We’ve written before on the value of taking a gap year (here and here) and regularly stress the importance of young people not rushing through timely, expensive formal education just because they don’t know what else to do. When you aren’t sure about the path you want to follow with your education, you don’t have to be pushed into any particular track. You can take the time between high school and something else, or between two years of college, or after college, to try something new and step outside of the traditional path. You can take a gap year.
The public sentiment around gap years is pretty mixed. Parents and school counselors, who come from an age when the gap year was much less common, tend to look down on the option and consider it to just be a sign of indecision (even if it is a sign of indecision, isn’t it worse to manifest that sign of indecision with a four year, six-figure commitment to something you are unsure of?). Students, especially high-performing students, feel the pressure to go immediately from high school to college and then on to graduate school, professional school, or the corporate world.
The truth of the matter is that a gap year can be one of the best investments a young person can make and can help avoid a lot of the professional, psychological, and existential angst felt in later years.

Q. What exactly is a gap year?

A. The term “gap year” can be used to describe any break in the traditional high school-college-grad school pipeline. It can be spent traveling the world, working at a startup, learning an art form or a skill, or just working. The term is most commonly used to describe a break between high school and college, or a break between college and graduate school; however, it can also be used to describe taking a break from college while still enrolled in school (i.e., taking a leave of absence from school, where a student takes 2 or more semesters off from classes to pursue something else). While the phrase can be used to describe a year sitting at home eating Cheetos on one’s couch, that isn’t how it is usually meant by those who advocate taking a gap year.

Q. Won’t taking a gap year make me a less-valuable prospect for college admissions officers/graduate school admissions committees/job recruiters?

A. Absolutely not! This misperception about the value of a gap year probably stems from a lot of people (wrongfully) thinking students on a gap year are just lazing around at home. The reality is, more and more college admissions officers are encouraging students to take a year off before coming to college (e.g., here’s an article from Harvard admissions urging students to consider a gap year to avoid academic burnout). The advantages are plentiful. Most obviously, students who take gap years get to figure out what they do and do not want to do with their college experience, experience less academic burnout since they aren’t going immediately from 12 years of schooling to 4 more years of intense schooling, and have a better idea of what they want from their education generally. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that the traditional college path isn’t for you.
This applies to graduate school admissions, as well. People who take a year off before applying to graduate school signal to graduate school admissions committees that they are serious about going to grad school in their field and that they really want to go through with it. Too often do people apply to graduate school simply because they don’t know what else they want to do, so they just go right on to grad school. Admitting people who have taken time off from school helps graduate schools keep their drop rates low and their yield rates high. For professional programs (e.g., law school, medical school, MBA-programs), work experience can be invaluable. The student with work experience brings on-the-ground thinking into the classroom.
Employers are also happy to see students who have taken time off from school. This may be for no reason other than the fact that students who took a gap year are more likely to have real work experience, unlike their peers who have done 16-straight years of schooling with perhaps only a work-study job or a part-time position.

Q. I’m interested in taking a gap year after high school, but I don’t want to discount the idea of going to college. What should I do?

A. Defer admission. This means you should go about the normal steps for applying to college in your senior year of high school, go ahead and get accepted to whichever schools you are aiming for, and then contact the admissions department and ask if you can defer your admission for a year. You would then have one year to pursue a gap year before you would start classes. Most colleges and universities will allow you to do this without penalty, and you keep your place for when you want to go (i.e., you don’t have to apply to be admitted again). This keeps the risk of the gap year low, while keeping the potential reward high.

Q. Won’t deferring admission mean I lose my financial aid and scholarships?

A. This is usually not the case. If the school is offering you a financial aid package, it is most likely designated as an 8-semester package, meaning that you will get financial aid so long as you finish college in a total of 8 semesters and the school won’t cover a ninth or tenth semester. The gap year doesn’t count against these semesters. The semesters are only those which you spend as a student at the university.
Independent scholarships are left up to the discretion of the awarding organization, and may or may not be affected by a gap year.
When talking with admissions and financial aid officers, it can be helpful to indicate that you will be spending the year off to do something productive that you hope to bring back with you as a student of their university.

Q. I want to take a gap year, but I don’t know how to talk to my family about it! They seem to think it would be a bad idea.

A. I’ve covered this issue before here. Typically, family members can be difficult to win over on something like a gap year because it was much more uncommon for the college-bound student to take on when they were growing up. They may also be anxious about the idea of you doing something destructive or wrong and coming to regret it. It’s important to empathize with them, and the emphasize that you are taking the gap year not to just do nothing, but to grow intellectually, professionally, and/or emotionally. You will be a better person who is better equipped to handle college and the professional world after a gap year.

Q. I want to take a gap year, but I don’t know where to start! You talk about not just lazing around during the gap year, but what if I don’t find anything to do?

A. Making sure that the gap year is productive — in whatever way you define this (i.e., if you think learning poetry or art is productive, then that counts; if you think working is productive, then that counts; if you think traveling is productive, then that counts) — is very important, and there are resources available to do so.
Here’s a guide to give you ideas for how to plan a gap year.
A good proportion of Praxis participants apply to the program with the intent of using it as a gap year, and it works well for them. They gain real work experience — not just an internship — and go through a professional and intellectual curriculum that rivals that of a college program. The program also works well for the gap year schedule. For example, a high school senior graduating in May or June of 2015 could apply to the Fall 2015 class and, if accepted, spend the summer doing something different, and start working through the program in September 2015, finish in June 2015, and go on to whatever their next step is that fall.
There are a variety of programs out there that are specifically designed as gap years, both by independent organizations and by colleges themselves. Take some time and look around and you’re sure to find something you’d like!