The gap year, Part I: a definition.

Many of you probably know that my oldest son, who finished his high school work in May ’09 and turned eighteen in August, is taking a gap year. I’m often asked about gap years and why they’re a good idea, so I thought I’d post a few thoughts over the next week.

A “gap year,” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, is a year taken off studies between high school and college. It’s more common in Europe than in the U.S., but it’s a recognized and valid option here as well (although many parents aren’t aware of this). The gap year can involve work, travel, volunteerism, or a combination of those things. (Check out this list of ten things to do during a gap year.)

There are two ways to approach a gap year: either apply to colleges straight out of high school and then ask for a one-year deferral from the college of your choice, or else finish the senior year of high school and apply late in the following fall. Either way, the student should plan on taking the SAT and any other standardized tests during the fall of the senior year, just as if the gap year weren’t going to happen.

The first plan seems to be recommended by many admissions counselor; the fear is that the student will end up with an empty year during which nothing in particular happens (and that doesn’t look good on college applications). However, if the student has an intriguing gap year planned, the second option is a perfectly good one; particularly for home educated students, the application can actually look stronger if it explains that the student is undertaking a challenging, maturity-producing project during the year after high school.

Here are a couple of recent news articles on the topic, should you wish to investigate further.

MSNBC’s Today news site:

Princeton encourages it. Harvard’s a big fan. From Tufts to MIT, some of the most prestigious universities in the nation are urging students to consider something that would make most parents cringe: The idea of putting off college for a year in favor of some much-needed downtime.

It’s called a “gap year.” And while it’s been a common and popular rite of passage in Australia and the U.K. for decades, the concept is now starting to gain significant steam here in America.

Why? A growing number of high school seniors are balking at riding the academic conveyer belt from preschool all the way to university. They’re burnt out. Or not quite ready. Or they want to explore a few interests before deciding what to study in college. So instead of packing their bags in anticipation of freshman year, they’re volunteering in New Orleans or teaching in Thailand. They’re starting the great American novel, or interning to help figure out what they want to do with their lives….

Taking a gap year can actually make kids more focused and ready for the rigors of academic life. In fact, Harvard, arguably the most competitive university in the country, believes so much in the gap year that they encourage every student they admit to consider a year off before matriculation. And Princeton has just announced a new program called the “bridge year” that will allow newly admitted students to spend a year performing public service abroad before beginning their freshman year.

The reason behind higher education’s support of the gap year is clear: Better-prepared students mean higher completion rates. And it’s completion that matters. Parents should remember that getting a kid into college is only half the battle. According to the College Board, three out of five students who enter a public four-year college don’t manage to snag a degree within five years. And nearly 30 percent of all students who enter college don’t return for their sophomore year. Considering the fact that this year’s average price at a four-year private college is a whopping $23,712 per year, it’s a pretty expensive place to dabble. Sending a kid who’s not ready to college is like sending a kid who’s not feeling hungry to an all-you-can-eat buffet.


Though the concept may be new to many in the USA, it’s an established tradition elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, for instance, about 11% of the 300,000 college-bound seniors take a gap year before enrolling. Australia puts up similar aggregate numbers in what’s known Down Under as “going walkabout.”

Reliable data for gap-year activity aren’t available for the USA, but guidance counselors and college admissions officers say they’re seeing a surge of interest….[C]ounselors are coming to bless the gap-year option, and colleges increasingly are offering a deferred enrollment option as more and more “gappers” arrive on campus with enhanced focus, motivation and maturity — all of which bodes well for their undergraduate years in college….

U.S. gappers sing the praises of structured programs, but they also say they grew most when they had to live by their wits.

Jacob Feinstein of Brookville, N.Y., has spent the past year doing an internship with a software start-up in New Zealand, taking cooking classes and studying filmmaking in New York City before he enrolls at Harvard University in September. He points to flying alone internationally and living in a house in New Zealand with 11 peers as key experiences that boosted his confidence and life skills.

“Before the gap year, I would have had a lot of hesitancy about flying on my own from New Zealand through Japan and China, two countries that don’t speak English,” Feinstein says. But he did it.

During the gap year, “I became a much more self-sufficient person. Now I’m not stressing at all about living on my own in college.”

Owen Henry of Waterford, Va., opted in 2007 to take a gap year when he received a pile of college rejection letters. His goals for the year: to be challenged, gain work experience and clarify academic goals. He participated in a program for American gap-year students last fall at Oxford University, where he says he spent less than $10,000, and he decided on a career as an Arabic translator.

Since March, he has been handling two tons of sail as a deckhand on the Lady Maryland, a 104-foot-long tall ship and floating classroom in Baltimore. He gets room, board and $6.54 an hour. He has saved $1,600 of this for college, and he plans to enroll this fall at Oberlin College, to which he applied and was accepted during the gap year….

Check back for further posts on this topic: Part II (my own thoughts on the gap year), Part III (our personal experience so far), and Part IV (resources for gap year projects).

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21 Responses to The gap year, Part I: a definition.

  1. Karen says:

    My husband had a gap year some 30 years ago; he taught math at a girls’ school in Cheltenham, England; worked in a bakery on a cake production line; laid concrete at Heathrow. These things wouldn’t necessarily look thrilling on today’s elite-college-bound students’ resumes, but at the time British students were not allowed to work when they got into university in the UK, so the gap year was one of the few times they had available to build up funds. Gap years had a more practical economic focus (back in the Dark Ages).

    My nephew from Glasgow recently took his gap year to work for something similar to Habitat for Humanity in Kenya and to raft down the Nile. My niece traveled across Canada working with special-needs kids in gymnastics programs along the way. These programs are much more typical of today’s university-bound, relatively well-off Brits. I think that like SWB’s son they each spent around half a year traveling.

    I did not have a formal gap year myself — I had not heard of such a thing in the mid-1970s. But I was a foreign exchange student following my senior year, when I went to Paraguay to live with a fairly poor family. This was not a fun experience or personally fulfilling, but I think in the long run that is what made it so valuable. I learned a lot about the constraints of poor third world women, about dictatorships, black markets, the U.S.’s reputation abroad (I went abroad right after the Watergate scandal), and my own limitations. Before this experience South America was pretty well off my mental map of the world; since then I have followed its political fortunes with a different kind of interest. I also changed my whole life plan. Before, I had the idea that I wanted to be a simultaneous interpreter in the UN, which seemed to me the height of glamor. Afterwards, I wanted nothing to do with being put in the middle of an exchange between two parties who blamed all their misunderstandings and frustrations on me because I was the one who spoke their language. I got a really close look at what kinds of personal skills were required of interpreters and it was crystal clear to me that I didn’t possess them! If I had gone straight through the academic work of languages without this chance to try on the role informally, I’d have been stuck with being completely unfit for the work I’d just spent four years training for.

    I am a fan of gap years from another point of view as well. Anyone who has taught at the university level will probably agree when I say that older students — even a year or two older — are the greatest delights of a teaching career. These are not necessarily students who have taken a gap year; sometimes they return to school after dropping out during a first try, or need to take time off to work, or have babies very young; sometimes people come back to school once their own kids leave home or after retirement. All of them had, for varying amounts of time, lived other lives outside academia; they WANTED to be back in the classroom and they had a much better idea of how to go about getting where they wanted to be in four years. This was most apparent at the state university where I lectured part-time, where most of the kids coming straight from high school get caught up in the party scene. But even at the University of California, where the average freshman is really, really smart, hard-working, and fairly focused, older students were still a gift. They weren’t as focused on pleasing me, getting the “right” answer, or getting an A. They tended to be more sure of their own opinions, more interested in the material than the grade (this is not to say the grade didn’t matter; just that they engaged differently with the books at hand). I remember them as asking more questions, not to find out what I wanted them to know or say but because they genuinely were interested and they were past that awful teenaged self-consciousness that often inhibits students from asking questions in class, for fear others will think they’re stupid. As I said, this growth need not come from a gap year in particular; but a gap year is a way to formally schedule time and opportunity for it to occur.

    A final reason for considering a gap year, it seems to me, is the enormous burden of work most high school seniors seem to labor under. They not only have a full load of courses, sports, community service, etc.; they also have the SAT, the job of college applications, the job of researching scholarship and grants, college visits if they are very lucky. I have already read books about kids staying up until all hours just getting their homework done. If you add all these other important projects on top, you are heading for burn-out and exhaustion. Dividing up a gap year so that some of the time is reserved for applications, essays, and financial research seems a sanity-making move for both students and for homeschooling parents who are in charge of creating transcripts and course narrative descriptions or whatever extra documentation is needed.

    Sorry for rabbiting on… this something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. Thanks for writing about this, SWB.

  2. Kristi says:

    Wish I had known about gap years after I graduated from high school! I instinctively knew that I needed time off but I felt pressured to continue to get my degree, even though I had no idea what I wanted to study. I enrolled in the community college where I puttered around aimlessly for a year before joining the military just so that I could be doing something with my life. Add a husband and two kids to the picture and now, at almost 29, I am still trying to go back to school to finish that degree!

  3. Janice in NJ says:

    Thanks for tackling this topic; it’s been bouncing around in my head for a couple of months now. Like most things I’m tackling as a homeschooling mom, it’s unchartered territory so my first inclination is to dismiss it as just one more unknown that is just going to complicate our lives. But my first graduate is a summer-birthday baby too; I suspect that this might be really good for him, and he is certainly intrigued by the notion. Data, lists, and directions please.


  4. Patricia Hansen says:

    Hi Susan,
    My eldest graduated from homeschooling May ’09 as well. She is taking a gap year and working on a paramedic degree. She loves trauma medicine and wanted to practice a little before pursuing her B.S.N. i.e. spending two years in purely academic classes before touching a patient. This has paid off in SPADES! Not only is she already getting hands-on medical experience, but here in Michigan, paramedics are so extensively trained, that after her 16 months of paramedic school she will be admitted directly to her junior year of nursing school. The win for us is that she will be earning a salary as an E.M.T. during this time and will have a tidy sum in her bank account at the end of paramedic training. Its a win-win for her and us.

    She will also be volunteering in Port Villa, Vanuatu for six months after graduating from paramedic school. She will be assisting in a program designed to help third world countries set-up emergency services and train EMS personnel. She is very excited about this and it appears that our church will raise all of the funds for her mission trip.

    I am a huge fan of the gap year and am already planning for our next child (age 13) to take one as well.

    Patricia Hansen, Classical Homeschooler

  5. Alice says:

    Oh, goody! I’ve been hoping you’d talk about this. My kids are very little but our long-range plans for them is for them to do a gap year. I’m excited to hear more from your perspective. Maybe you can address the whole health insurance question…

  6. Ginger says:

    Thanks for this series! My oldest is only ten, but I love the idea already. A year to see how different the world is from us, build maturity, perhaps find a passion that would direct his studies. The scariest thing is how hard it would be for me to send him. I’ll be reading with interest! Thanks.

  7. Moira says:

    This is such a fantastic idea, but I think in order for it to take off in the US, it will need to be feasible for more HS graduates who rely on scholarships rather than loans or parents’ income. While I didn’t know there was a name for this when I graduated HS in the 90s, I did want to spend a year between HS and college with AmeriCorps. However, as I did depend on a scholarship for my college tuition, it was not feasible. At that time and last I checked (last year) for the Florida Academic Scholars (I’d guess it’s much the same with other state-sponsored academic scholarships?), the only deferment you could get for this scholarship was if you were going into active service/other military. Not for travel, internships, missionary work, or any other volunteer opportunities.

    It’s a shame as I agree that taking such a year would be just the right thing for so many students and, if incorporated into programs such as AmeriCorps and The Peace Corps, it would be a wonderful way for many to do something for others.

  8. Jenne in AZ says:

    One of my concerns for the gap year is medical insurance. Our insurance only covers kids over 18 if they are full time students. How are you dealing with that? Other than that, I love the idea.

  9. Rod Andrews says:

    In the fall of 1968, I completed the first semester of my junior year at a small but very
    good university. My standing was number 1 in a class of 750. The university at that time gave an award to the second semester sophomore who held that position. But, I was unhappy with the major I had started. So, I took a gap year of sorts. I enlisted for two years in the U. S. Army. To this day I value those two years as much as any I ever spent in a classroom. They added another dimension to the degree I eventually obtained. Education is much more than lectures, exams, and degrees.

  10. Catherine says:

    I think a gap year is wonderful way for a young adult to grow up a bit, see more of the world, work on a career interest or, for many traditionally-schooled kids, get a break from the pressure.

    My son is a junior, and his original plan was to take a gap year, but this has evolved into a plan to basically graduate this year, since he basically has enough credit for our umbrella to graduate him. He technically won’t graduate this spring, but the point is that the need to do academic work as a senior is minimal, so he’s considering it a gap year, and doing an exchange program. He’d like to go to Germany, but we won’t know for a few more months.

    All of my real life friends have students in competitive high schools, and after talking to them I am SO glad we homeschooled high school. High school is a huge grind; the pressure on college bound students is considerable. They take such challenging course loads, often have multiple activities or sports, and just generally run themselves ragged in high school. My son is able to relax and actually not do any academic work many weekends, unless he chooses to. He spent much of yesterday hanging out with his brothers, shoveling and playing in the snow, and being a kid. OTOH, he really enjoys much of what he studies, and will voluntarily choose to read, play his violin or hang out on math websites (yes he loves math!). I think overall he has been able to be more of a “specialist” this past year at least, doing minimal history and english, and spending much more time on music, physics, math and languages, his academic interests, than he could have been if he was enrolled in a traditional school.

    Given the large number of students who drop out or otherwise flounder when they get to college, it is clear that many students are not ready for the independence of college. That has to be why many institutions of higher learning favor gap years. I think the relative independence of home schooling is great preparation for college and a gap year will only build on that.

  11. I just read this op-ed and it may have already been forwarded to you by 20 people, but i didn’t want you – or your blog readers – to miss it.

    The irony of the phrase, “a curriculum designed to raise children, rather that test scores” was too much for me – put a smile on my face for the afternoon.

  12. Tavianna says:

    It’s always an unexpected delight to realize that what you may have done unintentionally is actually what others consider to be a good idea! I was home educated way back in the early 80’s, starting with my 5th grade year. Throughout high school I chose to stay home and do my work by correspondence. By nature I was a bookworm kind of kid. I did what work I was sent and got it done as quickly as possible. I ended up graduating a year early and felt too young to enter collage right away; especially since most of my friends at the time were not homeschoolers and were in the midst of their senior year. So I spent the year brushing up on subjects that I felt I needed a head start on for my freshman year and also enjoyed a very rewarding time spent growing in my sense of adulthood and spiritual foundation.

    However, what interests me the most about this particular idea of a “gap year” done intentionally, is the fact that I remember being dumbfounded at college over how many students didn’t seem like they wanted to actually be there! Knowing how much my parents were sacrificing to send me and trying to pay for it as much as they could without loans caused a real sense of intentionality as to why I was there and how focused I was as a result.

    Now with 4 kids of my own and the oldest in 5th grade, I wonder how much that this unintentional “gap year” of my own experience played a part in the very positive experience I had in my college years. It is an excellent topic and I really look forward to hearing more about the possibilities surrounding this option.

  13. Kayode says:

    I found this topic very interesting. While my kids are just 3.5 & 1+ yrs old, I have already thot & discussed with some friends that I hope by age 16 they would have finished their Secondary school works and then spend the next 2yrs learning a foreing language and as well work in a publishing company, teach in a school, learn a trade(i.e. artisanship) and the likes… Never mind that I’m writing from Lagos, Nigeria, as I am a regular follower of The WTM and Susan’s blog.

  14. Kayode says:

    I found this topic very interesting. While my kids are just 3.5 & 1+ yrs old, I have already thot & discussed with some friends that God’s willing I hope by age 16 they would have finished their Secondary school works and then spend the next 2yrs learning a foreing language and as well work in a publishing company, teach in a school, learn a trade(i.e. artisanship) and the likes… Never mind that I’m writing from Lagos, Nigeria, as I am a regular follower of The WTM and Susan’s blog.

  15. Rosie says:

    My gap year and a half was unemployment, and I don’t recommend that to anyone. (After that I found full time work, saved for a car so I could get to uni, then applied, so I started when I was 21.) I don’t know other’s experiences, but getting the brain working after such a gap was REALLY HARD. Maybe that would not be such a problem with a gap of only one year, and if one’s secondary education was actually a good one ;)

    I’m hoping to send my kids to my sister in Kenya, who runs a volunteer placing organisation, when they finish their secondary education. I think it would make a appropriate rite of passage. They’ll be away from their parents (but with someone who cares) doing something useful. I wouldn’t be funding Kontiki tours through Europe even if I could afford to!

  16. Laura A says:

    I love this idea, but I hope it doesn’t become one more necessity (complete with expensive consultants) in the lockstep of growing up. I can see that happening, what with the focus on exotic vacations here in Manhattan.

    My reason for wanting my daughter (now a freshman) to take a gap year is probably not typical. She already sees people from all over the world daily, and has a specific focus (music performance). I’d like to take that year to give her time to read more widely and think more deeply, which is ironic because that’s why I wanted to homeschool in the first place. Seems like high school is a rat race even for homeschoolers if you add a serious extra-curricular interest to the usual litany of college requirements. It’s a gift of time.

    • K says:

      “I love this idea, but I hope it doesn’t become one more necessity (complete with expensive consultants) in the lockstep of growing up. I can see that happening, what with the focus on exotic vacations here in Manhattan.”

      I agree.

      I also agree with your slightly different take on the gap year.

      We never fit into what is typical!

  17. Rosie says:

    It’s so nice to hear you all supporting your almost adult children in this way, instead of punishing them for not being grown up yet.

  18. Ellen says:

    Like Ginger, my eldest is just 10 years old. But I’ve already been thinking about the idea of a gap year for her for several months now. You highlight many of the reasons to recommend a gap year. I’ll be following this post series with interest, even though we have a few years to plan!

  19. Tim Meeks says:

    My wife and I are considering a gap year program for our child called Impact 360. Here is a link for more details.

  20. My husband and I run a Christian version of a gap year in Baja California, Mexico. A friend sent me your link, and I was so excited to know that there are so many Americans who feel the same way we do! The name of our ministry is VENTANA MINISTRIES, and we offer a language and discipleship school for recent high school graduates. The purpose is to help them get their feet firmly planted underneath them, to help them to be able to define what they believe and why, and to solidify their faith before they head off to the scariest place on earth–college. Of course our ministry is open to students from other countries besides the U.S., so if anyone out there knows of a current senior in high school who’s looking to experience a gap year in another culture, click on over to and check us out! Gracias!

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