Most high school seniors pursuing a college education are now filling in roommate forms, sending off final transcripts to chosen institutions, and such. But many others have chosen a different path that will lead not to college after the summer, but to a year of travel or work or service. Taking a gap year between high school and university is long a common practice in Europe, but more American students are discovering it as well.
Students will take a gap year for many reasons. Some are keen to break away from formal schooling and see more of the “real” world before entering the safe confines of college. They want to see the world, get a better perspective on things to study in college, learn a new language. From parents’ perspectives, a gap year may give their child chance to grow in emotional maturity and self-sufficiency, to work and save money for college, or simply gain a bit of seasoning.
These are all very good reasons for a gap year. I want to focus on one group in particular, however – students who had an unsuccessful college application season and want to redo it, and those who did not apply at all but hope that an interesting gap year will strengthen their future applications. A gap year can indeed improve a student’s college application in two ways. Firstly, by virtue of working or traveling or doing community work, a young person may grow so much in maturity and focus that it will inevitably show to good effect, regardless of how they spend the year. Secondly, an interesting year may make an application stand out from the norm, suggest the student has something out of the ordinary to offer, or even support a student’s interest in pursuing a particular course of study.
Whether a gap year will actually deliver on this promise will depend on what a student does and says about it. Not all gap experiences are equal – it is after all meant to be a year of learning by different means. Admission officers will ask themselves what the student has learnt from taking the time, and if the answer is ”not much,” they will decide accordingly. Pursuing in desultory fashion a couple of week long activities that neither engage nor require commitment from you – mall-crawling in Long Island, lounging in LA, or sunning yourself in St. Barts – none will seem very interesting to educators (unless, of course, you have something interesting to say about it!). On the other had, traveling to places that stretch your sense of the world and doing service work that challenges your sense of self, working to save money for college or to help your family survive, learning a new language, interning with a local scientist or teaching children, all would lead a reader to recognize your social commitment and your intellectual energy.
A final point involves timing, whether to apply to college before taking a gap year, or during that time. The answer depends on your circumstances and prospective colleges. Most, though not all, institutions allow admitted students to defer entrance for a year. During your senior year, ask colleges whether they are open to such deferments and how their process works. Applying to college during your senior year means that you still have easy access to teachers and the resources of your college guidance office. Applying during your gap year allows you to add the weight of your new experiences to the application, though remember that you will be applying only a few short months into that year.
Many of the great things a gap year can do for students, can also be gained from studying abroad later or from teaching and traveling after graduation. A growing number of students do not want to wait before embarking on such an adventure though, and they may have very good reasons for it. But if improving your college application is one of those reasons, then keep in mind that not all adventures are equal in the minds of admission officers!