Roadmap to a Fulfilling Gap Year

By Lin Johnson III

In midst of a global recession, a new ‘one-percent’ has emerged as incoming freshmen ponder the value of a college degree in a weak job market. Currently, an estimated 1.2% first-time U.S. college freshmen take a year off before attending college, according to Higher Education Research Institute (Donaldson-James, 2012). While this is only a slither of 1.7 million incoming freshmen in America, the popularity of a gap year is growing rapidly for three reasons. First, more students are taking additional time to earn a degree. Roughly, 45% of college students need an extra year or more to earn a four-year college degree (Scott-Clayton, 2012). Second, a gap year is a cheaper alternative than an extra year in college to figure things out. Average annual cost of college can up to $60,000 compared to an average gap year program costing about $20,000. Third, more colleges and universities such as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Reed are opening their doors to incoming freshmen who decided to pursue a gap year.


Historical Perspective

Gap year as an innovation in life learning and cultural understanding was introduced nearly halfway through the 100 years history of National Career Development Association. The innovation started with a group of UK youth traveling to India and evolved through cultural exchange opportunities, online presence pioneered by Tom Griffiths, and international expansion. Now, the gap year is another career development tool that helps youth to achieve professional and life goals.


Gap Year & Its Benefits

A misconception exists that a gap year is for wealthy students to enjoy an extended vacation. Yet, a gap year should ultimately enrich any student intellectually, personally and socially. It symbolizes a generational shift toward the value of college and the immediacy to create a life. The gap year decision rest on whether a compelling reason exists to do so now. Here are some benefits of pursuing a gap year:

  • Contributing to greater good of society domestically and internationally;

  • Being a more valuable classroom contributor with greater maturity and focus;

  • Learning about and experiencing different cultures, customs, and languages;

  • Unleashing your entrepreneurial spirit by creating a new innovation or business; and

  • Testing out a career path sooner to gear your college experience around it.


If your reason is aligned with these, then a gap year may be a viable option. Conversely, treating a gap year as a vacation, earning extra money, or increasing admission chance at another college is simply abusing it.


Gap Year & College Admission

If a gap year is a serious consideration, then students should research the college’s admission policy and talk with admissions officers about the likelihood of the college granting a deferral. Also, students should indicate their plans to pursue a gap year and provide a compelling reason. We do not advise students to do a gap year program as a way to improve her candidacy for colleges.

While there is no guarantee that a college will allow a student to defer a year for a gap year, there are a growing number of colleges and universities reserving spots for such incoming freshmen. Kristin White (2009) indicates that Harvard accepts about 50-70 gap year students, Cornell accepts 50-60, and Stanford accepts 30-40. The number of college with formal policy is small and many will make the decision on a case-by-case basis(Shellenbarger, 2010).

Note that students’ financial aid packages will likely be re-evaluated after the completion of the gap year. Students should update colleges of any changes to financial status and/or circumstances. For private scholarships, students should provide an update of their plan to pursue a gap year, its benefits, and their commitment to return back to college. Most will be lenient, especially with the college granting permission for a gap year.


Gap Year Options

With the growing popularity, gap year options and programs are numerous for students to explore and grow. Below are several general categories for gap year programs:

  • Internship: California Conservation Corps, Dynamy, NASA, iCLEM Program

  • Adventure & Language Program: Global Vision, Amerispan, CESA, Trekforce

  • Cultural Immersion Program: World Learning, Council on International Educational Exchange

  • Domestic Volunteering: City Year, AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Public Allies

  • International Volunteering: Global Citizens Year, Volunteer for Peace, Think Beyond Borders

  • Entrepreneurship: Incubators (e.g., StudentRND), Fellowships (e.g., Thiel Fellowship)


For a more comprehensive list of programs, Kristin White’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College is an excellent resource.


Gap Year Financial Assistance

Gap year can still be financially burdensome, despite being a cheaper alternative than a full year of college. Some gap year programs provide need-based financial assistance; however, many do not. Consequently, below are some creative ways to drum up additional funding:

  • Integrate your interests with college academic priorities for possible funding;

  • Find various private, nonprofit, and private sponsors in exchange for minimal work;

  • Leverage crowd funding tools such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Volunteer Forever;

  • Apply to grants and scholarships such as American Gap Foundation Scholarships; and

  • Pursue programs like AmeriCorps that provide subsidies during the program and a scholarship after completion.

Advanced planning is the most important component to affording a gap year program. It will allow students to explore numerous fundraising opportunities and to save money through summer jobs.


Role as a Career Professional

Because a gap year is an extra step in the pursuit of a college education, counselors play a critical role in advising students and parents on finding the appropriate path. Below are some tips:

  • Provide resources to help students in exploring various gap year options;

  • Discuss taking a gap year with students and parents, outlining its benefits and setbacks;

  • Create an integrated college roadmap that includes the gap year and financial assistance;

  • Guide students toward colleges and universities with a history of gap year admission consideration;

  • Provide encouragement to students who are considering a gap year because it is atypical;

  • Seek and establish community support to raising funds or finding opportunities for gap year students; and

  • Monitor the college success of high school graduates to provide a realistic picture of success to future classes.



Donaldson James, S. Gap Year: Congrats! You're Accepted to College, Now Go Away. ABC News. Retreived May 14, 2012 from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/gap-year-momentum-grows-studies-show-higher-performance/story?id=16339935#.ULq9mqX5nFJ


Shellenbarger, S. Delaying College to Fill in the Gaps. Wall-Street Journal. Retrieved December 29, 2010 from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203513204576047723922275698.html


Scott-Clayton, J. The Rise of the Five-Year Four-Year Degree. New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2011 from http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/the-rise-of-the-five-year-four-year-degree/


White, K. 2009. The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Lin JohnsonLin Johnson is the managing partner of Admission Leap, an educational company committed to helping students to reach academic success by harnessing their own personal style and interests. You can follow us on Twitter @ admission leap. He provided mentorship and guidance to students as an after school program director in Portland, Ore. Previously, he was a management consultant and finance associate. He holds a MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management and MPA from Harvard Kennedy School. Mr. Johnson can be reached at lin.johnsoniii@gmail.com


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Rita Golden Gelman   on Wednesday 04/03/2013 at 08:57 AM

Lin, Hi
Good job. I am passionate about bringing the Gap Year to the U.S. In October I will be doing a 50-state tour, talking in schools and to communities about the GY. I assume you know Ethan Knight of the new American Gap Association. He's in Portland. Thanks for spreading the word
Rita Golden Gelman, "Tales of a Female Nomad," www.ritagoldengelman.com

Lin Johnson III   on Monday 04/08/2013 at 02:47 PM

Thanks, Rita! Gap Year is another tool that students should have at their disposal in academic and professional development. Good luck to you in October. -Lin

Marie Koko   on Thursday 04/11/2013 at 02:55 PM

Typo police! ;-) I think you meant "sliver" not slither: "While this is only a slither of 1.7 million incoming freshmen..."

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.