The Glossary: gap year

The first time I heard a student tell me he was taking a gap year, I got the completely wrong idea. Having never heard the term before, I thought he was trying to find a way to say that he didn’t finish college applications and was going to have to try again the next year. Kind of like “in between jobs” is sometimes a euphemism for “unemployed,” I thought “gap year” was a euphemism for “didn’t get into college.” But I was wrong. Very wrong.

A gap year is a planned, organized, non-academic year between high school and college when you focus on personal development. Instead of going directly to college, you take a year to do something else that’s good for you.

I make a point of saying “non-academic year” instead of “year off.” Not just any break between high school and college is a gap year. It must be planned, organized, and focused on personal development. Gap year programs usually involve travel, service, or both. Gap years are usually run by a professional organization that facilitates gap years. Go with a gap year group to South America for total immersion Spanish classes and academic tours of cultural centers? That’s a gap year. Spend your savings to travel around South America and see the sights with your friends? That’s not a gap year. As gap years get more popular, there are more and more professional organizations to facilitate them. Even if you don’t leave the country, they mostly take you somewhere away from home.

Why would you want to take a gap year? It’s basically a way to lock in your college plans and also get a year to do something different. If you simply don’t apply to college and make solid college plans, thinking that you’ll get to it after a year or two of trying something different, then there’s a real danger of never making it to college. On the other hand, if you’re unsure of what you want to do in college or want to work on social or language skills more intensely, then it’s a way to work on that now rather than hoping you’ll get to it later. It’s a way to get that extra year and still have a plan and expectations. There are also plenty of personal, social, and academic reasons why you may want to take a gap year.

So how do you get a gap year? It takes work to make it happen. Instead of just one institution to work with—the college—you’ve got two. You need to find and get accepted to a gap year program. There are tons out there. Some are expensive, some are less expensive, and some are essentially free, providing room and board while you provide service to an underfunded community somewhere else. You’ll also need to coordinate with the college you plan to attend. Make sure they’ll give you a deferral—a promise that you’re still accepted the next year. Most universities will work with a gap year, but not all will, especially if there’s financial aid involved. Many encourage gap years, and some universities even offer their own gap year program, so you get the benefits of a gap year plus the benefits of getting to know your chosen college. The best thing to do is contact the admissions representative for schools you’re considering and ask if and how they support gap years.

Be prepared to be defensive. While gap years are getting more common, there will still be plenty of people who, like me 15 years ago, don’t understand. They may assume you didn’t get accepted to college; they may assume you didn’t apply to college; they may assume you’re being spoiled and just delaying maturity. You get to let them know that it’s the opposite: you planned this very carefully to take a mature approach to gaining a larger perspective. But do so politely—don’t get in a fight to prove you’re working on your maturity.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring