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A Guide to the Gap Year

Many students are coping with the “new normal” as expectations of traditional college life fade away in the age of a global pandemic.  Some universities may not open campuses in the fall and continue classes on a digital platform.  The schools that do open will have a new look and feel with social distancing practices.   Athletics and other extracurriculars may be put on hold for another year, leaving a void in student life.   Attending classes online, living at home, and missing out on traditional rites of passage have the class of 2020 rethinking their options.  The gap year may be the answer some are seeking. 

What is a Gap Year?

A year (or semester) typically taken between high school and college in which students focus on enrichment.  This can take the form of travel, volunteering, career investigation, artistic pursuits, academic exploration, political internships, environmental work, and the list goes on.   Taking a break from the academic pressure cooker students have been immersed in for the majority of their young lives can help prevent burnout.   This is a time when students can experience independence, personal growth, and work towards achieving lifelong dreams.   The gap year gives students an opportunity to connect material they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life experiences.  

How to take a Gap Year

The path to taking a gap year can come in many forms.  Students who need to have a post-gap year plan in place to ease future anxiety could complete the college application process in the senior year while students have the support of teachers and counselors.   Once accepted and a deposit has been paid to the school of choice, students may petition to defer  enrollment until the following year.  A school may grant or deny the deferral of admissions.   If approved, this route can lift the stress of going through the application process alone while students may be away from home after high school.    It gives students the comfort of knowing they have an academic future plan.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to an admissions office to see if a school participates in programs to defer admissions.  Here are the steps:

  1. Apply to college in senior year 

  2. Once accepted, submit a deposit to secure a seat

  3. Request deferment 

  4. If deferment is granted, familiarize yourself with your school’s terms and conditions 

  5. Enjoy your gap year

Keep in mind that many schools do not grant deferrals on admission. In this case, students would need to apply as a first-year based on individual timelines.  This can be a bit more challenging for students to do on their own but is still a viable option.

Students currently matriculated in college should talk to an academic advisor or an admissions counselor to see if a gap year is possible.  Each program has its own unique process for taking time off.  Many schools require students to reapply for admission upon return.  This should not be an issue if the student is in good standing as schools keep close tabs on graduation numbers.   Another option is to request part-time status.  If granted, the student could enroll in one online class per term while enjoying a year or semester of enrichment away from campus. 

What Do Students Do During a Gap Year? 

Many students craft a semester or year of travel, service, and adventure.  This can be done independently, with the help of a consultant, or via an official gap year program.  Some universities sponsor their own gap year programs with options for students to pursue service, conservation, language immersion, and other experiential learning avenues.  While travel and cultural immersion are the most popular choices, the class of 2020 may need to be more creative in these pursuits than their predecessors.     

Students may consider pursuing EMT or CNA training so they can play an active role in fighting COVID-19 as a certified health care worker.  This provides an opportunity to boost your resume while helping those in need.  Hours earned in this area can also count towards graduate program requirements in the medical field.  Domestic programs in New Orleans and Houston offer options for service-oriented individuals who want to play a role in post-hurricane recovery efforts.  Others may want to volunteer in our state and national parks, work on sustainable farms, or spend the year learning a new skill.   Here are some ideas for possible ways to spend your gap year:

Emergency Response and Disaster Relief 

  • FEMA

  • Red Cross

  • Volunteer firefighter

  • Habitat for Humanity 

Community Service 

  • Americorps

  • Public Schools 

  • Hospitals

Environment and Conservation 

  • State or National Parks

  • Wildlife Sanctuary or Rehabilitation Centers

  • Sustainable Farms

Career-Focused Gap 

  • Political Campaign Intern/Volunteer 

  • Business Internships

  • Job Shadowing 

  • CIEE Virtual Global Internship 

  • CNA and EMT Certification*


  • Semester at Sea Programs

  • Outward bound 

  • Mountaineering 

  • Ski/Snowboard instructor 

  • Rafting Guide

Skill Development 

  • Culinary Courses

  • Vocational training

  • Coding 

  • Language immersion 

Spiritual Exploration 

  • Meditation retreats

  • Yoga teacher training*

  • Church/temple/mosque volunteer 

Arts, Music, and Film

  • Improv Group

  • Band/Symphony/Choir

  • Theater 

  • Writing retreats

  • Independent Film Projects

*Training and certification required – be sure to check with the school to see if this is permitted during an official gap year

How Do I Find a Program?

Begin by checking programs offered by the university you plan on attending.  There are also many companies that can help curate all or part of a gap year experience.  Rustic Pathways, Outward Bound, and CIEE are some popular choices students use.  While they can be pricey, there are often scholarships available to those in need.  

If you are feeling more independent, you can explore options on your own or work with a private consultant to plan out a gap year.  When deciding what you are going to do be sure to have clear goals and a timeline set in place.  This can help alleviate some of the concerns others may have about the student taking time off from school.   Many students string together multiple experiences during a gap year to maximize their learning and adventure opportunities. 


Not every school offers an official gap year.  While some schools value time off for personal growth, many competitive schools will not save a seat for students wishing to take a gap.    For example, UCLA only offers this option for students taking military leave.  Other schools accept deferments on a case by case basis in which students write a formal letter outlining their request and how they will wisely use the time.  

For those schools that do offer students to take an official gap year ask the following questions to a school official:  

  • Will my financial aid package rollover or will I need to resubmit?

  • Do I need to submit a letter outlining my gap year plan?

  • Is there an official deadline to submit this request?

  • Are there guidelines and rules to follow during a gap year?

If your admission has been officially accepted to defer enrollment for a gap year, be sure to read the terms and conditions.  Many schools request that you agree not to enroll in any for-credit or degree-seeking courses during the deferral year.  Others request that students do not apply for admissions to other schools during this time similar to an early decision binding  agreement.  If a student breaks the agreement in any way the school may decide to rescind admission to the student and they would need to reapply. 


Intermittent closures and quarantines will impact us all in the next year.  Be sure to have an exit strategy and a backup plan to be on the safe side.   Organizations that run gap year programs often follow the advice of the CDC and put programs on hold when needed.   Managing expectations and being aware of the uncertainty can be an important method of dealing with whatever may happen in the next year.  

Financing a Gap Year 

For students who don’t have an endless supply of discretionary funds (or parents willing to pay), there are other ways of financing the gap.  For those who know early on that a gap-year is in their future, they can begin saving far ahead of time.   Summer jobs and fundraising have been popular paths.  

Opting for a paid program can alleviate some of the financial burdens but may have some upfront cost if certification is required (i.e. EMT training and CNA training).  Career exploration via internship is an excellent way to explore a new city and broaden knowledge of different industries.  Many sustainable farms offer room and board for students willing to work and learn. 

When the world reopens and travel is an option there are some great US State Department programsthat offer scholarships to students interested in learning critical languages (i.e. Russian, Korean, Arabic, Chinese, Urdu, etc).   These programs for future intelligence career paths often require students to have some background in these languages.    Other opportunities to see the world including teaching English and working as an au pair offers paid cultural immersion.

A Few Words of Advice 

COVID-19 has impacted everyone.   When drafting a letter of request for a gap year, avoid using the pandemic and how it will change your first year of college.  Universities are working hard to find ways to serve students during this time and it’s best to avoid implications that their efforts are inadequate.  They know online classes and canceled events are not ideal. Stay positive and focus on what you plan to do during this time regarding personal growth and service.   Make yourself stand out so that the admissions officer reading your statement will want to cheer you on as you pursue a year of independence.   

In Conclusion

Taking a break from the academic grind can be rejuvenating and can give students fresh insights on the world around them.  A gap year can be an excellent opportunity to discover new interests, develop talents, and clarify the role that they want to play in this world.   

The Gap Year Association, one of the best resources, reports that 90% of students who take a gap year return to school within a year.  This statistic should ease some of the concerns parents have about students continuing their education when taking time off.  My experience working with students who have taken a gap year has been remarkable.  When students venture out on their own, they return more mature, focused, and with a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives.  While many flounder in the first few years of college, “gappers” typically have a clear academic plan and life goals.  

If you decide to explore this path, think of what you would like to accomplish during your time.  Personal enrichment can take many forms so be thoughtful about your goals and realistic regarding expectations.  A life-changing year could be right around the corner.  

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