THE GAP YEAR PROGRAM— Boosting Higher Education Through Life Lessons

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Ethan Knight

There was a time when even the suggestion of taking a year off before starting college conjured up less than desirable questions: Will the student return to college afterward? How will colleges view the transition? How will the student’s time be spent during his or her break?

But as today’s forward-thinkers are realizing, taking a gap year actually gives students the opportunity to think outside the pencil box through exciting non-traditional learning experiences. Once an anomaly in the world of education, the number of students entering this world of hands-on (experiential) life learning is steadily growing. Even the highest-achieving students are entertaining the idea of “the gap year,” as they discover benefits like increased focus, maturity, self-confidence, and growth that only real-world exploration can offer.

An increasing number of families, teachers, guidance counselors, and college admissions experts have become more supportive of taking a gap year. Although slowing the momentum of continuous schooling with a year “off” seems risky, the data, in contrast, is clearly in favor. If a student engages in a “structured gap year,” they are 90 percent likely to return to college within one year, far more likely to graduate on time and with a better GPA, and have been shown to engage in more campus activities.

As you decide how to incorporate a gap year into your teen’s educational future, here’s more information on how to approach the concept of a gap year.

What is a gap year?

According to the American Gap Association, “A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, learn from different cultures, and experiment with possible careers. Typically, these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is typically taken between high school graduation and a student’s junior year of college.”

To simplify the concept, its core meaning is time taken away from the traditional pedagogy of learning in order to explore the world, even if it’s in the student’s own backyard. Every gap year program offers unique knowledge gained through the experience of dealing with challenges, independence, risk taking, and cultural immersion. This is a true opportunity for an eager student to recapture a love of learning, determine interests, and make decisions on the right path to higher education.

In fact, burnout from the competitive pressure of high school and a desire “to find out more about themselves” are the two most commonly cited reasons for taking a gap year. The types of gap year programs are limitless, with focuses on such exciting avenues as teaching, academia, adventure, arts, community service, environmental conservation, culture, and more.

How do I choose the right gap year program?

Figuring out what to do for a gap year program is perhaps the most challenging aspect in taking one. As Holly Bull, the President of the Center for Interim Programs, states, “The most important element in a student’s gap year is [his or her] making the choice to take one.” But the options for what to actually do typically should involve a lot of research and, ultimately, almost always involve a process of elimination.

Given the rising costs of college, expenses are a concern for many.  The good news is that a gap year does not need to cost a lot of money.  They can, in some cases, pay expenses and provide an educational stipend; in other cases they can cost as much as a year of college.  Some gap year programs even are accredited first year college programs that offer Federal Financial Aid, arguably providing the best of both worlds.  Most importantly is the reputation of the program, thankfully something that can be determined easily through the non-profit American Gap Association’s accreditation process.

Structuring a gap year is best thought about in terms of location, activity, and learning goals. Because of their impact on the development of young adults, the majority of opportunities tend to start with more structure and eventually transition into less.  Opportunities typically contain elements of volunteer work, cultural and language immersion, and service learning.

Where to go?

Where your student wants to spend his or her time can be a jumping-off point for choosing the right program. Perhaps he or she is inexplicably drawn to Europe or Africa, as they spread their wings to global destinations. Sometimes students don’t know exactly what they want, but they do, however, know what they don’t want. In some cases the hurdle of learning a second language can turn into a regional limitation, and in this case, the student might want to start at a language school for the first few weeks, join a structured program, or even remain domestic and take his or her gap year in the U.S.

Location is more than just geographical. It can also be decided in terms of living arrangements (rustic, urban, or middle-of-nowhere) or even topographies. Some students are intrigued by settings that spark certain interests like oceans, mountains,
or plains.

What to do?

The sky’s the limit in terms of exciting experiences a student can have during a gap year program, from veterinary medicine with cheetahs in Namibia to volunteering through AmeriCorps for a domestic non-profit organization. Gap year students in the past have taught basketball to Cambodian orphans, worked with baboons in South Africa, lived with a cowboy in Argentina, and worked on indigenous issues in the Southwest. Some gap year programs also pay a small stipend for participation. Think of this as a phenomenal opportunity for your student to experiment with a proposed career interest. Discovering that he or she loves (or hates) something before committing the next few years to its study is a hallmark of a successful gap year.

What to learn?

A student’s learning goals are another filter that can be helpful. Their choice of gap year program allows the student to showcase talents and explore new fields of interest.

Whether your student wants to learn Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic, secondary language fluency will be incredibly beneficial and invariably opens more doors down the road. In this case, choosing a country that affords a language immersion opportunity might be best.

Should the student want to learn art, studying with the best in Italy might be a way to test whether it’s a realistic career or something best kept as a hobby. If service work is important, volunteering in a gap year program in an underprivileged country teaching English, building a new school, or planting a sustainable garden might fit the bill.

How does a gap year program fit into planning for college?

Gap year programs are a phenomenal way to help a teen define what he or she wants to achieve in life. But college still holds a vital role in determining the path to that journey. Therefore it’s important to create a seamless transition from a student’s gap year program to college coursework.

Once a student has chosen his or her college or university, the best plan is to go through the application process, get accepted, and then defer. Be honest with your college. Many colleges are supportive of taking a gap year. Your student should simply have a frank discussion with the university’s Admissions Counselor so that there remains a positive relationship in the planning of your student’s education. If his or her attendance plans change, whether through timing or actual choice of university, or if their educational goals take a new direction, it’s vital to communicate these to the counselor who can guide you and your student through the university’s processes as well as offer advice.

Some gap year programs offer college credit, and this often turns into a better use of a “freshman year” than a true and typical freshman on-campus experience. For more information on the many scholarships and grants available, please visit

In some cases, universities have rules around getting credit while on a gap year. For instance, there might be implications to reapplying as a transfer student if a certain threshold of credits is attained, or even the potential to obtain a generous financial aid award. It’s essential that you look into each university’s rules for gap year credit, placement following the program,
and your gap year program’s budget and timeline considerations. Contact each school’s admissions officers for their help.