Starting college with a burned-out or aimless feeling is a recipe for failure. Taking a year off to explore the world, earn some money, live on your own, or volunteer in an underserved region can be just the rejuvenation that some students need to be successful in college later on. Malia Obama is one of an increasing number of students who decide to take time off between finishing high school and starting college. Gap years result in personal growth and maturity, increased academic performance throughout college, and a better idea of what students want to do with the rest of their lives.


What is a gap year?

A gap year is a leave of absence from academics. Students may take a gap year if they decide that they do not want to immediately begin college after graduating from high school. Other students may not have a choice. Those who were not accepted to any colleges may decide to use the next year to put together a more compelling college application.

During this time off from school, students may travel, intern, volunteer, study, or work, depending on their personal interests. Gap years are typically just over a year long (from high school graduation to the start of college the next academic year). They may be shorter or longer depending on the needs of each student. For example, a student may decide to complete a semester-long internship and then begin college during spring semester, making the gap only six to nine months. Others may take a year to complete an AmeriCorps project. Gap years can be personalized by the student.

Why should I take a gap year?

A gap year provides time off from an academic environment while encouraging personal growth. Whether students dive into another language or volunteer to build homes in places that have experienced natural disasters, a gap year provides a unique and immersive learning experience. It is completely different from what can be experienced in high school or even during a semester-long study abroad trip.

During a gap year, students have to live on their own and take care of themselves. Depending on what they choose to do with their time off, the amount of guidance they have from adults may be small. This encourages independent thinking, problem-solving, and maturity and makes students less likely to flounder when they do start college. Unlike their comrades who did not take time off, gap year students are well-versed in self-reliance, discipline, and maturity. Not only that, but gap year students are exposed to the real world before starting college. They know what waits on the other side of graduation and are more likely to take college seriously. Doing well in classes, taking advantage of what colleges have to offer, and having a defined college path are among the educational benefits experienced by students who have begun college after taking a gap year.

If now is not the right time for your gap year, don’t worry. You will have other chances to take time off and see the world or volunteer. Many individuals are taking gap years immediately after they finish college, before they begin graduate school, or years into their careers.

What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

  • Résumé enhancement: No matter what a student ends up doing, a gap year will provide a résumé boost. If a student chooses to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity or AmeriCorps, his or her “Volunteer Experience” section will explode, not to mention that the student will learn unique skills (carpentry, event planning, disaster management, or project management, for example). Student who don’t take part in a particular project may still travel the world and find jobs in new places. This may involve perfecting foreign language skills or learning how to cook in a French bakery (or both). The opportunities are endless.
  • New friendships: Working, traveling, and volunteering will introduce students to people from a variety of different backgrounds who they never would have met otherwise. An American student may travel to Australia or Ireland for a period of time, meet people of all ages from different backgrounds and heritages, and establish lifelong, cross-continental friendships. Not to mention that having close friends from other countries means having places to stay in other countries later down the line.
  • Better performance in college: Students who begin college after a gap year are more motivated, mature, and dedicated to their education. Instead of starting college feeling burned out after high school, they feel refreshed and excited to continue their education. Often, gap year students have a major or academic focus in mind after their experiences. A gap year gives students who were previously focused on completing high school requirements a chance to discover what truly interests them. This interest is reflected in their college performance. While many freshman spend time taking a variety of classes to determine what their majors will be, gap year students often narrow their class choices early and can spend more time on the classes they want to take. A study by Middlebury College also found that students who took a gap year had higher GPAs during college than students who entered straight out of high school.
  • Personal growth: Taking time away from school forces students to focus on something other than academics. Instead of spending all day with their noses in history books, they can focus on interpersonal relationships, following their passions, and exploring new cultures.
  • Better conversations: The more experiences a person has, the more they have to talk about. Instead of talking about the weather or gossiping about interpersonal relationships, students who have completed a gap year can talk about their travels or work and what they’ve learned about new cultures and communities. Gap year experiences may lead to new ideas and new ways of thinking, both of which are helpful when trying to write papers or come up with projects in college and in a career.
  • Learning something new: Even if a gap year is just spent working to save up money for college, there are skills to learn. An intern at a magazine may learn about photo editing or layout and design, for example. Skills and résumé boosters, though, aren’t the only things to be learned during a gap year. Immersing yourself into another culture (in a Spanish program, for instance) will increase your fluency in a foreign language, but you will also learn about customs and culture. These may not directly influence a résumé, but being knowledgeable about other people and places makes for a more worldly and compassionate person.

What are the drawbacks of a gap year?

  • Gap year programs can be very expensive. This is true. Gap year programs, particularly those run by companies catering to the gap year crowd, can cost as much as a year of college. The 12-week long Irish Gap Year Leadership Program costs $13,500. The eight-month International Studies Abroad Program in Morocco costs $19,500, but scholarships are available. Not all programs are so costly, though. Princeton University offers a Bridge Year Program to incoming freshmen who want to experience nine months of international service on the university’s dime before starting classes. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) gives participants a living allowance and a monetary award that can be applied to their education. Students who plan their own gap years may be able to save money by doing it themselves, working for part of the time or the duration, or limiting the time that they are traveling or volunteering. Gap years do not have to be cost prohibitive, but cost and scholarship opportunities depend entirely on the type of gap year that each student is hoping to have.
  • Students may decide not to return to school. There is always the risk of a student deciding not to go to college. This is one reason why applying to college first and deferring for a year might be a smart choice. The vast majority of students who plan to attend college do end up enrolling, though. An estimated 98% of gap year students who were planning on attending college before their gap years return to college after their time off.
  • Students may have trouble acclimating to a school environment. Coming back to an academic environment where the day revolves around classes, homework, and tests can be a shock after taking a year off from school. However, a good gap year should be spent learning in different ways and not just as a year of vacation and partying. Though the climate may be different, after a few weeks reading academic texts and going to classes, the ability to focus in a school setting should return, just like riding a bicycle.
  • Students are older than their peers and a year behind their friends. It can be tough to be at a different point in your education than all the people you graduated high school with. Your life experiences are different and conversations could suffer as a result. Taking a gap year, though, results in new friends. You don’t have to be entirely reliant on people with whom you graduated. Your best friends are going to be the ones who support your choice and who are there for you no matter what. The others don’t matter. Not only are friends from high school a year ahead of you academically, but your freshman-year peers are also a year younger than you. Remember, though, that age is just a number, and your shared experiences as freshmen will create more bonds than being born in the same year.

Page last updated: 02/2017