Time Out: The Value of a Gap Year 

A gap year—the period of time between completing high school and beginning college—has long been common in Britain and Australia. While the concept is relatively new here in the U.S., its popularity is growing quickly, with several schools now encouraging accepted students to take a gap year before starting their freshman year. Learn how a gap year can prove that there is more to education than what is learned in the classroom.

After 13 years, 117 months and approximately 2,350 days of continuous school, Lindsay felt she needed a break. Instead of heading directly for her freshman year at a prestigious upstate New York college, she decided to take a gap year and packed her bags for India. There, she learned Tamil while helping to bring solar power to impoverished communities in the Pondicherry District.

A gap year, which is that period of time between completing high school and beginning college or between college graduation and the start of a graduate school program, has long been common in Britain (even Prince William took time to do volunteer work in Chile before continuing his studies) and Australia. While the concept is relatively new here in the U.S., its popularity is growing quickly. In fact, the Independent Educational Consultants Association reported that in 2013 enrollment in gap programs was up almost 60 percent over 2012.1

While this represents only a small percentage of high school seniors who go directly to college, a growing number of schools, including Harvard, Princeton and the University of South Carolina, among others, now encourage accepted students to take a gap year before starting their freshman year.

Becoming a Citizen of the World

Most recently, the New School for Liberal Arts, a university in New York City, partnered with Global Citizen Year to offer incoming freshman the ability to take a transformative "bridge year" to volunteer in a developing country. Students who complete the program will earn 30 academic credits—enough to start college as a sophomore.

These and other schools recognize that getting involved in different types of learning experiences, such as international volunteering, gives young people the opportunity to gain perspective and confidence, develop foreign language skills and, at the same time, give back to the world. The benefit of a gap year is that students tend to begin the next step in their education determined to tackle their studies with greater focus and maturity.

Of equal importance, these students also gain real world experience. They learn to take responsibility for their lives and as a result attain greater perspective on their impact and place in the world. For college graduates, taking a gap year before looking for a job or continuing on to graduate school can be a way to recharge and get their life in focus while building practical life experiences. A gap year can also enhance a graduate's résumé, helping a student to stand out in a tough job market.

What's the Best Way to Plan a Gap Year?

Most experts recommend that your child secure a spot in college before taking a gap year. A gap year shouldn't be a procrastination technique; encourage your child to apply to college as planned. Once he or she is admitted, you can then call the college to request a deferment, which most admissions offices will gladly grant.

Students will find they have lots of options for gap year experiences. As a result, it’s best to identify your child’s goals and then find a program to meet his or her personal interests. Fortunately, there are a number of gap-year consulting organizations to help you find the program that’s right for your child, including Gapyear.com, Interim Programs, Taylor the Gap and LEAPNOW, which provides students with access to thousands of diverse international and domestic learning experiences.

Value Added

A recent study of 280 gap-year students underscored the benefits of taking a year off before college. The three most frequent responses were gaining:

  1. A better sense of who I am as a person and what is important to me.
  2. A better understanding of other countries, people, cultures and ways of living.
  3. Additional skills and knowledge that contributed to my career or academic major.1

In short, a gap year proves that there is more to education than what is learned in the classroom.

1Gap Years: Maximizing the Value of a Bachelor's Degree. Ethan Knight, Executive Director, American Gap Association. 2013.