Pros and Cons of Gap Year

Question: I recently have been thinking about taking a gap year between high school and college. What are some advantages and disadvantages of doing this?

A gap year is a welcome break for many students but can also be frustrating to others. It may indeed be a way to recharge your battery or to explore activities near home or afar that you never had time to experience before. However, students with lofty gap-year plans have been known to end up zoned out in front of “Full House” reruns or steamed up behind a fry-o-lator at the local Mickey D’s. Thus, before deciding on a year off before college, it’s important to assess your reasons for the change and to make sure you spend your time in an engaging way that meets these aims.

For instance, if your main objective is to get a breather from classrooms, tests, and homework assignments, a gap year can be a great way to do that. Whether you’re working full time, pursuing an extracurricular interest (e.g., training for a triathlon or interning at the local TV station), or taking part in an organized travel, study, or volunteer program, it’s important to have focus. We advise you to come up with a plan–at least a preliminary one–before you commit to the year off. One complaint we often hear from dissatisfied “gappers” is that, once their friends headed off to college in the fall and they didn’t have any fulfilling activities on the docket, they regretted their decision.

If you have no clue about what to do, consider one of the organizations, like those below, that provide gap-year solutions. Some charge a fee for this advice–and the programs they recommend can be costly, too–so keep that in mind as you proceed. (We aren’t endorsing any of these outfits. We’ve not heard bad things about any–only good–but it’s still a “buyer-beware” situation):

www.interimprograms.com

www.timeoutassociates.com

www.dynamy.org/

You can actually earn money by volunteering for Americorps (or for its affiliated program City Year). See http://www.americorps.org/ and http://www.cityyear.org/

The biggest plus of a gap year is that many students who take time off before college find that the break from academics enables them to return to the classroom the following fall with renewed vigor and focus (and even maturity :-) ). Some parents (maybe yours?) and even some students, too, worry that a detour from college may lead to a long-term derailment, but this is rarely the case. Most gappers who take a year off of the academic treadmill are eager to climb back on when the time comes.

While often it makes sense to apply to college while still in high school (where you’ll have access to guidance counselors and their services, teachers for recommendations, etc.), and then defer admission once admitted, some students find that after a year away, their priorities change, and they’re interested in a different institution and/or major field. So one thing you’ll need to consider as you proceed is a timeline … will you make your college plans before your year off or during it?

Some students, too, view a gap year as a way to get into a “better” college than those that would have admitted them straight from high school. Typically, this is NOT an effective strategy. Most colleges base their decisions primarily on academic factors, so–if your year away does not include taking classes–then don’t expect it to offer a back-door route to a top-choice college. However, there ARE stories out there about applicants whose gap-year efforts were sufficiently impressive that they led to acceptances at colleges that had already said “no” once before or that probably would have previously been somewhat out of range.

If you ARE hoping that your gap year will lead to better college options, be sure to choose your activities especially carefully so that admission folks regard your time away from school as worthwhile or even unique. For instance, if your applications already point to a particular passion (silk-screening or ceramics, playing the sitar, volunteering in a shelter for battered women or AIDS babies, etc.) then perhaps you can take that interest and involvement to the next level. That is, you can pursue it full time or in an atypical way or locale.

Getting a job–even a menial one–to help defray college costs would also be construed as “worthwhile” by admission officials. Many left-leaning elite-college admission staffers have some degree of prejudice against silver-spoon kids who spend a summer–or a year–studying, traveling, or “volunteering,” only after Mom and Dad have written out a hefty check to pave the way. Thus, if you defer for a year, and then explain to colleges that your parents expect you to pay a portion of your own college expenses so you needed to earn significant cash before matriculating, then this could work in your favor when it comes to impressing admission committees.

Finally, keep in mind that, if you don’t have any gap-year plans that truly excite you, then you might want to postpone your break until you’ve had a year or two of college under your belt. Some students feel they most need a hiatus at the end of high school, while others find that they get more bang for their buck only after they’ve had a taste of college life first.