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Last updated March 8, 2023

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

Our Guide to Gap Years

Key Takeaway

There are lots of ways you can spend your gap year. Some ways—like research, work, or even travel experience—are better than others. What matters most is that you address why you took your gap year, what you did during it, and how you grew as a result.

Not every student graduates high school at 18, enrolls in college, and graduates in exactly four years into their forever career.

Many students choose to not follow such a linear path. In fact, some top colleges like Harvard encourage students to take a year off of school before enrolling. This post is all about gap years—taking a year after high school to do something before heading to college.

We are approaching gap years from the admissions perspective. This post is written by our team of former admission officers for students and families considering gap years. We’ll cover what gap years are, why you might take one, and what to know when applying to college during or after a gap year.

Hint: if you do take or are considering taking a gap year, you absolutely must be intentional about how you communicate what your year looked like when you apply to colleges.

We should also note that taking a gap year can be a challenging idea for students and parents alike. It can be tough if seemingly everyone your age is shopping for dorm essentials and buying textbooks to take a different path. Parents might feel that their student will “fall behind” or never end up attending college if they take a gap year. Are they just being lazy? Will this experience be valuable?

Ultimately, these are important family questions to answer together. Doing research and planning in advance can help. We hope this article will steer you in the right direction. If you have further questions or need some support, our team has both personal and consulting experience on gap years and college admissions—feel free to reach out.

What is a gap year?

A gap year is when a student graduates high school and takes one year to do something besides school before enrolling in college. The key here is do something—a gap year isn’t an excuse to be lazy and accomplish nothing. Instead, they are generally well-planned times for learning and development.

This year takes various forms, but there are a few general categories to consider. Note that students may actually combine more than one of these pathways into a distinctive experience.

Working or internship gap year

Some students and their families decide spending a year working “in the real world” before college is a great use of time. This might be a job or internship. Students may work for financial reasons like saving money for college or financially contributing to the family. Some students might not need to work, but value the lessons learned from spending time working. You might even find a job related to a field of interest and be able to do meaningful work that could inform major or career choices down the line.

Travel gap year

With the right planning and resources, maybe you can consider spending time travelling before enrolling in college. Some students take smaller trips domestically, or even embark on international travel. The classic “backpacking though Europe” trip doesn’t always have to be a post-college experience! Often international trips involve language and cultural immersion. Of course, this type of experience is not available to everyone and takes resources and a lot of planning.

Research gap year

Some students, usually with some research experience in high school, find an opportunity to conduct research in a college lab before enrolling in school full-time. Such opportunities are few and far between but can be an excellent academic jumpstart before going to college.

Formal gap year programs

There are organizations that curate gap year programs students can join (for a price!) that are likely some combination of the above options. These can be great for a family that wants some structure and to be sure to get a lot out of the year.

Why you might consider a gap year

From an educational perspective, there are a few reasons students consider gap years. They might:

Need a break or a new experience

Let’s face it, by the time you graduate high school, you’ve been a student for 12+ years straight. Some people are exhausted from school and, even if they plan to attend college, simply need to try something different. Regardless of what they do with the time, these students need a change of pace.

Admitted to college but deferring admission

Most colleges and universities are very open to students taking gap years. Admission offices will typically let students “defer” admission for 1-2 years for an approved gap year. Be sure to check the admission websites at the schools you are applying to in order to check their policies.

Whether you go into the admissions process already planning a gap year, or come to that decision along the way, deferring admission is usually an option. Most admission offices will want a description of what the student will do and plan to learn during their gap year and then will approve it and collect the enrollment deposit. This locks in your seat after the gap year at the college of your choice.

Remember, admission usually becomes more selective year to year, not less. There is a benefit to locking in admission and deferring to later, rather than waiting to apply until after a gap year.

Applied to college, didn’t like results, and want to reapply

Speaking of selective admission, plenty of students don’t get into a top-choice school. The reality is that having a great GPA and test scores is no guaranteed ticket to the most selective US colleges and universities. These schools also want to enroll students with fresh perspectives, impressive extracurricular activities, and reflective, vulnerable, and mature admissions essays.

So, perhaps you find yourself without admission to a school you’re very interested in attending. That could be a great reason to consider a gap year!

You can apply to college again during a gap year. If you do this, you’ll need to be sure to communicate what you learned and how you grew over the year. Which brings us to our final thoughts…

What admissions looks for in gap year applicants

How you talk about your gap year matters a lot in admission. Essays matter for traditional college applicants, and in my experience, they arguably matter more for gap year applicants because they have the additional job of explaining their distinctive situation. Here’s what you need to know.

Your college application after a gap year will likely be reviewed with other first-year applicants. You’ll apply just like anyone else and respond to the same essay prompts.

It is imperative that you address your gap year, why you chose to take it, what you did, and what you gained as a result. Your goal when applying to college after a gap year is for your admission officer to see you as an even stronger applicant than you would have been a year ago.

You may address your gap year in your personal statement, supplemental essays, or additional information section. You should not reuse the exact same personal statement you did if you applied to college as a senior in high school. Remember, the whole point is that you are an elevated version of yourself now—you should have something new to say!

If your gap year information doesn’t fit nicely into one of your essays, write about it in the additional information section. This section is a blank slate for you to include any, well, additional information not shared elsewhere in your application.

Ultimately, gap year applicants are evaluated on the same criteria as traditional applicants: academic achievement, essays, extracurricular engagement, test scores (if submitted), and letters of recommendation. For most gap year applicants, their essays and extracurricular activities list will look different than it did a year ago. Many also choose to include a letter of recommendation from someone who oversaw something they did during their gap year.

If you are considering taking a gap year and applying to college or are in a gap year and need support applying, you might consider boosting your essays with our Essay Academy course.

Good luck!

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