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Should You Take a Gap Year Before College and Explore Alternatives?

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not every student graduating from high school wants to go to college; some will decide never to go, while others will opt for a year or two of "something else" prior to enrolling in higher education. The time period between high school graduation and arrival at college can be the result of several factors, including deferred admission at a student's college of choice or purposely taking a gap year to prepare for the next step of formal education. What are some of our favorite non-college possibilities for high school graduates during a gap year?

The military is a common alternative
There are some obvious tried and true alternatives, a few of which we won't spend too much time on. For example, some students, particularly those whose families have a tradition of serving in the military, will join the armed forces after high school. This is often a first step away from home, a chance to build skills and discover aptitudes, and an opportunity to save money for college.

There are also numerous educational and financial aid options for veterans. Many active members of the armed forces will take advantage of on-line learning programs whether serving abroad or in the U.S. However, joining the military involves personal dedication and a significant commitment of time, as well as the risk of exposure to the dangers of armed combat. This should be a carefully considered personal and family decision.

Career training is a valid alternative
Another common alternative to college is vocational training or education, where students can learn how to be an auto mechanic, hair stylist, carpenter, firefighter, or other technical, professional, or service-industry employee. Many of these types of careers involve education at a technical institute, an academy (for fire fighters or police officers, for example), or a community college; the completion of a certificate program; or the pursuit of part-time classes while working and living at home. Typically there will be exams to pass, licenses to be earned, or skills to master. Students can join unions, such as those for electricians, plumbers, or truck drivers, or choose to apprentice to licensed or accredited professionals. Entering one of these vocations could be a short-term step or the beginning of a long-term career. In many cases, gaining additional coursework or even a higher educational degree could help significantly with career advancement.

You can defer admission for post-graduate year

There are additional options for those interested in college but who are considering doing something else for a while, or for those who want to improve their readiness and chances for college admission before applying. One option is a post-graduate (PG) year at a boarding school. This thirteenth year of high school is an opportunity to move away from home, gain academic and extracurricular depth and experience, and prepare in a focused manner for college admission. A PG year is like an intermediate step between high school and college, and colleges generally look very favorably on students who are able to complete a PG year successfully.

Students may also want to consider taking some form of a "deferral" or "gap" year. High school graduates in many other countries, including Australia, Britain, and Israel, often defer admission to college as an accepted chance to explore their interests and see the world prior to entering a college or university. More American students are starting to look at the gap year as a chance to do the same. In the case of a deferral year, students who have been admitted to a college they like may request to defer admission for a semester or a year. Typically, colleges want them to have a plan of action involving some kind of structure for that year off.

Many colleges and universities, including Harvard, encourage the deferral year as a chance to explore one's passions, mature socially, and avoid burnout from working so hard in high school to gain admission to a selective college. You can usually find out about colleges' deferral policies on their Web sites or in their official bulletins. Normally, deferral requests are made in May or June of senior year and are preceded or accompanied by an enrollment deposit at the school.

Keep goals in mind when using your deferred admission

During a deferral year, students can participate in any number of things such as community service, working, traveling, high-level athletics, performing arts, or music. How such activities influence future college admissions isn't particularly important if a space for the next academic year has already been reserved. However, if that isn't the case, then how time is spent during the gap year should be taken under careful consideration if there's a plan to apply to college later.

When students choose to take a gap year, their senior year grades and (possibly) their Advanced Placement (AP) scores or SAT Subject Test scores will be more important than ever. Those considering a gap year experience should attempt to end their senior year on a high note to demonstrate their improving academics and readiness for college. This will be the foundation of their college applications and a part of their permanent transcript.

Most colleges will encourage gap-year students to pursue their passion(s). Be it music, community service, travel, or sports, colleges want students to focus on one or more interests and dedicate themselves to them. Students should also consider whether there are gaps to fill or weaknesses to address in their current academic or personal profiles. Perhaps they had a tough time in math or had spotty English and writing grades. Or, maybe they didn't get to take all the science courses they wanted prior to applying as a pre-med. If they don't want to pursue a PG year, then they may want to look into study-abroad programs or community college courses to shore up those weak areas.

There are many things gap-year students can do that will improve their chances of getting into college later. For students who have never been away from home, gap-year travel or study abroad could help cultivate an ability to manage independently and adapt to different cultures—a definite plus in the eyes of college admission committees. Participation in competitive hockey, tennis, basketball, or other athletic program can improve one's chances of being recruited for a college team. Students can consider a year of interning to add work experience and maturity, or a year with Americorps to earn money for college while helping others. The opportunities for self-improvement are numerous!

You can defer admission to have time to figure out what's right for you

There are obviously many things to consider doing in place of or in advance of entering college. As students consider their future following high school, they should spend some time doing a bit of self-analysis. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are they most excited about pursuing? Do they have in mind one or more careers? How does college fit into their future plans? Are they ready for the challenges and opportunities of college? Do they have a sense of the right kinds of college environments for themselves, or would more time to mature and explore interests and colleges help them make the right first choice? Many students (and their parents) worry about getting off the college-bound train, but we have found that most students interested in higher education will go to college, and that a gap year of some kind often increases their motivation for college and their odds of success once they enroll.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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