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Taking a Gap Year: Everything You Need to Know

Are you considering taking a gap year before starting college? You’re not alone. According to a 2020 study, about 40,000 Americans and Canadians take a gap year each year. When Malia Obama announced her plans to take a year off before attending Harvard in 2016, the option was put onto the radar of millions of students. If you’re interested as to what a gap year could do for you, read on to learn all you need to know. We’ll explain the forms a gap year can take, and all its benefits and drawbacks.

Also read: Free summer programs for high school students

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What is a gap year?

Despite its name, a gap year is a length of time that can be anywhere between one semester and one year. It refers to the opportunity for students to take time off school between high school and college. There are a host of ways in which a student can spend this time. It may take the form of working a job, learning a language, traveling, or working on an independent project. Some gap years may take place through structured gap year programs. Others may be self-directed. Students can design their gap year to be as structured or unstructured as they’d like.

What can you spend your gap year doing?

Students can work with their parents to decide to do just about anything during their gap year. When it comes down to it, the time is really yours to seize. But we’ve assembled a list of popular activities for students taking a gap year to inspire you. Remember, this is not an all-encompassing list, but it should help you get the ideas flowing!

  • Traveling around the world
  • Learning a new language in a foreign country
  • Volunteering for a program such as AmeriCorps
  • Finding a job or internship
  • Enrolling in a structured gap year program
  • Taking care of a family member who is in need of help
  • Working to save up money for college
  • Farming through a WWOOF program

How can a gap year benefit me?

A gap year can be highly beneficial for many students. If you are feeling high school burnout, a gap year might be the perfect opportunity to refresh yourself before college. Additionally, if you are a self-directed learner or looking to try alternative academic approaches, it could be just the ticket. Whether you direct your own year or choose a formal program, you’ll likely find yourself in a new learning environment.

A gap year can also benefit students who are craving experiential learning. This can be through working at a job, in a laboratory, on a farm, or even at a grocery store. The classroom is a great place to learn but it has its limits. By going out into the world, you’ll be learning things that cannot be taught in class. These skills may make you more successful when you show up to college.

Additionally, many students may have to take a gap year out of necessity. If your family needs your help for the year, or if you need to save up more money, consider a gap year. This way, you can secure your college plans for the next year, while taking care of what you need. If you are feeling as though you need time off for your mental health, a gap year can fill that need as well.

What are the drawbacks to a gap year?

Although gap years can be a great fit for many students, it’s important to also consider their potential drawbacks. The freedom of a gap year comes with a lot of possibility, but also a lot of responsibility. Let’s get into some of the potential drawbacks of a gap year, and what you can do to mitigate them.

Falling out of step with your classmates

If you take a gap year, you’ll be dropping off of the timetable that the rest of your class is in. If you were hoping to attend college with your high school friends, this may throw you off. For the duration of your gap year, you’ll be doing something different than your friends. You may feel insecure, or that you’re missing out. 

If you are the type of person who needs to be submerged in community, you should seriously consider this drawback. However, don’t forget that it may come with its own benefits. You may meet new friends during your gap year. And if you attend a school that your friends are attending after your gap year, you’ll be in a unique position. Your friends will already have a year under their belt, and they’ll be able to show you the ropes.

The potential to waste time

If you decide to self-structure your gap year, you will be in a unique position. You’ll have the potential to have an extremely fulfilling year of self-directed learning. This could be working on one project, studying a language, or any other directive. However, if you have problems with self-directed learning, this may lead to wasted time. 

Before deciding to take a self-directed gap year, you should reflect on your ability to self-teach. Have you had success in the past in teaching yourself? If not, you may want to consider a gap year with more structure.


Depending on how you spend your gap year, it could be a financial drain to you or your parents. College is already a huge expense, and enrolling in an expensive gap year program may seem financially overwhelming. If this is the case for you, remember that there are inexpensive gap year options. In most cases, you can WWOOF for free. You can also get a job to support your endeavors. Just remember, expensive gap year programs are not your only option.

Falling out of your academic rhythm

Taking a year off school can be a great idea to help refresh your mind. However, some students may find it difficult to get back into the flow after taking such a long time off. Remember, the transition to college is always a bit jarring. Taking a year off has the potential to make it easier and open your mind to new experiences. But it also may also make the return to traditional academics difficult. 

Other resources for incoming college students

If you are a high school senior, we’re sure you’ve got a lot on your plate. Luckily, we have compiled resources to help smooth the transition to college. Once your gap year is coming to a close, we can help you make your first year a success. If you’re looking to make money in college or to pay for housing, we can help. You may also be wondering how you can get involved on campus, and how to save money in school. Finally, as you prepare for your first semester, you’ll have to decide whether to buy or rent textbooks. If you have other questions as you continue your transition, make sure to check back at our site!

Frequently asked questions

Can a gap year impact financial aid?

Depending on your financial aid situation, a gap year might impact your award amount. Let’s break it down by type of financial aid. Typically, merit-based aid from your college will remain unaffected. Regardless, it’s important to contact your financial aid office to ensure you know the potential changes. 

Need-based aid from your college will change based on your financial situation. You’ll have to resubmit your FAFSA and/or CSS Profile for the year you plan to attend college. If your financial situation becomes better or worse in that year, it’ll impact your aid. Remember, if you spend your gap year working, you’ll have to report that income.

Money from private scholarships varies on a case-by-case basis. Some scholarships will be flexible and allow you to use the money for the year that you start school. But others may not be. Some private scholarships need to use annual disbursements for tax purposes. In this case, they will most likely choose a new winner. Make sure to check with any private scholarships you won to see how a gap year would affect your award.

Can I retain my spot at a college if I take a gap year?

Yes, you can. This is called deferring your admission, and you’ll do it between April and mid-June. After you are accepted by a college, you’ll have to accept your offer. The next step is to send in a letter outlining your plans for your gap year and requesting a deferral. The college will have the option to accept or deny this letter, but in the vast majority of cases, they will accept it. Just make sure your letter is detailed and well-worded.

If your decision to take a gap year came about in the later stages, all is not lost. Many colleges accept deferral letters all the way into early August. It can’t hurt to try, so if you want to take a gap year, contact your school.

Should I still apply to college now if I want to take a gap year?

High school seniors who already know that they want to take a gap year should still apply to college. You’ll have a better chance of being accepted as a current high school student. Additionally, it will be a relief to have a college plan locked down before your gap year. Being a gap year student with a college acceptance is a great position to be in. You have a set amount of time to pursue what you want, but also have a plan for the future.

How can I take a gap year on a budget?

There are many options out there for students to take a gap year on a budget. Some gap year opportunities may be paid jobs, such as au pairing. You could also enroll in free programs such as WWOOFing. Many gap year programs also have scholarships available. So don’t be deterred by the high price tag on some gap year programs. There are options out there for everyone!

How do I tell my college I want to take a gap year?

To tell your college that you’d like to take a gap year, send a letter to the director of admissions. Request a deferred admission, and outline your plan for the gap year in specific terms. You should send this letter as soon as you are sure that you’d like to take the gap year.

How has COVID impacted gap years?

COVID has had a wide impact on many different gap year programs. As the situation continues to fluctuate, it has been hard to know which programs are still running. Online gap year programs have become increasingly popular. Programs in rural places also have become more popular. For the most part, AmeriCorps programs have also remained operational throughout the pandemic.

Also read: How to graduate high school early