Taking a Gap Year: Should You Do It?

Though considered a normal rite of passage in the UK and Europe, gap years have taken longer to catch on in the United States.

However, taking gap years has become more popular over the last decade or so, as students, parents, and educators have come to understand the value of devoting time to personal growth while transitioning between life stages.

The Benefits of Gap Years

It helps that more data is emerging about the benefits of gap years.

The Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that accredits such programs, found that 90% of students who take a structured gap year return to school within a year, and are more likely to graduate on time and with a higher grade-point average. 

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told USA Today that taking a gap year “…could actually help students succeed in college.”

And Mark Sklarow, chief executive officer of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, told the New York Times, “A higher percentage of those who took a gap year will complete college than those who do not.”

“A gap year gives us time for more introspective evaluation and some thinking about what we want to do and, more importantly, why we want to do it,” writes Princeton undergraduate Jae-Kyung Sim in an October 2019 Daily Princetonian piece. He ends with the advice, “One year of break will not only prepare you better for Princeton but also broadly for your career path and life.”

Taking a Gap Year

What should I do during my gap year?

What a gap year looks like is up to you. Many students do gap years after graduating high school and before starting college, but some take them partway through college.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to how to spend that time, but common options are

  • volunteering or service work
  • traveling
  • participating in an internship
  • working to save money for college, or
  • engaging in independent study (which can help students figure out what they want to major in)

All of these are activities that can help young people develop valuable life experience and better self-understanding, and therefore, arrive on campus more focused and mature.

“Being plugged into another culture caused me to learn a lot about myself and reach a different level of maturity and readiness that I would not have had without the year,” writes Cody O’Neill on the website of the Princeton Gap Year Network, a student group at Princeton University that supports students who take gap years.

One thing to consider is whether to do your gap year through a program run by your college, through a formal organization that handles the logistics of gap years for students, or on your own.

As an example of a program run by a college, Princeton University has the Novogratz Bridge Year Program, which “allows incoming students to begin their Princeton experience engaged in nine months of tuition-free, University-sponsored service at one of five international locations.

Bridge Year participants study the local language, live with carefully selected homestay families, and take part in a variety of cultural enrichment activities, while learning from host communities through their volunteer work.” Interested students may apply to the program through the website.

Beyond university-run programs are the following:

For those interested in politics, Election 2020 Gap Year helps students volunteer with election campaigns.

Many of these, like Global Citizen Year and Rotary Club, have the added benefit of offering financial aid. AmeriCorps covers most expenses, while the nonprofit Service Year Alliance offers paid long-term service opportunities.

Finally, of course, there’s the option of designing your own gap year. That might mean finding an internship, volunteering locally, trying to build a business, or creating your own learning experience, whether that be taking online courses or studying a foreign language. Most universities require students to submit a plan detailing their goals and how they they plan to achieve them.

“I tell students to come up with three to five personal, practical or professional goals,” advised Julia Rogers, board president of the Gap Year Association and the owner of EnRoute Consulting, in the New York Times.

Practical Considerations

There are a number of logistical considerations that need to be worked out when it comes to the nuts and bolts of making a gap year happen.

Get University Approval

For one, chances are that you’ll need to get approval from your university.

Start by looking up whether your university has resources around supporting students taking gap years. For example, the website of the student-run Princeton Gap Year Network includes all kinds of helpful resources, like a handbook; FAQ about what the process is like; links to other resources, at not just Princeton, but other universities like Middlebury College, and other outside organizations; and suggestions of what students can do during their time off.

When all else fails, call or email the admissions or undergraduate affairs office directly, and they can direct you to the right method for securing approval to take a gap year. At Princeton, returning students considering a gap year must contact their residential college deans, while newly admitted students must contact the admission office.

Financial Aid

Another significant consideration is that it’s almost entirely certain that students who defer a year will have to reapply for financial aid the following year.

Again, on-campus resources like Princeton’s Gap Year Network can be an invaluable aid in figuring out how to do it, and whether there’s any risk of not receiving as much aid the next year.

What about COVID-19?

The ongoing pandemic obviously affects what kind of gap year students can or should take. Gap year plans involving travel are particularly tricky.

Even if travel restrictions lift everywhere, it seems prudent to assume that any student who travels should be prepared for the possibility of seeing border restrictions imposed at any time in the U.S., the country they’re visiting, or even within a country, in the counties and towns they’re staying in.

For now, the New York Times reports, “Some organized programs that offer immersive trips abroad — like Amigos International, Where There Be Dragons, and Thinking Beyond Borders — are still enrolling students for fall 2020, with generous cancellation policies.”

It might be a safer bet to stay in the U.S. But for students hoping to get out of the house, there may still be plenty of adventurous and structured opportunities that involve working in the field — including working on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. For structured programs like Election 2020 or AmeriCorps and other service organizations, check out the websites for their various programs for updates on their Covid-19 policies. 

All of that said, be aware that some schools are disallowing gap years altogether right now. And even if they aren’t, many are warning that services that require advance budgeting, such as housing, financial aid, and dining plans, may not be guaranteed if students defer a year.

The Princeton University campus paper, The Daily Princetonian, reported in May that “Due to housing and enrollment constraints, students who take gap years this fall may not be guaranteed immediate return to the University,” adding that “If too many students choose to take leaves of absence for the 2020–21 school year, over-enrollment could occur the following year, putting a strain on housing and dining services.” In other words, taking a gap year could turn into two years off.

For some, that could be worth it. For others, that’s all the more reason to hunker down now and devote oneself to virtual college in the fall. At the end of the day, only you are qualified to judge what course of action is right for you.

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.