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Should You Consider a Gap Year Before College?

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Should You Consider a Gap Year Before College?

Back in the 80s, parents’ worst nightmare was that their flaky Gen-X teens would defer entry into college, stating that they first needed to “find themselves.” After a year of goat herding in the Himalayas, being one with nature, and going on nightly vision quests, the best some parents could hope for is that their sons and daughters would eventually return, ready to hit the books, embrace Alex P. Keatonesque values, and eventually end up as Wall Street wolves.

Should You Consider a Gap Year Before College?

While absurd, this introduction offers a kernel of truth—in the absence of proper nomenclature, a desire to step off the conveyor belt of formal education was not always encouraged in American culture. Rest assured, in modern times, the “gap year” is officially a real thing, and while only 2 percent of soon-to-be college students presently partake, the practice is greatly increasing in popularity. No longer solely the domain of the wealthy, a growing number of middle class students are also taking a year off to foray into the “real” world, often emerging with a new sense of direction, perspective, and purpose.

What is a Gap Year?

Taken either right after high school or at some point between years of college (often junior and senior), a gap year is a structured break from formal academics that affords young people a chance to travel, volunteer, intern, study abroad, or further explore a personal area of interest. Common gap year activities include volunteering with an organization like Americorps, teaching English in a foreign country, or learning about global issues firsthand with a group like Thinking Beyond Borders, just to name a few.

You may also choose something less exotic and more affordable. Many gap year programs are international, but domestic opportunities, while sounding less glamorous, can be every bit as valuable. Colleges aren’t interested in the fact that the Brazilian orphanage where you volunteered had a majestic view of the Amazon River basin. It’s about the work, the dedication, the experience, and the opportunity to grow as a human being. Volunteering at a group home in the Bronx will be every bit as enlightening and meaningful even if scenic Amazonian waterfalls are replaced by bridges and billboards.

What Are the Benefits?

This can be an invaluable opportunity for college major/career exploration. Many students report an increased sense of purpose upon starting or returning to college following a year away. For example, your architecture major may take on new meaning after spending a year building homes with Habitat for Humanity. A soon-to-be pre-med major may be energized into a new career passion after seeing lacking hospital conditions overseas. A future social worker might discover a newfound fervor for working with disadvantaged adolescents while volunteering at the aforementioned Bronx group home.

There are more tangible benefits as well. Research has shown that gap year participants earn higher GPAs freshman year than those who matriculate immediately after high school.

Why Not to Take a Gap Year

It is typically a misguided approach to take a gap year solely for the purpose of trying to get into a better college. Academic performance is still your passport to an elite school. In fact, if this is your aim, consider completing your freshman year at a school that will accept you, racking up a killer transcript, and applying as a transfer at Elite U. the following year.

If the gap year may be of interest, use the resources below to begin your search for a program that will offer a good fit.


  • For the American Gap Association’s complete list of “Gap friendly” schools click here.
  • Click here for a searchable list of gap year programs.
  • Read TeenLife’s Gap Year Guide.
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Written by Andrew Belasco

Andrew Belasco is CEO of College Transitions LLC, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. In addition to his role as CEO, Andrew is a published higher education researcher and consultant to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admission and financial aid policy. For more information about Andrew and his team, please visit www.collegetransitions.com

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