High School Grads: Taking a Year off vs. Heading Straight to College

Gap years can offer incredible opportunities, but there are some drawbacks, too.

One evening last winter, while at my son’s high school for a meeting, I wandered into a Gap Year Fair. Now I know what Alice felt like when she fell into that rabbit hole. Although I knew vaguely about gap year programs, and even know some kids doing a gap year, I had no idea the extent of the incredible global opportunities available to high school graduates. 

I wandered around the tables collecting brochures filled with colorful photos of beaming teenagers volunteering in health clinics in the Andes, teaching computer skills to people in Sri Lanka, helping coach youth soccer teams in Moldova, and working with the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. I was thinking what a great opportunity this would be for my younger son who, if all the planets align and the moon is in the seventh house, will graduate in two years. 

The gap year idea is nothing new. When I graduated high school, taking a gap year meant, if your family could afford it, backpacking through Europe. In my neighborhood, taking a gap year meant working the cash register at Burger King. Today, there are seemingly hundreds of fabulous pre-packaged programs offering endless opportunities. However, the price of these programs can cost about the same as attending a private university, including room and board. There are programs that are less costly and some that are free or offer a stipend such as City Year, one of the more popular gap year programs. Also, most programs are not actually a year, they range from a few weeks to a full semester to six months, which means participants will need to fill the balance of the time.

Some parents worry that taking a gap year may mean putting off college forever. However, this does not seem to be the case. According to an article in College Parents of America, “the number of students who decide not to go to school is relatively small. Most students go to school with renewed vigor, motivation, and focus.”

As with most decisions, there are pros and cons to taking a gap year.


  • Students who take gap years are reported to be more confident, mature and responsible in college and have lower drop-out rates.
  • Most high school graduates have no idea what they want to do. A gap year gives them time to think about academic goals rather than jumping head-first into college.
  • Exposure to different cultures can be a life-changing experience.
  • It’s a great chance to learn a foreign language.
  • By being self-reliant, students develop essential life skills, such as money management, responsibility, and work ethics.
  • It looks great on a resume and gives students valuable work experience.


  • The organized programs can be seriously expensive.
  • It won’t help college admissions. Most schools prefer students to be accepted first and defer a year.
  • It can be depressing to watch friends and classmates go on to college.
  • A poorly planned gap year can be a huge waste of time. Watching Partridge Family reruns is not a good way to spend a gap year. If the gap year programs are not an option, then students should be working along with doing internships, and/or volunteering in the community.


About this column: Susan Schaefer, director and founder of Academic Coaching Associates, is an academic coach, student advocate, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com. You can also follow Sue on Twitter: @sueschaefer1

Sully August 11, 2012 at 07:22 PM
Luke and Joe, those are pretty broad generalizations. A kid at my daughter's school took a gap year, I believe in Zambia, but not positive, and will be going to Brown for college. Not quite the scenario you two paint.
Nightcrawler August 11, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Can you ever shut up for two seconds and stop disagreeing with what people say just for the sake of doing so? Go look at the statistics, taking a year off isn't usually the best idea. Gee, there's an exception to every rule, what a shocker Sully!
Nightcrawler August 11, 2012 at 09:31 PM
And they are not just generalizations, they are based on things I have seen constantly first-hand.
Dr. Mark Solomon August 12, 2012 at 05:36 PM
It would seem to me that taking a gap year after completing high school has many of the same elements as home schooling. Kids who are self-motivated, organized and committed to staying focused on productive activities, it would seem, are most likely to gain from the experience. Kids who just want to "take a break from school" would probably do better to see whether going straight to college offers a "second wind" that they didn't see coming.
Susan Schaefer August 12, 2012 at 09:32 PM
Sully! Where have you been, my friend? The kind of gap year I am referring to is well planned and goal oriented. I do not suggest students take a year off to hang out with friends, but participate in one of the hundreds of gap year programs, do an internship, community service, etc. The best plan for a gap year is to apply to college and defer for a year. Kids that do this usually do go on to college more responsible and mature and have a higher rate of graduation.


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