More high school students than ever are taking a gap year – deferring their college enrollment for a year (or a semester) to temporarily pursue other interests. While it’s becoming more common, it’s still something most families aren’t familiar with.
Here’s what you need to know about the benefits and drawbacks of a gap year and how to decide if you might benefit from one.
Why would I consider a gap year?
A gap year may sound like a year-long vacation before college, but they’re more than that. A gap year is supposed to have a goal. Those goals are as varied as the students who have them. Some use the time to work and save money, travel (when there’s not a global pandemic), do volunteer work, enter a language immersion program, or pursue any number of other non-academic goals.
With so many schools closed or partially closed due to COVID-19, more students are taking that extra year before making the jump to college. Recent research showed that in a typical year, most colleges saw only 1-3% of incoming students defer enrollment, but for the 2020-21 school year, that number jumped to 10% or even 20%.
Since one benefit of a gap year is reducing the risk of burnout by giving you an academic break, it’s no wonder it’s become more popular after a stressful pandemic-impacted school year.
Gap year pros and cons
There are a lot of benefits to a gap year, but they aren’t right for every person or every circumstance. There are several things to consider when you’re deciding if a gap year would fit in your plans.
You’ll be more experienced and well-rounded. A gap year gives you some time to think and grow at a critical point in your life. Some people go to college in part to “find themselves.” And that’s a legit way to think about it. But sometimes going through that process in college means changing your major six times and racking up more time in school (and more debt).
It can help focus your goals. Students who use a gap year to work or volunteer often develop a true passion and a realistic view of how it would be as a career —especially if they target potential career fields for their work/volunteer plans. In other cases, a person who was convinced they wanted to go into a specific field learns firsthand that it’s not the right path for them. Either way, it’s a valuable lesson that can give you more direction, and likely better performance, when you do start college.
You'll boost your independence and self-sufficiency. A gap year – especially one where you are working or traveling — can build these skills. And probably faster than you would in college where you still have a lot of structure and support around you.
You’ll always be a year behind your friends. That may not bother some people, after all, you’ll make new friends during your gap year and when you do enter college. And it may well be worth it to have a unique experience. But it could be hard to see high school friends graduating and getting their first “real” jobs while you still have another year or so to go in school.
You’ll need a way to support yourself. Unlike study abroad programs, there is no financial aid or student loan that covers a gap year. Depending on your plans, you’ll likely need some combination of savings, work, and family support to cover your costs.
How do I pay for a gap year?
The financial impact of a gap year depends a lot on your current circumstances. You’ll need to consider several factors to figure out how a gap year could affect your short- and long-term finances.
For starters, as we just mentioned, you’ll need a plan to cover your day-to-day expenses. If you’ll be staying with your parents and working, that’s less of an obstacle. But if your goal is more ambitious, say spending a year backpacking across Europe, you’ll need to factor in costs for food, housing, travel, etc., while realizing it may be difficult at best to find work along the way.
If traveling is one of your goals (when it’s possible to do so safely), one option to minimize your expenses is sticking to lower cost countries. Or look for volunteer programs that provide a stipend and/or tuition assistance. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are some of the best known such programs but there are many others tailored to students with an interest in education, environmentalism, health care, and more.
There’s another less obvious cost to a gap year. You’ll be finishing college a year later than you normally would, so your total college costs might be higher. (Chances are the cost of tuition from 2021-2024 is going to be a bit less than the cost of tuition for 2022-2025. Other expenses, such as food and housing are also likely to increase.) You’ll also be starting your career a year later – and delaying the income and benefits that come with it.
On the other hand, you can work during your gap year, and the experiences you gain could have a number of benefits including keeping you from choosing the wrong major (and wasting tuition on classes you don’t need) or landing you a better post-graduation job.
On the third hand (we know, just go with it) there’s an opportunity cost to consider. It’s often easier and cheaper to travel or spend a year volunteering now, when you’re young and have fewer responsibilities than it will be later on when you’re paying for a mortgage and the kids’ braces. If there’s something big you really want to do and you don’t do it now, you might not get to it for decades—if ever.
Those variables make it hard to calculate exactly how much a gap year might cost (or save) you, but it’s worth really thinking through what you want to do and how you expect to do it. (Is a possible $40k reduction in lifetime earnings worth hiking the Appalachian Trail and writing about your experience? Only you can decide.) Weigh the possibilities so that no matter which choice you make, you truly understand what you’re gaining and what you might be giving up.
How to plan for a gap year
If you’ve decided a gap year is right for you, there are a few things you need to do.
First, if you’ve already been accepted to a school you (eventually) want to enroll in, you’ll need to find out how they handle deferrals. At some schools, this process is easy and essentially saves you a spot in the class for the following spring or fall semester. At other schools, you may have to reapply for your target year of entry.
With that covered, start thinking in some detail about what your gap year will look like. Literally. It can be easiest to think of this in chunks of time—say, three months or so.
For example, what will you do with the summer between high school graduation and when you’d normally be going to college? Depending on your goals for your gap year, this might be prime time to save and earn money, reconnect with friends/relatives before you start traveling, or give yourself a little break before you start working in earnest in the fall. Then sketch out plans for the fall, winter, spring, and that final summer before you re-enter college. Having this plan is important because with 16 months of “free” time in front of you, it’s very easy to put things off “until next month” … and then never get around to them. You don’t want to waste this time.
As important as plans are, don’t carve any of them in stone. A lot can happen in a gap year. You’ll want some flexibility to change plans if you get a great opportunity to change jobs, take an unplanned trip, etc.
If your plans involve travel (domestic or international) you’ll want to make sure you take care of getting your paperwork, needed supplies and gear, and any applicable vaccinations well in advance.
Staying home to save money or pursue other projects? Give some thought to what you’ll do in your down time. Remember, most of your friends will likely be away at school come the fall so your social life is going to be a little different. Unless you want to rack up major hours hanging with your folks, take some time now to scout out clubs or activities you’d be interested in joining so you can meet new people.
What do I tell my parents?
Real talk: Your parents may not love the idea of a gap year when you first broach it. They may worry you won’t ever go to college or that you’ll waste the time.
A common issue is that some people still think taking a gap year indicates you aren’t serious about school. But gap years are routine for European and Australian students, and some schools, including Harvard, encourage students to take a gap year and defer their entry.
Nor does a gap year mean you’re not likely to ever go to college. A recent survey shows 90% of students who take a gap year return to college within a year.
If you show your parents you’ve already thought through what you’ll be doing, why, and how you’ll pay for it, you can dispel their fears of you spending a year binge watching Netflix or playing Fortnite.