The Gap Year: ‘Not on my sofa!’

“Not on my sofa!” was one parent’s response at the prospect of their student’s gap year. Fair enough, yet under the right circumstances, could a gap year be a smart solution?

For students admitted to a college they can afford who are eager to get on with higher education and career preparation, the immediate appeal of a college community the climbing walls, indoor lazy rivers, and the like — can be irresistible. Cheered and supported by parents, celebrated and launched by high school teachers and counselors, wowed and wooed by spectacular campus facilities and the freedom to enjoy them, newly minted graduates fly to the arms of baccalaureate studies. For those with the means to attend college, deferring enrollment invites awkward conversations and long jumps to conclusions by others. Indeed, the questions “Where are you enrolling?” and “What will you major in?” are on the lips of everyone from Aunt Millie to the local dry cleaner.

Why, then, consider a gap year? Almost no one flinches if a college graduate opts not to directly enter graduate or professional school. A high school graduate contemplating a gap year is likewise exercising the freedom to choose, just earlier. By the time they graduate high school, students have usually been engaged in formal studies for 13 years. While college differs from high school in many ways, the common features include lectures, tests, papers, and grades. A temporary change of pace in the form of a gap year could refresh and inspire devotion to academia. Evidence suggests that students who take a gap year are more likely to engage meaningfully in college life and earn better grades. Harder to quantify but no less potent are the focus, maturity, and appreciation for diversity a gap year can cultivate.

What could a gap year look like? The sky’s the limit. The beauty of a gap year is that students get to choose how and where they spend their time. Some students long to pursue a “deeper dive” into projects, passions, or interests for which they lacked time in high school, such as a business or tech start-up, a fine arts or athletic goal, international immersion, service, or spiritual growth. Then there are those who simply want to know what it feels like to have a paying job and their own space. And while we’re at it, let’s address the myth that gap years are only for the affluent; in fact, it is possible for a student to make or save money for college during the year.

How could I make a gap year meaningful? Frankly, the term gap year is less than ideal. A gap is typically a void, something lacking or in need of a fix; and the expression “taking time off” is a fail. Vacations are super, but a year of wasted time is not. A gap year should be bridged with purpose, owned and implemented by the student, an investment in college success. But it takes a particular kind of student. The curious, the adaptable, the motivated, and those with people skills have a leg up on a meaningful gap year. (It is no coincidence these qualities also benefit students pursuing immediate college entry.) For those choosing a gap year, keeping a journal can provide a focus, serve as a resource for further work or study, and crystallize unique adventures to revisit for life. The résumé builds.

How would I research and plan my gap year? Any worthwhile endeavor starts with a plan, and a plan B. Start with candid introspection about the reasons for or against a gap year, the cost, location, logistics, and what the specific purpose would be. Start early, research options, seek qualified advice and first-hand reports from those who have conducted gap years, and ask lots of questions. The diversity of gap years has never been greater, and there are even gap year college fairs for interested students and parents. Of course parental participation is key, with plenty of conversation and thoughtful listening on everyone’s part. There should be a plan B for the same reason that a student applies to a variety of colleges: Options are nice to have.

How do I keep my options open? Because the junior and senior years of high school are often filled with exploration, uncertainty, and evolving plans, students considering college deferral also should secure college admission offers before they graduate. Then every possibility is on the table should a sudden revelation occur in April of senior year. With admission in one’s pocket, the “gapper” can request an enrollment deferral in order to assure a college destination the following year. On the subject of options, a number of boarding schools offer a post-graduate “PG” school year, which is basically a fifth year of high school to fortify college success.

Onward Bound! While grades and test scores come and go, what lasts, what powers and empowers us, is the will to explore: the greater the will, the greater the possibilities. A gap year is not for everyone but can be transformative for the right learner. What should be available to all students are the information and support to personalize an education matching their talents, aspirations, and timing with a college community. Sofa sold separately.


NACAC member Bryan Rutledge serves as director of college counseling at Woodward Academy (GA).



One thought on “The Gap Year: ‘Not on my sofa!’”

  1. If students are considering a gap year I would also encourage them to reach out the institution(s) they are interested in attending. Not all colleges allow for a deferment and their are different policies and benefits out there.

    At my institution, an approved gap year means that students don’t just keep their enrollment spot, but also merit scholarships and affiliation with our honors program (if applicable).

    Additionally students should ask if they are allowed to earn college credit in the gap year. For example, earning college credit post high school graduation at my institution makes an individual a transfer student and they lose out on some of the benefits stated in the previous paragraph.

    The three biggest areas we see for gap year requests are:
    1. International Travel
    2. Military
    3. Medical

    I think it’s important to have a distinction between those who have the ability to choose to take a gap year and those who don’t. In the above reasons I put international travel in the first grouping and medical in the second with military falling somewhere in the middle.

    While students choose to be in the military, they then pretty much have to delay their enrollment because of basic training. There’s definitely a financial need component there for many students and I don’t know if they would choose delaying enrollment if they had other options.

    Our gap year students perform academically at about the same level GPA-wise as non-gap year students, but gap year students do have a slightly lower first year retention rate. (I can’t say if this is statistically significant because of the relatively small number of gap year students in any given year.)

    My hope is, moving forward, to do a deeper analysis of why students are requesting gap years, their performance once enrolled, and if there are additional needs for this group as they get acclimated to the educational environment in college.

    I enjoy discussions on gap years, but I always want to make sure that we don’t lose the nuance in the conversation.

    Thank you for the article and thank you for taking the time to read my comment!

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