By Kristen Steinbeck

While the word "gap" might have negative connotations, we believe that a gap year (deferring college for a year to get some real-world experience) is an excellent way to mature and grow before heading off to college. But there are many questions about how to navigate these years. Below, we answer a few of them:

Q: Who should take a gap year?

A: Anyone who wants to! But, from our perspective, you should take a gap year if you:

  • Have a specific program in mind that you think might clarify your major or career goals
  • Feel like a break from an academic atmosphere will increase your enthusiasm for learning when you return to school
  • Want to gain experience away from your parents in the “real world” before continuing your education
  • Want to work and save money for college
  • Want to gain a global perspective

Q: Will it hurt my chances of college acceptance to be a year older than the rest? 

A: Nope! For one, it’s illegal to discriminate based on the age of an applicant. Also, as long as you demonstrate to the admissions committee the benefits of your gap year, your time away won't count against you. Remember, you can also apply and defer later if you get in.

Q: How do other students adapt to being older than their classmates?

A: Just remember that you’re all starting together as freshmen; you just happen to be a year older with a year of real-life experiences under your belt. You'll have some great stories to tell! (Plus, if someone can detect your age down to the year, we'll be impressed.)

Q: If I get accepted and ask to defer, will I be guaranteed a place next year?

A: It’s a good idea to ask the colleges you want to apply to before sending your application; that way, you don’t waste your time if they don’t permit gap-year deferrals. However, places like Harvard even encourage a gap year in their acceptance letter.

The easiest way to find out whether a university accepts deferments is to check the American Gap Association's list of universities' deferment policies. If you can't find the school you're looking for there, email an admissions advisor.

Q: What's a "good" gap-year experience? Should I work for a year, volunteer, travel, or study something off the wall?

A: No single experience is better than the other. What does matter is what you’d like to do and how much you think that particular experience will play into your future.

For example, maybe you go to Chile to help with environmental initiatives. Although you originally wanted to major in environmental studies, the trip helps you realize how quickly you learn foreign languages, leading you to double major in Spanish and international relations instead.

If that sounds like a lot to you, don't worry — your gap year doesn't necessarily have to be far-reaching and life-changing. It’s perfectly understandable to most colleges if you choose to work and save money for a year to better afford the high costs of college tuition.

Q: Can I get college credit or a stipend/scholarship during my gap year?

A: Yes! Colleges such as Princeton and Tufts offer tuition-free "bridge" years. Other colleges partner with organizations that provide scholarships to gap-year students. Some organizations — such as Americorps — even offer a stipend if you finish the program.

As for college credit, it depends on the gap-year program you participate in. Some offer credit, but it's not typically from the college you'll eventually attend. This post has some good advice about why it might be best to forego gap-year credits.

Photo by Danka Peter

Q: Will it be harder to get scholarships if I sit out a year?

A: If you’ve already gotten in and received a scholarship, the school might be able to roll it over to the next year, but you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA again (it’s an every-year sort of thing). At other schools, though, it’s possible to lose a scholarship, so double check before you officially defer.

Q: Is a gap year strictly limited to a year? What if I want to take six months or even 18 months for my experience? 

A: “Gap year” has become the shorthand, but you can certainly take the time you want. If you take more than a year, however, you’ll need to check deferment policies. Can you start in the middle of the school year? Can you defer for longer than a year? Or would it be a better experience to start alongside the other freshmen to have a more traditional experience after the gap year?

Q: Where can I read about other students' experiences with gap years?

A: You should definitely check out, where you can find reviews of overseas gap-year programs (you can also find U.S. programs on that site, too).

An advisor at MIT said, “From my years in admissions, the overwhelming sentiment from students who have taken a gap year has been: No one ever regrets having taken a gap year, but plenty of people regret not having taken one.” (Source)

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