Decide if a Gap Year Makes Sense for You

Gap years can provide a break from academic structure, but require advanced planning and goal setting.

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Pursuing volunteer or study abroad opportunities can lead to fulfilling and productive gap year experiences.
Pursuing volunteer or study abroad opportunities can lead to fulfilling and productive gap year experiences.

The term "gap year" has taken on various meanings over time, but generally refers to students taking a year off from formal schooling between the end of high school and the start of college. In recent years, there's been growing interest and enrollment in gap years among U.S. students.

In most cases, colleges will allow students to defer their admittance for a year, provided they outline their gap year plans. If you are thinking about taking a gap year, evaluate your situation with realistic expectations before reaching a decision.

The most important factor in choosing to take a gap year is drafting a plan of action. Do you plan on studying abroad, traveling or volunteering? Perhaps you will try to work in a field you are interested in pursuing once you start college.

There are many options, so make sure to use your gap year productively and add to your life experiences in a way that you likely could not have otherwise achieved.

[Get answers to seven common gap year questions.]

Depending on what you do during your gap year, the experience may have financial costs. Money may not be a problem if you plan on volunteering in exchange for food and housing, or working in a paid position. However, many adventure travel and study abroad programs ­– though amazing opportunities to expand your horizons – may not come cheap.

Depending on your family's means and the financial aid package you obtain, you may need to take out large loans to pay for college. If this is the case, be careful before committing to an expensive gap year journey.

In addition, before deciding to take a gap year, consider very carefully why you want to take a year off before college, as well as what you hope to get out of the experience.

Are you burned out and seeking a year off from structured schooling? Do you feel like you lack life experience and could gain from trying something different before hunkering down to four years of college? Are you not sure what you want to do with your life and want a full year of real-world experience before having to decide on a major?

If you cannot truthfully answer "yes" to any of these (or similar) questions, a gap year may not be right for you.

[Learn more about the advantages of a embarking on a gap year.]

The benefits of a gap year for you must outweigh the disadvantages. At first blush, taking a gap year can seem like a win-win. Assuming you have already been accepted to a college, have a good plan for and can afford your gap year and have received permission to defer admission for a year, there might appear to be no negatives to your year off.

Before taking the plunge, however, evaluate what some might consider personal drawbacks of the gap year.

Taking a gap year will put you a year behind your high school friends in college experiences such as moving in, attending orientation, making new connections, picking a major, planning for a career and graduating.

[Find out about the benefits of spending a gap year overseas.]

In addition, your study skills could suffer if they are not used for a year. If you don't feel burned out, it may be best to continue your schooling without a break and maintain academic momentum.

Finally, a gap year not only means you start college a year late, but also that you finish college a year late, delaying pursuit of your career. In a competitive job market and tough economy, it's more important than ever to get work experience.

On the other hand, a gap year could enable you to gain that experience in your field of choice before starting college and give you a leg up for internship positions. Ask yourself whether the benefits of a gap year make sense for your education and career goals.

Bradford Holmes is a professional SAT and Latin tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University and his master's degree from the University of Southern California.