7 Questions to Ask When Considering a Gap Year

Students, parents, counselors, and college officials weigh in on taking a year off after high school.

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4. Are there affordable options for a gap year?

Many domestic and international programs charge little to no fees. Bull recommends students look for programs that offer free housing and food in turn for volunteer work. But be prepared to work. Zack Sills just completed his gap year, and from September to November 2009, he lived for free on a ranch in British Columbia. In return for food and housing, he cut firewood, took care of livestock, and worked in the kitchen. The only expensive part was the flights to and from British Columbia to his home on Chicago's North Shore, he says. 

White, of Darien Academic Advisors, recommends students look into AmeriCorps programs, which provide health care benefits, a living stipend, and $5,350 from the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award at the end to use toward college. This amount is tied to the maximum Pell Grant amount. Better yet, 92 colleges and universities offer to match this AmeriCorps education award, essentially doubling its value. Students can also volunteer for programs such as Habitat for Humanity and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, commonly known as WWOOF, though students will have to fund their living expenses in some cases. 

Gap years can also save parents money in the long run. Steve Goodman, an educational consultant and college admissions strategist, says, "If a gap year clarifies what a student is going to do college, it pays back in college because you're saving tuition money for the time a student may have spent clarifying their major." 

5. What are the benefits of a gap year?

Gap year consultants, students, parents, and even college admissions officials all claim that gap year experiences make these students more mature, confident, and career driven. Goodman says, "Taking a gap year can clarify the intellectual, academic, and professional objectives of a student." While there has been no formal research done by the U.S. government on the benefits of a gap year experience, Rae Nelson and Karl Haigler, authors of The Gap Year Advantage, surveyed 280 gap year alumni from November 2007 through February 2008 about how the experience molded their lives. Sixty percent said their gap year affected their majors and careers by either confirming an early direction or channeling them to a new path. Brown, of Binghamton University, says, "The students do very well when they enroll at Binghamton—many become leaders in cultural clubs and organizations and bring an increased maturity and cultural savvy to the campus." 

The students emphasize that the experiential learning during their gap year was unlike any they could gain in the college classroom. Sills, 19, says, "I learned just as much in my nineteenth year than I probably learned in my last two years of high school. When I was in Canada, I was the only American at the ranch. There were Canadians, Germans, and Australians, so it really made me appreciate other cultures. I learned a lot in Canada; the type of work I did made me come outside of my comfort zone." Sills spent the other half of his gap year interning for a film production company in New Zealand. He says this experience helped prepare him to pursue a film degree this fall at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Emily Carr, 19, spent September to December 2009 taking courses related to marine biology while on a boat that toured the Eastern Caribbean. For the rest of her gap year, she spent this spring volunteering for a penguin and sea bird hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, and then in an animal rescue and refuge center outside of Bangkok, Thailand. "My gap year helped me build my people skills, gain more independence, and more maturity. There's no way to not become more mature after this," Carr says. 

6. What do college admissions officials think of gap years?

College admission officials have become more accepting of the gap year over the past several years. Some even encourage their admitted students to take one. For more than 30 years, Harvard's acceptance letters have included a suggestion that students take time off before enrolling. Fitzsimmons encourages students to take a gap year so they don't burn out in college. Those who come to school after a gap year are "so fresh, anxious, and excited to be back in school," he says. "The feedback from students almost all the time has been that this experience was transformative. The more life experience you bring, the better off you are in school." In 2009, a near-record 107 of the 1,665 Harvard freshmen had taken a gap year. 

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