Can You Take a Gap Year Between High School and College?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A teenage girl doing her homework at home.

Can You Take a Gap Year Between High School and College?

High school seniors have important decisions to make in their final year of secondary school. Many will decide to apply for and attend college, continuing right from the end of one four-year cycle directly into the next four-year cycle. Other students may decide to jump right into the workforce, joining jobs where they’ll get a taste of being an adult in the real world. But, what if those weren’t the only options? Taking a gap year between high school and college has always been an appealing option for students, but now there are even more alternatives to simply working for a year.

A gap year sounds appealing. Take time off after high school to spend in structured or unstructured ways that can help deal with academic burnout and future uncertainty. You’ll get a break from doing intense schoolwork on a regular basis and get to experience the freedom of free time.

For other students, the thought of taking off before going on to enroll in college fills them with dread. Not every student will want or need to take a gap year between high school and college. The students who do want to take the time off can benefit from understanding their decision.

Taking a gap year between high school and college has been an option for students for many hundreds of years. Modern takes on the gap year and whether students should take a gap year between high school and college need to factor in the importance of individual needs and interests in order to be a time of more than simply relaxing and taking a break. Keep reading to discover whether a gap year might be a viable option for you.

What is a Gap Year?

Taking a gap year between high school and college used to mean backpacking around Europe for seven to eight months before going on to attend a university. The practice was popular beginning around the 1700s and then continued after World War One and Two. Spending time outside of school between high school and college also gained renewed popularity during the 1960s.

Most recently, famous student, Malia Obama, the oldest daughter of former President Barack Obama, has taken a year off between her high school graduation and attending college. Malia spent a year interning at a film production company in Los Angeles before going on to attend Harvard University in 2017. She graduated from the prestigious Ivy League school in 2021, spending the expected four years in undergrad.

Malia is an example of a successful gap year that led to the student continuing on to obtain their Bachelor’s degree in an area of their interest. Malia’s decision to take time off and pursue an internship helped her to focus her major as she ended up studying visual and environmental studies, a unique combination that probably grew out of her experiences during her year off. The use of a gap year to find focus, discover personal strengths, and even earn money are all great ways to spend time off.

Gap Year Vs. Deferred Enrollment

The first thing you’ll want to figure out is whether you’ll take a gap year before applying for college or consider deferred enrollment.

A gap year involves taking the year off after high school graduation to spend more time building skills and accomplishing goals related to your nonacademic or academic, professional, or personal development. On the other hand, deferred enrollment involves going through the process of applying for college and being admitted but then opting to postpone enrolling for a semester or a full year.

Two students talking in a table.

Students considering waiting a year to enroll should check with each school of interest to determine their policies on gap years and deferment. Based on the options, you may want to postpone applying or apply and then plan to defer.

You may choose to apply for admission like normal during your final year of high school and then choose to defer your actual enrollment until the following school year. On the other hand, you may choose not to apply at the end of your high school career and instead wait until the following year to put together and submit your applications.

There are some benefits to applying and then deferring enrollment in order to take a gap year. With this option, you know that at the end of the year off, you will be enrolling in an academic program. This can give you a natural deadline to work toward so that whatever you do in your gap year, you will have attending college as your eventual destination.

But, if you choose not to apply and enroll, then you will still need to carve out time during your gap year to put together your application materials. This may be more of a challenge, especially with securing letters of recommendation.  You will need to maintain contact with old recommenders or be sure to form new connections that could speak to your academic potential.

With either option, you’ll need to do a lot of planning ahead, especially with ensuring schools where you are admitted actually offer deferments. If you choose to defer, but the school of your choice does not offer deferred enrollments, you would need to go through the application process all over again the following year. What a waste of time that would be. Make sure that you do enough planning to figure out each of your options before deciding to take a gap year between high school and college.

Options for a Gap Year

Experts recommend planning your time off around a structured gap year to be sure the time is spent wisely. Students who enroll in programs or make their own plans for the year will experience more structured time off and make better use of the year.

The options for students to tailor a program to their specific needs and interests are endless, depending on how much money they want to spend, the skills and knowledge they want to learn, and the outcomes they want to achieve. The options for taking a gap year between high school and college include study abroad, specific gap year programs, internships, and full-time employment.

Study Abroad

Many colleges offer study abroad programs, sometimes within the first year of enrollment. Students can plan to take a gap year by applying to colleges and accepting admission, and then using their undergraduate status to participate in school-sponsored study abroad trips to countries overseas. Study abroad programs may be offered as language immersion programs most often, but they may also be offered as cultural, political, or scientific programs as well.

Two women talking while sitting near a table.

With study abroad programs, students will usually have fees to pay, similar to in-school tuition, but they will also have support with housing and activities during the program. Most study abroad programs help students find places to live, especially with international hosts, and plan their schedule with classes, visits, and trips. Study abroad programs are also semester or year-long programs, so students can play around with how much time they want to spend in international programs.

If you are interested in spending a half year to a year traveling the world in an organized way with other undergrads, then a study abroad program makes sense as a gap year option.

Gap Year Programs

If you prefer structured programs that can be local or global, there are many gap year programs offered for high school seniors in the year between their high school and college careers. There are so many gap year programs out there, including those offered by the American Gap Association, AmeriCorps, Om Prakash, GoAbroad, and Gap Year, just to name a few.

Depending on your interests, you can select a gap year program that will allow you to spend the year pursuing your passions intensely. You can use a gap year program to travel to Africa, Latin America, Asia, or Europe to participate in activities related to healthcare, education, or even political science.

The significance of gap year programs lies in the ability of students to structure their time off using a schedule that is already planned for them. Once they decide on a program and enroll, they can simply follow the calendar laid out and devote all their efforts into getting the most out of it. Students who need more structure and organization in their lives would benefit from a gap year program that could even be useful in funding their future college education with scholarships or grants.


Another way to spend the time during a gap year is finding and working an internship in a desired field. Many students may have some idea of the future career they’d like to pursue, and other students have no idea beyond a general passion or interest. Internships are a great way to identify areas for consideration, even identifying a major to pursue at a college later.

Students will need to do their own research on finding internships. You may even be able to create an internship simply by asking about a position and offering your services for free or at a lower cost than a typical employee. Unpaid internships are the norm, but more and more companies are offering paid internships.

Students sitting in a couch in a room.

Many companies offer paid and unpaid internships in government campaigns, law offices, and art museums. Students can use the internship position to find mentors and build their network, and as opportunity to find and fund educational pursuits or future full-time employment. Some internships may even be transferred for college credit.

Full-time Employment

Securing full-time employment in the year after graduating will give high school graduates a chance to start earning income and real world experience. They can get a sense for what it feels like to work a full-time schedule, report to a boss, work with colleagues, and make professional decisions regarding things like life insurance and relocation.

Working a full-time job can be a way for students to earn and save money toward their college education, but students should be careful that their academic goals are not lost. Many students who take a year off school to work may never end up returning to college.

Students who take a year off to save money may end up feeling like they can never save enough money, especially with rising tuition costs. Besides, there are lots of other ways to pay for college than getting a full-time job and saving your income. Students should choose to take a gap year between high school and college if they have deferred their enrollment as this will give them an earning and saving deadline to work toward as motivation.

Students who choose to take a year off between high school and college should think about their own personal and professional goals, their desired timeline for starting and completing school, and what vision they have for their life after a year, five years, or even ten years.

The time spent during a gap year can help fulfill and propel you toward your goals, or it can end up being a waste of time and a distraction. It depends entirely on how you plan and schedule your time. You’ll be more likely to go on and continue through college if you have a clear plan and set a timeline for yourself.

Students may be motivated by a variety of reasons, including: gaining life experience; experiencing personal growth; traveling and seeing the world; experiencing other cultures; taking a break from academics; exploring academic pursuits; volunteering; exploring careers; learning a new language; gaining work experience; and encouragement from parents, peers, counselors and mentors, or colleges.

The benefits of taking a gap year between high school and college may outweigh any potential risks when care is taken to personalize and customize your time away from school.

Benefits of Taking a Gap Year

Regardless of the options students choose or the motivations behind their choice, the majority of students who take a gap year report that it is life-changing and necessary. In a survey of the motivations of students who participated in the American Gap Association programming, the outcomes they reported included personal, academic, and career positives.

The study showed that students were able to spend the year accomplishing:

  • Personal Reflection
  • Personal Development
  • Increased Maturity
  • Increased Self-Confidence
  • Cultural Responsiveness
  • Communication Skills
  • International Friendships
  • Understanding and Respect
  • Career Skills Acquisition
  • Human Rights Appreciation
  • International Interests
  • Global Citizenship
  • Finding Purpose
  • Career Decisions
  • Future Employment
  • College Readiness
  • Local Volunteering
  • Global Volunteering
  • College Enrollment
  • Major Selection
  • Foreign Language Development
  • College Graduation
  • College Credits

Potential Drawback of Taking a Gap Year

Despite the benefits, there are some clear risks involved with taking a gap year. That’s not to say that it’s bad to not take a gap year or bad to take a gap year after high school or that there should be limits on students taking a gap year.

The goal is to help students make the best decisions for their desired outcomes, and AdmissionSight can help high school students decision-making on whether to take a gap year. Some of the potential drawbacks if you decide to take a gap year between high school are never finishing college, adding expenses, and wasting time.

Delayed Goals

If completing college is one of your ultimate goals, then taking a gap year will delay this goal by at least a year, if not more. You will likely be finishing college with students who graduate high school the year after you. This may lead you to feel like you are behind or like you have to rush to catch up.

Young woman typing in the floor.

Make sure that you will be okay with reaching your goals in more time. On average, students take six years to finish a four-year degree, but you can also finish early in three years. Think about this timing when deciding to take a gap year. Will you enter with credits that you can use to place out of or get credit for lower-level courses? If so, then this may help with making up the time you will undoubtedly lose taking a year off academics.

Financial Considerations

The costs of a gap year will vary depending on the programming you choose. If you spend the time working with a paid internship or full-time employment, you may end up saving quite a bit of money to use toward your college education. If you enroll in a study abroad or international program, then you may end up spending or owing the same amount you’d have paid for a year of college tuition.

You’ll need to factor these financial costs into your estimates and comparisons. If you are trying to take a gap year to save money, then enrolling in programs that cost thousands of dollars might disrupt that goal. At the same time, there are plenty of gap year programs that provide stipends, grants, and even scholarships you can use toward tuition.

Time Wasted

If you are not careful and approach your gap year with a clear plan, then you may end up wasting a significant amount of time. Yes, taking a break if you’re feeling burned out can be helpful in the long term with getting you motivated and back on track, but if your break doesn’t have a firm deadline or a structured plan, then you may end up failing to meet your own goals.

Female student smiling at the camera while in a library.

It will be important to give yourself goals to work toward and a timeline to keep yourself moving forward. This is especially true if you plan to apply to colleges during your gap year to make sure that you meet deadlines for applications and application materials.

Working with a College Admissions Expert

Deciding to take a gap year is a serious decision. You’ll need to check with your schools of interest, discuss with your parents, and even seek out the advice of your teachers and peers. Our college admissions experts at AdmissionSight understand the importance of making the right decisions for your future.

Though we are experts at applying to and being admitted to Ivy League schools, we can also help students with figuring out their lives after high school graduation. Reach out today for support with deciding on whether taking a gap year between high school and college is right for you.


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