If your child is hesitating to pack up and head off to college right away, it's not unusual. For a variety of reasons, many students take a break for a year (sometimes called a "gap year") before enrolling because they aren't ready to go straight from high school to college. Some study abroad for a year after high school, some travel, some get jobs and work, and others pursue art, a sport, or another skill or full-time hobby. Still others choose to use this time to take care of a health problem or to work on personal or family problems.
Have them apply anyway, even if a gap year is likely
If your child plans to take a year off before hitting the books, encourage him or her to apply to colleges during senior year, rather than waiting until their year off to do so. It's easier to get application materials together during high school and make the deadlines. In addition, working from home is more reliable than counting on the local mail service when your child is abroad or trekking through some remote jungle. Most importantly, it facilitates last-minute enrollment in the event of a change of heart.
If your child is accepted to a school and then decides to defer admission, the reasons for doing so must be submitted in writing to the dean of admission, along with a deposit. All of this must be completed before the published deadline to reserve a place in the following year's freshman class.
Not all schools will approve a deferred admission, however. And they vary in their policies about what is an appropriate reason to grant such a request.
Use the gap year to get credit where credit is due
If your child has been granted a deferred admission and plans to work or take some other sort of classes, check into whether or not the college will accept credits for any academic programs completed during the year off. Some colleges won't allow a student to enroll in another degree-granting program and won't give college credit for any work completed during the deferral. In this case, if your child does enroll elsewhere during the year off, he or she might need to reapply later as a transfer student.
Watch the timing if you defer admission
Some colleges and universities will discourage (or just plain won't allow) a one-semester or one-quarter deferral. Orientation can be difficult in the middle of the year, on-campus housing or financial aid may no longer be available midyear, and enrolling midyear may prohibit your child from taking some yearlong required or prerequisite courses. Be aware of such limitations.
Will a deferred admission have financial consequences?
Check with the financial aid office and find out what impact, if any, taking a year off will have. If your child has been offered financial assistance, it may not be guaranteed the next year. Applications may need to be updated and any money your child earns during the year off may affect financial aid eligibility.
A gap year passes quickly, so make the most of it
A big question to consider is what to do with a year off. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities for high school students, ranging from the AFS (American Field Studies) Intercultural Programs, to Habitat for Humanity, to serving as an English tutor abroad. Some activities and programs charge tuition, and a few come with a stipend. A program may have financial aid available or might offer room and board as payment. What they all have in common is the opportunity for your child to learn and mature.
Your child's year off may not be filled with gap-year travel, community service, or global cultural experiences, but even long hours toiling at a minimum wage job can be a great lesson from the "School of Life" — and it might be just the thing to motivate a lackluster student to return to the classroom.
Change happens, with or without deferred admission
Don't be surprised if your child's goals and college plans change during a year off. They may realize that their interests lay elsewhere and decide to apply to a completely different school or program. This isn't unusual. Colleges expect to lose some of their deferred students and, while disappointed, nobody is totally stunned by such a turn of events. Remember, too, that your child's goals and plans might well change even after he or she arrives on campus.
Many students are better off after taking a gap year
It's normal to worry that your child may never go back after taking time off. True, some students do drop out of the academic world for a while, but most of those who take time off with a purpose or plan return to school after a gap year — or two — with a new vigor and focus, having become better college students than they would have been without first taking a breather.