We are often asked about gap-year options and reasons for taking a year between high school and college. If you have been admitted to a college that you like, but you decide to take a year off prior to entering, then you are talking about a "deferral" year.
How does a gap year work?
To defer admission, you will put down an enrollment deposit by May 1 (or thereafter if you are admitted off of a waiting list). Then, you will ask the college, in writing, to hold your place while you defer admission, usually for a full year but sometimes only for a semester.
If you are a high-school senior and you did not apply to any colleges, were not admitted to any, or were admitted only to colleges in which you have no interest, then you are considering a different track: a real gap year during which you will apply (or reapply) to a full list of colleges while pursuing activities that interest you and that will improve your chances of getting in. In an increasing number of instances, colleges are offering students admission for January or February (or the following fall) rather than for the fall semester for which they originally applied.
Deferred admission is a safer bet than you may think
Wondering why would you choose or accept an offer to take a semester or two off prior to college, and what would you do with your time?
Many students (and many parents) are extremely worried about getting off the college train, as we sometimes refer to it. It's the train that has been running since elementary school, and possibly before you were born. The train runs from high school to college and on to a successful and secure career and adult life. If you step off the train, you and your parents might wonder, will you ever get back on? And wouldn't that ruin your future?
We find that, when done for the right reasons and with a good plan, most students do get back on the train. Anecdotal evidence, and some college self-studies, suggest that students with deferred admission are often more successful in college when they finally enroll. If that were not the case, why would Harvard University send a letter to admitted students in the spring encouraging them to consider a year off prior to starting school? Why would Middlebury, Hamilton, and Colby Colleges, among others, admit a large group of students for their winter terms?
In addition to keeping strong students in the pipeline and opening spots for them midyear, such deferred admission policies allow students to pursue particular interests, often involving study abroad or gap-year travel, while allowing them to transition to college midyear. Such students typically graduate on time or, in the case of Middlebury, in a special winter graduation ceremony (sometimes involving skis!).
Things to consider if you defer admission to use a gap year
There are usually two major conditions associated with the granting of a deferral. First, you may not enroll in another college for full-time study. That being said, you may usually take a few classes for credit, perhaps in a study-abroad program or at your local community college.
In the case of a midyear admission offer, most colleges will provide you with a list of programs that might work well for you, and some, like Hamilton or Colby, will have relationships with a foreign university like Limerick (Ireland) or Salamanca (Spain) through which you will be able to take classes in the fall for full credit. Then you would enter your home college on track for regular graduation.
The second condition you should not violate is the prohibition against applying to other colleges. If you decide during your term or year off that you would rather go somewhere else, then you must notify the college at which you are holding a space. Yes, you will usually then lose your spot. Yes, this is risk that you should not take lightly. Nevertheless, if you feel that you would prefer to attend another college, then you should apply to a broad range of schools in order to ensure that you will have options in the fall.
Under the right circumstances, deferring college admission to experience a gap year can be a fantastic opportunity. Take a moment to sit back and think about how you might use a gap year: travel, self-improvement, study-abroad, personal enrichment, building your savings, gaining work experience, or caring for a loved one. Perhaps taking a gap year really isn't a bad idea.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college-planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.