By Kathy Cheng, Director of Admission & Marketing, Dynamy; Director, USA Gap Year Fairs

Are you wondering if a gap year is just an excuse for students to sit at home, play video games, and watch YouTube? Are your families worried that a gap year will deter college forever? These are all questions I hear at USA Gap Year Fairs.

First, let’s define a gap year as an intentional period of time between completing high school and beginning college when a student steps outside the traditional classroom experience. This is a time to explore the world, reflect on their personal values and goals, and prepare to take the next purposeful step in life.

Gap year programs give students a developmental advantage over their peers by providing them with an opportunity to expand their perspectives and gain direction that will give the college years more meaning and focus. For many students, gap year programs provide time to develop independence and confidence while pursuing various fields of interest.

The numbers show that 90% of participating students continue on to higher education within six months of completing a gap year, according to a study included in The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During College by Haigler and Nelson (2005, St. Martin’s Griffin). Data from Middlebury College indicate that gap year students have higher GPAs in comparison with their counterparts who have chosen to attend college straight out of high school. In addition, in my conversations with Harvard’s dean of admission, William Fitzsimmons, he reinforced the benefits of a gap year to remedy “burn out” and help students develop more-focused studies. Gap year deferments are increasing, not only in Harvard’s admission department but also in colleges across the country. Savvy colleges are even creating their own gap year programs as a way to build resiliency and retention. Currently, college retention is barely at 50% and the national student loan debt is climbing to $1 trillion—isn’t it time to redefine education and consider alternatives to traditional learning?

Learn More About Gap Years

USA Gap Year Fairs is a not-for-profit started in 2006 by Dynamy, an internship-based gap year program in Worcester, MA. The fairs bring together more than 100 organizations (averaging 40 at each fair) with interested students, parents, college counselors, IECs, and gap year experts. This season, 35 fairs will take place in 20 states from January to February. These fairs are an integral part of defining the gap year process because they showcase the range of options a student can explore. Over the past nine years, the fair circuit has grown from 7 to 35 events nationally with more than 5,000 attendees.

The events are hosted in high schools and feature gap year programs from all over the world, including Australia, Europe, Africa, and South America. Gap year options encompass diverse activities, such as sailing in a tall ship, trekking in the Rockies, dog sledding in Canada, service work in Cambodia, interning in a district attorney’s office, and martial arts and language immersion in China.

Because a gap year is a personalized experience, it’s best to meet with representatives from the programs to speak more about individual needs and goals. Each exhibitor at the fairs will be a program director, alumni, or even the CEO ready to answer questions about their gap year program. The options are broken down into seven categories: academic, adventure/trips, community service, environmental conservation, gap year advisors, internships and work experience, and travel and culture. Programs may have multiple categories, but will be categorized by their primary offering.

How to Choose

Once you have a sense of the broad array of options available to you, it’s time to narrow the field. Consider the following questions in planning a gap year.

How long? Gap years can last from the moment you graduate high school until your first day of college (and for some, the first day of college is in the spring semester). Students may divide their time between working and traveling as part of a structured program or customize their own gap year. Programs offer options that last from a few weeks to eight months. While some students seek out a diversity of experiences, others choose a longer, more in-depth experience.

International or domestic? There are excellent opportunities for new experiences both international and domestic. International opportunities range from traditional university learning abroad to service programs in rural communities in the developing world. Domestically, there are options offering students a chance to live, work, and volunteer in different communities in the US, some that often feel like a foreign country or culture.

Group or individualized? Gap years foster personal exploration and freedom. Although the notion of heading out on one’s own has romantic appeal, group programs can offer an instant social circle. Groups also offer the support of adult program leaders, all while offering many of the freedoms of an individualized gap year. Think carefully about what each day will be like and what your support system will be if you are away from home.

Service or learning or both? Be intentional about what the goals for your gap year will be. If service is an integral part, carefully consider the work offered by programs to be sure it aligns with your aspirations. If learning about a particular subject or culture interests you, look for programs that will offer chances to really engage in that subject in a meaningful way. Some programs create a mix of both traditional and experiential learning. Pay close attention to the details of the day-to-day experience of students within the program.

Price range? Everyone can afford a gap year. Although some programs cost as much as a year of private college, others will pay you to participate, including educational awards to help pay for college. Plan your budget—keeping in mind the college years after your gap year—and then consider the options in your price range. Not all programs are the same, so look carefully at what you’ll get for the money and time you invest. Also, some programs offer scholarships, college credit, and access to federal financial aid. If your dream program looks out of your price range, get in touch with the organization to explore options for funding.

IECs Taking on Gap Years

Just as they do with schools and colleges, IECs who are making gap year placements need more insight into and connections with those programs. Gap year fairs are an opportunity for IECs and families to make those evaluations. It’s often said that IECs need to “put eyes” on a college before they will refer a student; USA Gap Year Fairs stands by the same standards and also believes that personal interactions are key.

The fairs provide a broad exposure to gap year programs and the opportunity for face-to-face conversations with professionals in the field. Each gap year fair begins with a speaker to introduce gap year opportunities and help attendees become informed consumers on the various possibilities. This year’s speakers include Holly Bull, Jane Sarouhan, and Jason Sarouhan from the Center for Interim Programs; Julia Rogers from EnRoute Consulting; Marion Taylor from Taylor the Gap; and authors Rae Nelson and Karl Haigler.

USA Gap Year Fairs is excited to work with IECA in furthering gap years. For detailed information and dates for upcoming fairs, visit