why,’ and be prepared to speak about the value of the time off. Students should focus on how the gap year contributed to their academic success and personal growth.”


Raul Sanchez is the Coordinator of NYU Special Programs and a faculty member at the American Language Institute in the School of Professional Studies at New York University. He has extensive experience teaching and advising domestic and international students on producing winning college application essays, charting major/career paths, creating effective job/internship applications/interviews, and acquiring the college skills for academic success.

Dr. Chester Goad currently serves as a Director of Disabilities for Tennessee Technological University. He is a transition expert, and presents regularly and serves on panels related to the transition from high school to college.

Bill Rhinier is an admissions financial planning coordinator at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. He guides new students through these processes and ensures that they are informed about the various financial resources available to assist with a college education. 

John Sullivan is dean of admission and financial aid at Eckerd College.

Student traveling image courtesy of Shutterstock.