In today’s higher education landscape, students and parents are navigating a terrain marked by both incredible opportunities and daunting challenges. It’s a world where access to higher education is at an all-time high, but the specter of student debt looms large. At this moment, many young adults are grappling with academic burnout, mental health concerns, or uncertainty about their future. In response to these economic and societal factors, an increasing number of students are embracing the gap year option.
This long-held tradition in the UK and parts of Europe is being reimagined in the American context as a powerful opportunity to increase the return on the college investment and set the stage for a more intentional life. When done well, a gap year serves as a profound journey of self-discovery—a transformative bridge leading to more deliberate choices in higher education and beyond.
What is a Gap Year?
The Gap Year Association, a US-based nonprofit committed to advancing the gap year movement, defines a gap year as, “an intentional period of time devoted to personal growth and exploration through experiential learning opportunities.” Young adults customize their gap time to their own interests, goals, and budget. The most common opportunities include international or domestic travel, service-learning and volunteering, interning, national service through Americorps, pursuing personal projects, and learning new skills through structured or unstructured activities.
Just as gap years are not one-size-fits-all, neither are the types of students who take them. Nearly every type of student can benefit from gap time, each for different reasons. The highly academic overachiever could use their gap year to decompress and explore their interests outside the classroom. The experiential learner can discover possible career routes and uncover the path to get there. Individuals with mental or physical health challenges can seek out wellness opportunities and space. Students who learn differently can find opportunities that increase their confidence, intellectual curiosity, and life skills.
Most students will design a gap year that combines multiple experiences. For example, a student might work the summer after graduation to save money, attend a semester with a cohort-based service-learning program, then intern for career experience while traveling independently. The ability to personalize a gap year itinerary provides students with a unique chance to pursue their personal, practical and professional priorities in diverse settings.
Benefits of a Gap Year
Citing the positive outcomes reported by gap year alums, NYU professor and bestselling author Scott Galloway argues fervently that “gap years should be the norm, not the exception.” Studies from Middlebury and UNC Chapel Hill shows that gap year students perform better academically compared with traditional students and graduate sooner as well. A 2020 survey of over 3,000 gap year alumni revealed that 95% of respondents believed their gap year positioned them well for their next step in life, whether it be four-year college, vocational school, military, community college, or career.
Consultants and educators who have worked with gap year students also report profound changes occurring over a gap year within the individuals with whom they work. Gap year students frequently report feeling more mature, confident, and enthusiastic about their next life stage. These personal transformations strengthen their preparation for the challenges and opportunities of adult life.
“The best gap years tend to be the ones that push students to think about who they are and their role in the world,” says Joe O’Shea, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at Florida State University and author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs. A gap year allows students to cultivate a deeper sense of purpose and direction, equipping them to make the most of their college experience.
Gap Year to College
Colleges and universities demonstrate their support for the gap year option in various ways. Some, like O’Shea’s Florida State University and Duke University, offer scholarships to admitted students who defer their admission in favor of a gap year. Tufts and Princeton run their own in-house gap year offerings. Gap-year friendly institutions typically streamline the process for admitted students to request a deferral for an intentional gap year. This entails submitting a “deferral letter” explaining their reasons and plans, which is then subject to approval.
It’s considered best practice for college-bound students to apply to colleges during their senior year of high school, maintaining the support of counselors and teachers. While building a college list, students should gather the relevant gap year deferral policies from each institution so they can begin planning in advance of admission.
Some students reapply to schools or apply for the first time during their gap year, a strategy that has gained popularity since the pandemic. It is important to remember that this requires students to be self-motivated in the application process, use some of their valuable gap time to complete their applications, and that most of their gap year will still be ahead of them at the time of application. In such cases, colleges tend to look favorably upon a well-planned gap year, but not so much so that it can supersede the academic requirements of a given institution. When thoughtfully employed, it can be advantageous to use the essay supplements to highlight colorful anecdotes from the gap year or the alignment between the gap year and future academic goals.
While planning a gap year does add a layer of logistical complexity to college planning, it can be managed with some additional research and discussion by the student and family. The primary factors to address at the outset are the budget, parent concerns, and student motivations.
The cost of a gap year can vary significantly, with some experiences offering stipends and education funding, and others having costs akin to college tuition. Students often start planning and saving for gap years in advance and seek out opportunities within their budget. Gap year programs offer over $5 million in need-based and merit-based financial aid every year and those that are credit-bearing can often accept funds from a family’s 529 Savings Plan. A meaningful gap year can be planned on any budget, so long as it supports the individual student in their growth process.
Parent Concerns & Student Motivations
Parents and students often share similar concerns around safety and the success of the gap year experience, though they may voice them in different ways. When planning an itinerary, those worried about personal safety should consider regions and countries they feel safe traveling to, the level of support from gap year programs, and the student’s level of independence and maturity. Those concerned with feeling ‘left behind’ compared to their college-bound peers can seek advice and reassurance by speaking with gap year alums or watching testimonial videos from gap year programs and participants. Reframing a gap year as a leap forward rather than a step back can be incredibly beneficial.
The gap year has evolved into a powerful tool for young adults seeking to shape their identities and make informed decisions about their higher education journey. An empowered gap year student finds new avenues for personal growth, learning, and self-discovery that strengthen preparation for college and adult life.