Taking Time Out Before College

Gap year planning for high school students: why should you encourage students to consider taking time out before starting college?

If you’ve been working with students for a while, you might share some of our concerns about students heading to college for all the wrong reasons, or perhaps no reason at all, and you might have similar experiences with students failing to complete or fully take advantage of their first year, or realizing they want to transfer to a more suitable institution. We have long advocated gap years for students, and have found recently that interest in, and openness to, taking some time out before college has been rising.

The Gap Year Association defines a gap year as: “A semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.” So let’s focus on this group of “traditional” college-bound students, and their parents, in our discussion of gap planning. As primary caregivers, and funders, of most of these students’ college educations, parents play a significant role in encouraging, or prohibiting, consideration of gap years. Counselors and Admissions Officers can play an essential role in educating families about gap years, and how they are viewed by colleges.

What do parents think about gap years? Many express strong fears and doubts. They worry about the cost of gap programs, or about students sitting at home doing nothing productive. They fear the unknown, and that something bad might happen to students jumping out of the nest, and not into a “safe” college environment. Some are concerned that a student might change his or her plans for college, or particular career paths, if they open the Pandora’s Box of opportunities in the world. Most of all, perhaps, parents worry that a student will never go to college at all if he or she gets off the path. And, many feel that colleges won’t understand why a student chose a gap year – was there a problem?

Counselors often share some of those worries, but conversely, are often the ones who notice students who are burned out, or not socially or academically ready for college, or desperate to pursue a passion of some kind before starting college. Admissions officers often see the benefits of students arriving on campus more mature, worldly, focused, and excited about their college students. More colleges are offering programs, providing resources for, and expressing openness to gap years.

  • Dartmouth says: “Dartmouth fully supports students who wish to take a gap year, or a service year, before enrolling. Many of our students have accomplished great things, expanded their experiences, and energized their hunger for learning during a gap or a service year.”
  • Princeton provides funding for international service: “Bridge Year aims to provide participants with greater international perspective and intercultural skills, an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, and a deeper appreciation of service in both a local and international context.”
  • Middlebury admits part of its first-year class for February: “The students who enroll here in February typically bring more to their college experience and, as a result, derive more from it. They also hold a disproportionately high number of leadership positions on campus and, on average, perform better academically. Every year some students who are admitted for September choose to defer their enrollment for an entire year and step off the academic treadmill. Many benefit greatly from the opportunity to travel, work, or pursue other interests, and all of those options can help contribute to an even more enriching college experience…”

We categorize gap years in several ways for students. The first is a Deferral Year, during which a student who is admitted to a college of his or her choice, puts down a deposit by May 1, and then requests to defer entrance for a semester or year, or possibly two years to allow for compulsory military or national service. Families are often not aware that deferring entrance is allowable, and are quite confused by the use of “deferral” in an Early Action/Decision context, so they need to be informed about this concept.

Those deferring may take advantage of college-sponsored, affiliated, or recognized programs, as exemplified by the Princeton’s Bridge year, or Tufts’ Tisch 1+4 program. Many colleges provide lists of these kinds of programs on their websites, and that should be a first stop for an admitted student considering a deferral gap year.

Another type of gap year is for a student who either didn’t get accepted to a college or university that he or she is excited about, or who chose not to apply in the first place. We have worked with many students who needed extra time to rebuild or recover from physical illness or injury; mental health crises; such family challenges as divorce, illness or death, job loss, or moves; or discovery of learning or attentional issues. These students have needed the time and space to build and show their readiness for college. They might choose a highly structured Post-Graduate (PG) boarding school program, a series of programs, work, and volunteer options, or local college classes in some combination.

For students who have been admitted to colleges and chosen one to attend, they might have nagging doubts about whether to enroll in the upcoming fall. Perhaps they have long thought that they wanted to take a year off after high school prior to starting college, or maybe have begun to realize (or others have pointed out) that they would benefit from taking some time out before starting this next major chapter of their life. How do they know when to take a gap year, and what to do?

Most colleges will grant a deferral, especially if a student has a plan in place which he or she outlines in a letter requesting the deferral, or in subsequent communications. With this type of gap year, students can choose activities without regard to their impact on future prospects for college admissions. If students are beginning their college planning with a deferral year option already in mind, they should research college policies on granting deferrals as they build their initial college list.

When students do not have a college option in hand, or when they have options they are not excited about, they must plan the year after high school as a chance to grow and explore, to be sure, but also to improve their chances for admission to college for the following fall. They might apply to some of the same colleges that didn’t admit them this time around, and they will likely add new schools to their list. We should note another impetus for gap years, which is those initiated by the colleges. More institutions are offering admission mid-year, or, after a full gap year, and encouraging students to enroll in one of their programs or to find another suitable group of activities. Colleges typically stipulate that deferral students may not enroll for full-time study at another instituion, or, apply to other colleges and universities. Thus, at some point, typically by December or January, deferral students who change their mind should be advised to announce to a college at which they have placed an enrollment deposit and which has granted them a deferral that they are applying to other colleges. In this case, the college will likely withdraw the offer of admission, and ask a student to reapply and show enough interest to considered a serious applicant anew. Of course, by this point, the student probably has decided that this is not the right college after all.

We find that students considering either gap year approach are often concerned about their readiness for college, or are excited to try something different prior to making a four-year commitment someplace. In the first case, students might be young for their class, or late bloomers academically. Perhaps they are recovering from a serious illness, a difficult family or personal issue, a geographical move or school change, or the discovery of a learning or attention issue. An extra year, and being able to show colleges a full senior year’s worth of courses, grades, and new standardized testing could help their future admissions prospects. In the second instance, students might be excited to devote themselves full-time to an athletic or artistic endeavor, or to a work project or business they have begun. Perhaps they would like to travel now, or engage in a major community service or volunteer project prior to settling into a four-year academic experience in college. For some students, taking a year to earn money and put some savings away to defray college costs is an important part of making college feasible. Families need to be aware of the need to apply for financial aid again, during the gap year, and implications of this as might relate to need-based eligibility, and possibly current merit-based scholarship offers that might be lost.

Most students have some doubts and fears about heading off to college, but if they are really feeling a much greater degree of concern and nervousness as opposed to excitement about college, then they should seriously explore a deferral or gap year. Of additional note are students who are convinced they are ready for college, but whose parents, counselors, teachers, friends, or others are strongly encouraging an alternative year. We advise students committed to plunging headlong into college regardless of the consequences or concerns to think twice. They should heed those who know them well and explore their college choice in-depth. Counselors can help students look at the academic and social opportunities and requirements, and consider carefully whether they are indeed ready for this demanding foray into independence and academic challenge.

A gap year can include many exciting possibilities. If they take a full gap year, students will have fifteen months between the time they graduate high school and enter college: a summer, a full academic year, and another summer. Most students will want to break the year into several chunks of time with more or less structured experiences in each. Some will commit full time to a program like Americorps (America’s national service program) or a job. Students can choose to study abroad for a semester or more, travel on their own, secure an internship in an area of interest, or take classes part-time at a local community college while working or volunteering in the area. Some students we have worked with have enrolled full-time in an arts-oriented program, such as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts or Berklee School of Music in order to explore a talent and determine whether it will be their major field of interest. We have had students commit to a high level athletic endeavor, such as ice hockey, Olympic sailing, or a serious tennis academy in order to bring up their athletic skills and prepare for college recruiting. Students have finished novels, joined Broadway level shows, biked across Europe, or connected to a year of internships through a group like Dynamy. Not all gap year options are super expensive, and many offer financial support.

There is really no end to the possibilities for a gap year. With good foresight students can structure an exciting and productive year that will in all likelihood lead to their being readier and more capable for college success, and counselors can play an important role in bringing these kinds of stories and opportunities to the attention of students and parents through website resource lists, college night talks, email communications, and personal meetings. Colleges can promote their openness to gap years by clearly indicating policies on their admissions websites, by offering gap year funding, and by indicating in admissions acceptance letters not only an allowance for gap years, but perhaps even strong support.

A version of this article appeared in the College Bound Newsletter