While it has been a longtime tradition for high school graduates in Europe to spend a "gap year" traveling the world and volunteering before college, this practice is becoming more popular and accepted in the United States. U.S. News spoke with students who took a gap year before college, as well as gap year counselors and college admissions officials, to answer common questions related to taking a gap year.
1. What exactly is a gap year?
The all-encompassing term "gap year" has taken on different meanings over the years. Holly Bull, president of the 30-year-old Center for Interim Programs, the first and longest-running gap year counseling organization in the United States, defines a gap year as a period of time that people use to explore areas of interest. Bull, who took a gap year before college and another one during college, has been counseling for 20 years, and says a gap year doesn't have to last a full year and can be taken at any age, but the typical gap year is taken by students between high school and college.
Gail Reardon, who runs the gap year counseling firm Taking Off, says the term is a bit of a misnomer. "The name implies that students are taking a gap in their education, when really the gap is to fill in what they haven't learned in school," she says. "A gap year is about what happens after school, how you make decisions, how you figure out who you are, where you want to go, and how you need to get there. It's about the skill set you need to live your life."
2. I want to go to college. Should I apply before or after I take a gap year?
Most counselors and college admissions officials encourage high school seniors to apply and get accepted to college before taking a gap year. Reardon says students should apply to college while in high school because their junior and senior years are set up to support the college application process. William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, says Harvard accepts students who apply after their gap year. However, he says it is logistically easier for both students and admissions officials when the student applies before taking a gap year, particularly if they are going abroad where correspondence may be difficult.
Students who have been accepted to a college, but want to take a gap year before attending, should defer their admittance, says Kristin White, director of Darien Academic Advisors and author of The Complete Guide to the Gap Year. Students wishing to defer college should send a letter to their college's director of admissions and outline what they plan to do for their gap year. The admissions committee will evaluate the letter and, in most cases, grant the deferral, she says. White advises students to send their deferral letters between April and mid-June. At the very latest, students should send their requests before their first fall tuition payments are due, which is usually July 1 or August 1.
3. Can I still get financial aid and scholarships for college after doing a gap year?
If a student has qualified for federal financial aid but has deferred college for a year, he or she will have to re-apply the following year by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If their family's financial circumstances haven't changed significantly, the student will likely receive aid again, says Bull of the Center for Interim Projects.
Some scholarships offered by colleges can be held for the student until they attend the next year. "Scholarships vary by school, but if you've been offered it once, you have a good shot of being offered it again," Bull says. Cheryl Brown, the director of undergraduate admissions at Binghamton University, reassures students and parents about scholarships from her school, saying, "If the student is accepted for any scholarship, depending on the parameters of the scholarship, we try to hold it for them when they return."