What’s a Gap Year? And Why Are They Becoming Trendy?
Life + Money

What’s a Gap Year? And Why Are They Becoming Trendy?

Kevin Lamarque

The White House’s announcement on Sunday that Malia Obama, the president's oldest daughter, would be taking a gap year before attending Harvard sparked a media frenzy. It wasn’t that she had finally chosen what some believe is the number one Ivy League college in the country… it’s that people were scratching their heads over what a gap year really is.

Even though gap years are slowly gaining acceptance and more students are choosing to defer college for a year, many people are still unsure about what they are and what the point of one is. Some people see it as a way for high school graduates to lounge around for a year before heading to college. Others assume that only students who didn’t get into college would choose to take time off.

Below are all the answers to any questions that you might have about a gap year – and perhaps you or your child might end up taking one someday.

Related: College Students Are Missing Out on Billions in Free Financial Aid

What is a gap year?

Originally a U.K. tradition, a gap year is when a student takes a year off between high school and college and uses the time to explore interests through other means than academia. The student typically defers their admission to a college for a year, though sometimes students apply to schools during their year off. Many colleges, like Harvard, actually encourage their students to take time off before diving into their studies.

Delaying school allows students to recharge after completing high school and gain some life or work experience. Although there are countless things that students can do during a gap year, popular options include volunteer work, employment, travel, internships, and formal group programs, among others.

Why are gap years becoming more popular?

People used to think that someone who was taking time off between high school and college was doing it because they didn’t get into college. Holly Bull, the president of the Center for Interim Programs, says that as gap years become the norm, there’s less of a stigma attached.

Bull says she noticed gap years getting attention in the U.S. when Prince William and Price Harry took time off before starting university. “The spread of information has allowed people to consider it and it’s become more okay for people to take one.” She hopes that with the news about Malia Obama, even more people will consider taking one.

How many people take a year off?

Not many, but the number is growing. Although there aren’t any official statistics, the American Gap Association found in surveys that it conducted that about 30,000 to 40,000 high school seniors defer college each year. The surveys also found that in 2015, participation in gap years jumped about 22 percent from the year prior.

According to a recent study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, only 2.2 percent of freshman who graduated high school in 2015 took a year off before starting college. The report didn’t say why the students had chosen to delay college, though. 

At Harvard, out of classes that are around 1600 students, between 80 and 110 students defer each year.

Related: The Best College Towns in 2016

Why should I take a gap year?

The benefits to a gap year are enormous, Bull says. Students are able to step away from the pressures of the school system and choose their own path for a period of time. “You’re rested after a year, you’re often more focused on what you want to study or not in college, you’re that much more mature and you’re not as derailed by the dramas that happen during a freshman year,” Bull says.

Taking a gap year might also improve your grades. Robert Clagett, the former dean of admissions at Middlebury College, conducted studies at both Middlebury and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and found that students who delayed college one year had, on average, GPAs that were 0.1 - 0.4 higher than expected.

But gap years might not be a good idea for everyone. Bull suggests that only students who want to take a year off should do it. “It shouldn’t be forced on anyone. The key is that somebody be drawn to it because then they’ll own it. It’s often the first time they get to choose and create their own time.”

Eli, an admissions representative at Harvard, says that there isn’t a specific type of student who is encouraged or not to take a gap year. “It really depends on the type of student. It can be helpful for students who may feel they need that extra time for self-discovery, religious reasons or another year of growth.”

But aren’t gap years only for rich kids?

No. While some formal programs, like ones that allow a yearlong immersion in a foreign country, might cost upwards of $30,000, there’s no hard rule that a gap year has to involve an expensive program. For example, AmeriCorps’ City Year is a volunteer program that provides students with stipends. Plenty of programs also offer scholarship money. It just requires research to learn what your options are.

Bull also advises students to look into opportunities with free room and board. One student that Bull worked with spent half of his year as a counselor at a wilderness education program in the U.S. and the second portion working at a fly fishing lodge in New Zealand. The student ended up only paying for his plane tickets to and from each destination

Holding down a job during a student’s time off is also a viable option. ”There’s validity to just having that time to take a breather and getting a sense of the world,” Bull says. 

Related: The Real Reason It’s So Easy to Get A’s in College

How do I choose what to do during my gap year?

There are plenty of resources to help you decide what to do, including gap year counselors, the internet and USA Gap Year Fairs. Some schools, like Harvard, also offer assistance to their accepted students in planning their time off. 

Bull advises anyone considering taking a gap year to think about his or her core interests and then match those with an existing program, internship, volunteer work, or something else. For instance, if you’re interested in medicine, think about taking an EMT course or volunteering at a hospital.

The beauty of it is that it’s your year and your time. You’re free to do whatever you want. There’s no set definition of a gap year, so follow your interests and take advantage of the time of out of the classroom and away from textbooks.