What a Gap Year Is, What It Isn't, and How to Know If Your Child Should Take One

·6 min read
An image of a teen with a suitcase.
An image of a teen with a suitcase.

Getty Images.

School is almost wrapped for the year, and for high school seniors, that means not only the end of the semester and the start of summer vacation, but the end of 12 years of education and the beginning of the rest of their lives. For many, the jump from high school halls to a university campus is a welcome next step. However, for other young people, even if they're interested in furthering their education, the thought of leaving one classroom for another so quickly is a harder adjustment.

For these students, a gap year may be just the answer.

What Is a Gap Year?

"A gap year is a sabbatical; a year-long break between high school and college," says Ed Zamora, a principal of Principia Prep college admission counseling. Young adults can use this break to see what it is they're most interested in, gain real world experience, earn tuition money, or develop new skills before they spend another four years of their life in school, and you spend a second mortgage's worth of tuition.

What a gap year is not, however, is a year at home playing video games or partying with an extended spring break-like vacation on the beach. "Clever gap year design isn't about just ticking off 'instagrammable' moments," says Robert Gogel of educational travel company WorldStrides. "It's taking time to understand the place and the people that live there. An important part of the gap year experience is about taking those moments and having the time and space to reflect on them."

Gap Year Options

Gap years fall into five rather broad categories:

  1. Travel: Probably the most widely recognized gap year option, a travel experience, often beyond country borders, to explore new cultures and gain new insights. Self-guided travel, living with family abroad, being an au pair, or teaching English, are ways to explore the world without joining a program. Otherwise, structured travel gap year programs "connect your son or daughter to a cohort of other students from around the country immersing in new languages, new cultural norms, 'learning by doing' to build teamwork and executive presence—all of which are intentional accelerators of 'soft skills' like confidence, empathy, global perspective, and adaptability," says Christian Meyer, president of EF Gap Year.

  2. Volunteering: Giving back is another top choice for high school grads on their year of self-exploration before college. While many travel programs incorporate service projects into their broader itineraries, teens can also look at getting involved closer to home at locations such as local animal shelters or food pantries, or with national programs such as Habitat for Humanity.

  3. Career Exploration: Internships before college give young adults a chance to not only try out new career paths, but also to dip their toes into a field before choosing a major in college. Other options, says Zamora, include shadowing a professional, such as a doctor, or learning a trade. Additional possibilities in this category extend to those interested in pro careers in sports or the arts, giving them time to hone their skills and expand their networks.

  4. Paid work: Although not the most glamorous sounding of these opportunities, a year of paid employment without the demands of school allows future college students to save money to put towards college, purchase items they'll need to live independently, and get the funds to pay for room and board and school supplies, alleviating some financial concerns when they do start college.

  5. Free radical: A term used by the Gap Year Association as well as Zamora, this last category is a vast one, encompassing self-directed explorations that can include anything from learning a new language (without the far-flung travel aspect) to creating a YouTube channel or blog, writing a book to creating a nonprofit foundation.

Is a Gap Year Right for Your Child?

It's true some Gap Year consultants we asked immediately said, "A gap year is great for everyone!" in response to this question. But as parents, we know not every child, student, or teen is built the same. Zamora says to ask theses questions: "Does it add value to your life?" and "Does it give context or purpose to your life?" These are relevant both to thinking about choosing a year of exploration instead of school, as well as for individual gap year programs.

If your child seems "mature enough" to know they're not ready to leave home yet, or, conversely, if they want to "take on the world before college," a gap year might be the answer.

"This past year actually gave lots of students an opportunity to pause, think about, and question our country's typically linear educational path—high school right on to college," says Meyer of EF Gap Year Tours. Adding that a gap year doesn't have to be as exotic as traveling abroad: "But it does mean dedicating some time to examining yourself through the lens of new environments, people, and ideas outside of the education system so that you can step back into it with renewed confidence and drive."

Should You Apply to College First?

Yes, according to admission consultant Zamora. Your future college student should apply to school, and, importantly, for financial aid as well, before making their gap year plans. Why?

"First, sometimes our perception of what something will be like is not at all what pans out," says Zamora. "So for that reason alone, even if a student is dead set on doing a gap year, I always still make sure they apply to college."

Have your teen contact the admission department of the school they're interested in attending and ask them about their deferment policies, IE, if they take a semester, or the entire academic year, off, will their spot be held for them. (Side note: Zamora always advises that students contact schools, not parents, to establish their interest. It's also a great way to have them to gain responsibility during the process, which is an important part of gap year growth.)

Once you know the policies, if, in a few months they realize they made a mistake and want to be on campus, and they've been admitted, but deferred their place, they can still go to college. But if you don't go through the process, the likelihood of finding a college you want to attend that is still taking applications after the summer begins is almost zero. And this is why you need to apply for financial aid at the same time, says Zamora. If your student suddenly decides that the gap year sounds too daunting, and wants to attend school and needs financial aid, resources may have already run dry at many institutions if they don't hand FAFSA or other forms early in the process.

So, Should Your Child Take a Gap Year?

"I would say to parents that after doing the research if they feel that taking a gap year feels right for their student then I would do it," says Zamora. "College will always be there, whether the student goes six months later or a year later, while a gap year is something that can change the student's life and provide them an experience that's truly life changing."