A gap year is a length of time, typically but not always a year, that is spent away from school. Generally, gap years are taken between high school graduation and the beginning of college so that students can recharge, learn something new, or earn money to pay for school. A student who takes a gap year may come out more independent, mature, ready to tackle college, and with a sense of direction about the future. Getting your college applications done on schedule and deferring for a year may ensure that you return to academics as planned.

If you don’t feel excited at the prospect of attending college in the fall, you may elect to take a gap year. Gap years aren’t just for playing video games and catching up on your reading list, though. This is time that should be used to grow, work, volunteer, or pursue other interests outside of the classroom. Start planning your gap year early, decide if you want to attend a program (these can be pricey), and determine your goals.

You can apply to college either during your gap year or during high school. Depending on your gap year experience, you may have limited internet access and no contact with former teachers, so it is a safer bet to apply during high school and then defer enrollment for a year after you’ve been accepted. If you’re taking a gap year to enhance your college application and become more competitive, by all means apply during your gap year.

Gap year experiences are individual to the student. While one student may want to work on an organic farm in Chile, another may want to participate in a regimented gap year program. What you choose to do depends on your goals, your finances, and whom you want to put in charge of the planning (yourself or a program).