5 Smart Ways to Leverage a ‘Gap Year’ in Your Education

Is it academic suicide to take a year off school? Not at all — if you do it right. Here’s how.


Back when I graduated from high school, a gap year seemed to be largely a foreign concept. You either were going to college, or you weren’t. If you said you were planning to take a year off from school, everyone figured it meant you weren’t college material — you just weren’t ready to admit it yet.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, there are numerous organizations committed to promoting the virtues of a gap year, even going so far as to arrange it for you. It’s hard to track the number of students who take gap years because many do so informally, but the Higher Education Research Institute reportedly estimated that 1.2 percent of college students, roughly 35,000 of them, deferred admission in 2011 to take a gap year.

If you’re in high school or are the parent of a soon-to-be graduate, keep reading for more on what a gap year entails and whether it’s a smart choice for you.

The mainstreaming of the gap year

A gap year is just what it sounds like. It’s a gap in your formal education, typically taken between your high school senior year and your college freshman year. However, students may take gap years between undergraduate and graduate studies.

I imagine in the “olden days” hippie high-school graduates may have hitchhiked across the country or backpacked across Europe in a quest to find themselves, but maybe I’m stereotyping. Today, graduates on a gap year may be more likely to sign up for an organized program that has the potential to be just as rigorous as a year in school.

What I find particularly interesting about gap years is how they are now being embraced by schools like Harvard. These colleges and universities accept high school students through the traditional application process and then let them defer enrolling for a year, or up to two if military service is involved.

But is it a good idea?

If you ask any of the organizations committed to promoting gap years, the answer is a resounding yes. Of course, you have to keep in mind that some of these groups make their money by selling travel and other services to gap-year students. They have a vested interest in persuading people to take a year off.

Still they can provide a long list of studies that support their assertion that a gap year has positive benefits. These benefits include the possibility of avoiding burnout, broadening cross-cultural understanding and confirming an intended career path.

Yet, another study found little difference in the outcomes of students who took a gap year compared to those who didn’t, except that the gap year students were more likely drop out. However, in all fairness, the number of dropouts could be related to the fact many kids take a gap year because they’re uncertain about the future of their education. That uncertainty could lead some to eventually throw up their hands and walk away from a degree.

The conflicting studies make it hard to decide, right?

What to do during a gap year

It may be there is no definitive answer to whether a gap year is a wise move. Like so many things in life, it could depend largely on the student and his or her goals. If you decide to go the gap year route, sleeping until noon and binge-watching Netflix each night might be setting yourself up to become a future dropout.

Do one of these five things instead:

1. Volunteer your time

Volunteering is a great way to get out of the house, gain some real-world experience and have something extra to slap on your resume. Even better, you can volunteer for work related to practically any interest and cause. Check out these sites for opportunities:

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,453 more deals!