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Taking a gap year between high school and college

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This page is about the option of taking a gap year between the completion of high school and starting college. The page goes over the different reasons one might take a gap year, the pros and cons of taking a gap year, how to decide if it's good for you, and what to do if you do take a gap year.

Classification of gap years

Classification based on one's college admission status and college-going intent

We have the following different types of gap years based on college admissions status:

  • Gap year taken by people who already have been admitted to the college of their choice, and have been granted a deferral of admission for a year.
  • Gap year taken by people who did not receive admission to the college they wanted to, and who intend to apply to colleges in the next application cycle.

In addition, gap years may be classified based on the extent to which one intends to go to college:

  • Gap year taken with the full intent of returning to the academic world (i.e., going to college) after the completion of the year.
  • Gap year taken with the intent of exploring possible options whereby one never has to go back to college.

Classification based on activities done in the year

People use the gap year for a wide range of activities. Note that the categories below are not mutually exclusive:

  • Career-oriented work gap year: They just treat the year to do full-time work that is in roughly the sort of career direction that they eventually anticipate going into. For instance, somebody who is considering a programming career may take a programming job.
  • Travel gap year: The gap year is spent traveling around the world, going to new places, meeting new people, etc.
  • Passion pursuit gap year: The gap year is spent pursuing some passion, such as writing a book, or participating in drama.
  • Volunteering gap year: The gap year is used to volunteer to do something one believes to be socially useful within a broader community or to the world.
  • Academic study gap year: The gap year is spent studying material somewhat similar to mainstream academic contnet, but possibly tailored a bit to one's specific goals. Academic study gap years are common for people in countries where college entrance is determined by annual competitive examinations -- such people might spend a year in order to prepare better for the competitive examination. Academic study gap years may also be used to get a headstart on college learning in order to be able to finish college more quickly and efficiently.

Short-run considerations for gap year logistics

Finances and parental support

If you're not earning money yourself, and therefore you're relying on your parents to support you, you need to discuss with them whether they will support you financially through the gap year. In case you'll stay at home during the gap year, you should check whether they expect you to contribute to the family finances in some way. If they have such expectations, and your gap year is not career-oriented, you may need to factor in time needed for additional part-time work to make the required financial contribution.

Finances are less of an issue in career-oriented gap years, because you have a steady income stream. Some of these may involve staying far from home, in which case costs are also higher (for instance, if you have to take an internship at a different company in a different city). You should consider whether the income you get will suffice to cover living costs. To the extent it doesn't, you need to discuss with your parents whether they would be willing to cover the difference.

Finances can become more of an issue in travel, volunteering, and passion pursuit gap years, though the details can differ considerably. So a careful look at finances would be warranted in these circumstances.

College admissions deferral for people who already got into college

If you are deferring college admission at a college you already got into in order to spend the gap year, you need to make sure that you clearly communicate to the college that you wish to take a gap year, and they accept. The college admissions committee may require some description from you of what you intend to do during the gap year before they let you take it and/or after your gap year is over. Make sure you are clear of expectations on that front before you take the plunge.

College admissions opportunities for people who do not yet have their desired college admission

If you didn't get admitted into the college of your choice the first time around, then it's important that you use the gap year to improve your admissions prospects.

  • In countries where college admissions are heavily governed by performance on annual competitive examinations, this may mean working hard in order to do better on that examination. Even if your gap year is not primarily an academic study gap year, this is an important aspect you should pay a lot of attention to.
  • For the United States:
    • If your performance on standardized tests wasn't good enough, consider preparing for and taking them again. Keep in mind that college admissions committees only consider the best of your scores.
    • You may or may not be able to take more Advanced Placement courses or tests. Advanced Placement tests have to be taken through a school, but if you have a good relationship with your former school or some other school, you may be able to take the tests without formally enrolling in the relevant courses. However, the results of any Advanced Placement tests you take during the gap year won't come in by the time colleges have to decide whether to admit you.
    • You can use the gap year to shore up your extracurricular activities list. This particularly applies if you are engaged in a passion pursuit gap year, but also applies to career-oriented, travel, and voluntering gap years. Think in advance about how you can leverage your gap year experience in this respect.
    • Make sure you have recommendations from your high school teachers that you can use for your next application cycle. Teachers may leave the school and be difficult to contact, so you may try to arrange to have the school keep the letter on file for the eventuality that you are unable to contact the year. Also consider getting an additional recommendation from somebody who can vouch for how you productively spent the gap year.

Long-run considerations

How you should think of opportunity costs when considering a gap year

  1. The simplest model is one where you think of (gap year) + (your time spent in college) as the substitute for the more ordinary package of (your time spent in college) + (first year after college). If your taking the gap year does not really affect the value you get from your time spent in college (an unrealistic assumption, but a good first pass), then the gap year is essentially to be compared with the first year after college. Thus, for instance, if you expect that in the first year after college, you'll have a $60,000 job, that is the opportunity cost of the gap year.
  2. The gap year could affect whether or not you need to go to college at all. For instance, your startup may really start taking off, or you may get a full-time programming job comparable to what you would expect to get after getting through college. However, a decision to not go to college should not be taken lightly. See our suggestion to stay mainstream until you have demonstrated success doing unusual stuff.
  3. The gap year could affect your college performance, the time you take to finish college, ability to use resources and networks in college for other purposes. The effect could go either way (a gap year could make you better or worse at getting the most out of your college experience). More is discussed below.

Does the gap year improve your maturity and your ability to get the most out of your college years? Arguments for, and caveats

Ways in which the gap year could improve your maturity:

  • If living away from parents, you improve your maturity on the "managing your day-to-day life" front.
  • If away from mindless high school where they micromanage your activities, you could become more self-directed. This allows you to better adjust to college and also to later life. But is it better preparation for college than just starting college and learning as you go? This is unclear. Also, the type of self-directedness needed differs by context, so the self-directedness needed to pursue your passion differs from the self-directedness needed to do well in colleges. And college courses and workplaces are often mindless in ways similar to high school.
  • If you get lots of free time, can devote some of it to academic study, get huge head start on college. But this assumes your self-directed learning skills exceed your structured learning skills by a sufficient margin.
  • Doing real work can teach you work ethic. This is not too useful for college, because school ethic and work ethic differ, but it may be useful for work you do on the side in college, summer internships, and life after college. Again, it is unclear whether the gap year is the most efficient learning opportunity for acquiring work ethic, as opposed to jobs or summer internships in high school and college.

Note that, to make a strong case for the gap year, it is not just enough to show that people who have taken a gap year come in somewhat more mature than people who enter college straight out of high school. A more compelling case would be based on a comparison of people who have taken a gap year and people who have finished a year of college (note that comparison of actual sets of people also suffers from selection effects).

Gap year and getting out of the academic habit

A gap year, away from academic work, may cause one to lose academic focus and forget academic knowledge, more time needed to get back on track in college. This is a potential hazard of a gap year, but easy to remedy if you consciously address it:

  • It's worth noting that people have a few months' gap between the completion of high school and college. Since forgetting curves are exponential, most forgetting curve happens in the first few months. There is not that much of a difference between not having studied a subject for 3 months and not having studied a subject for 15 months.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who have had long periods of time when they haven't studied a particular subject usually take no more than 2 weeks to get it back to the level they originally were. For instance, people who finish AP Calculus in their junior year (grade 11) may be a little more rusty at calculus when they begin college, but are usually able to recall the relevant material within a couple of weeks.
  • The more general point is that if you don't do any academic work during the gap year, you get out of the academic habit. But most students don't learn good study habits in school anyway, and need to learn them properly in college. So the loss isn't huge.

That said, the academic habit and knowledge loss issue may be worth addressing:

  • Even if you're not taking an academic study gap year, consider mixing some academic study type activities. These need not be on the specific subjects you learned in school or expect to learn in college, but they should be areas where you are using academic styles of thinking and working. If you can find such activities within your core projects, that is great.
  • It may be worthwhile spending the few weeks (perhaps even a month or two months) at the end of your gap year reorienting yourself to academic life, perhaps by refreshing relevant material from school.

External links