Gap Year Association


Research statement, from nina hoe gallagher, ph.d.

The idea of a gap year has generated substantial interest among popular media sources, academic scholars, and prestigious institutions in the United States in recent years. The Gap Year Association asserts that gap years can take place either domestically or internationally, but must involve, “increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers” (“What is a Gap Year?,” 2013). Gap years are more common for students in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe, and Australia than they are in the U.S.; however, they are increasing in popularity in the U.S. as evidenced by a booming industry of gap year programs, the prolific publication of resource guides, and the existence of the Gap Year Association, as recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

2020 Gap Year Alumni Survey

Following the highly successful  2015 National Alumni Survey , the Gap Year Association commissioned the efforts of Kempie Blythe, MA, and reprising her role from the 2015 survey, Nina Hoe Gallagher, PhD, as well as the GYA Research Committee , to complete the 2020 Gap Year Alumni Survey. The previous survey has been cited by scholars, media, and providers demonstrating strong returns for gap year participants and this data more than confirms the great results we see through almost every gap year graduate.

In total, 1,795 respondents began the Gap Year Alumni 2020 Survey , and of those, 1, 596 participated in a “gap year” that aligned with the definition in the survey and 1,139 were eligible as permanent residents or citizens of the U.S. or Canada. A total of 1,190 gap year alumni completed this survey. The Alumni Outcomes Summary Report 2015 collected stratified data from a total of 498 NCCC alumni from 2004, 2009, and 2012 (respectively 10, 5, and 2 years after the end of service).

Gap Year Impacts

Download the 2020 Gap Year Alumni Survey

Annual State of the Field Survey – 2020/2021

Each year the GYA Research Committee authors a survey tool to track year-over-year trends for gap year participation and outcomes as a short-term snapshot. In 2019/20 we had reporting from almost 50 organizations and expect that to grow each year. The tool answers questions about enrollment, demographics, marketing, and early outcomes. The Research Committee takes the completed data and shares two reports, one comprehensive (reserved only for survey participants), and one general version that is available to the public.  Click here for the 2019 survey .

Surveys will be launched in the spring of each year, and finalized in the summer of that same year. We have two separate survey results as the Research Committee continues to reach new heights of quality: Gap Year Programs, and Gap Year Counselors.

2021 State of the Field Survey Report Programs and Consultants – Annual State of the Field Report

2020 State of the Field Survey Reports Program Providers – Annual State of the Field Download Counselors – Annual State of the Field Download

The idea of a “gap year” has generated substantial interest among popular media sources, academic scholars, and prestigious institutions in the United States in recent years. The Gap Year Association asserts that gap years can take place either domestically or internationally, but must involve, “increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers” (“What is a Gap Year?,” 2013). Gap years are more common for students in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe, and Australia than they are in the U.S.; however, they are increasing in popularity in the U.S. as evidenced by a booming industry of gap year programs, the prolific publication of resource guides, and the inception of the Gap Year Association, an accreditation and standards-setting organization for gap years that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

The following chart details the most significant outcomes reported while on their gap year as reported from the National Gap Year Alumni Survey in 2015. Data are color-coded based on Personal, Global Engagement, and Career & College categories.

Although there have been few empirical studies undertaken to examine gap year experiences for American students, in general, it is believed that taking a gap year is a valuable endeavor. U.K. Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has publicly promoted gap year practices, arguing that, “Taking a gap year is a great opportunity for young people to broaden their horizons, making them more mature and responsible citizens. Our society can only benefit from travel which promotes character, confidence, [and] decision-making skills” (as cited in Simpson, 2005, p. 453). To date, much anecdotal evidence as well as some peer-reviewed studies have identified positive effects associated with participation, relating to language development (“Bridge Year Program,” n.d.; Clagett, 2012; King, 2011; Lyons et al., 2012; Simpson, 2005; Spenader, 2011), personal growth (Birch & Miller, 2007; “Bridge Year Program,” n.d.; King, 2011; Knight, 2014; Martin, 2010; O’Shea, 2011b; Stehlik, 2010), and college and career attainment for students in the U.K. and Australia (Birch & Miller, 2007; King, 2011; Knight, 2014; Martin, 2010; O’Shea, 2011b; Stehlik, 2010). Across the U.S., no fewer than 160 colleges and universities have begun to embrace the idea of a Gap Year, with differing degrees of intensity (“University in Support of Gap Year,” n.d.) Most commonly, institutions provide deferral information, and opportunities and requirements on their admissions websites. For example, Middlebury College’s admissions page includes, “A Special Message from the Dean of Admissions to All Prospective Applicants to Middlebury College” about taking a gap year. Harvard University recommends taking a gap year in its acceptance letter. The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill offers scholarships to students wanting to take a gap year through their Global Gap Year Fellowship at the Campus Y.

A recent methodology to track gap year students’ over/underperformance of GPA was designed by Bob Clagett, former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College. This methodology tracked the academic rating of an incoming student including everything of an academic nature that is received in the application process. When Clagett controlled for the academic rating and looked at the actual academic performance of students who took a gap year compared to their predicted performance based on their academic rating, students who took a gap year almost always overperformed academically in college, usually to a statistically significant degree, and most importantly, the positive effect of taking a gap year was demonstrated to endure over all four years.

Princeton University runs its own Bridge Year Program which “offers a truly innovative approach to learning, one that is more experiential and more profoundly transformational than anything most students entering college will have encountered during high school. The knowledge, understanding, and skills gained through the Bridge Year serve not only to enhance a student’s undergraduate experience at Princeton, but also contribute to the overall strength of the University’s educational community.” (“Bridge Year Program,” n.d.)

Belief in the benefits of gap year or bridge year experiences to both students and institutions are driving increasing support from colleges and universities.

Despite the growing popularity, there is a dearth of scholarly research on nature and outcomes of gap year experiences in general (King, 2011; O’Shea, 2011b; Stehlik, 2010). Of the existing peer-reviewed research, which is limited to approximately ten studies, only one focuses on American students. Also, few of the studies have included sample sizes of greater than 30 (O’Shea, 2011b; Spenader, 2011).

This study aims to better understand the population of students who have previously participated in gap years, as well as the group of students participating in gap year programs accredited by the GYA. In addition, this study aims to identify the participant-reported effects of gap year participation. This study will use web-based survey methods to attain this information.  

Taking a structured gap year invariably serves to develop the individual into a more focused student with a better sense of purpose and engagement in the world around them. From Joe O’Shea’s book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs : “Some studies have looked at the academic performance of gap year students while in college. In Australia and the United Kingdom, economic researchers found that high school students who deferred their admission to college to take a gap year went to college (after their gap year) at the same rate as those who accepted an offer and intended to go straight there (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012). They also found that taking a gap year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012).” In fact, in the United Kingdom and in the United States, students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than [demographically similar] individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for gap year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013).

Current Data About Gap Years

student report gap year

The Gap Year Association’s Research Committee is at the front edge of gap year research, and represents one of our most productive and active committees. Each year we hold awards at our Annual Gap Year Conference to highlight the pioneering research being done, and award the Karl Haigler Excellence in Gap Year Research Award, in honor of  emeritus Board Member and founder of the GYA Research Committee (and a host of other accolades). We have several research efforts ongoing or launching very soon:

student report gap year

We’re here to maximize the potential of young adults, through accessible and meaningful gap year opportunities.

Copyright © 2023 Gap Year Association

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High School Benchmarks 2021 Report Features Gap Year Enrollment Analysis

by Todd Sedmak | Dec 3, 2021 | Media Center , Press Releases |

Fewer Class of 2020 High School Gap Year Students Enrolled in College in Fall 2021

HERNDON, VA – (Dec. 3, 2021) – The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center announced today the ninth annual High School Benchmarks report , which features a special analysis of gap year enrollment for 2020 high school graduates who waited until fall 2021 to enroll in college.

“We found no upswing in gap year college enrollment this fall,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the Research Center . “Only 2% of those who did not enroll in college immediately after high school in 2020 showed up as gap year enrollments in fall 2021, strongly suggesting that the pandemic-related concerns that kept many students out of college last year have not abated.”

Key findings include:

The COVID-19 gap year analysis section of the High School Benchmarks 2021 report provides preliminary estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on gap year enrollment for the 2019 and 2020 graduating classes of high school seniors, compared to the pre-pandemic baseline of the 2018 class. The analysis covers nearly 860,000 graduates and 3,500 high schools that consistently reported their graduates within a similar time frame each year from 2018 through 2020. It shows their immediate fall and gap year (following fall) enrollments at the approximately 67 percent of colleges that reported enrollment data as of October in each year from 2019 through 2021.

The High School Benchmarks 2021 – National College Progression Rates examines college enrollment for the high school graduating class of 2020, persistence for the class of 2018, and completion for the class of 2014. These data are the most relevant benchmarks for monitoring and evaluating progress in assisting students to make the high school to college transition and earn a credential in a timely manner. In spring 2022, the Research Center will issue a Special COVID-19 Analysis on the high school class of 2021 for their enrollment in fall 2021.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Research Center currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions, as of fall 2019. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit .

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How a Gap Year Prepares Students for College

More students are taking a year off after high school to explore their interests.

What Is a Gap Year?

Blond girl shooting smartphone selfie photo in Skye island Nest Point lighthouse in Highlands Scotland UK in United Kingdom

Traveling and focusing on personal development are common ways students spend their gap year. (Getty Images)

While many students head directly to college after graduating from high school, a smaller cohort chooses an alternative: a gap year.

What may have previously been seen as an unconventional path has become more accepted in recent years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. When colleges either shut down or moved to virtual learning, many students opted to defer enrollment and take a gap year, experts say.

The Gap Year Association, an Oregon-based nonprofit that helps students access gap year opportunities, estimates that on average, between 40,000 and 60,000 students take a gap year each academic year. That number rose to an estimated 130,000 students during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the organization. High school counselors, students and parents are becoming more aware of the variety of options after high school and seeing the benefits of taking a gap year, says Jennifer Sullivan, founder of Fast Forward College Counseling.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing now,” she says. “You’re not just going to college or you’re going to work. There’s a lot of in-between. There’s a lot of gray area where some students do choose to take a gap year or to take a gap semester, then decide that they’re ready.”

The Gap Year Association defines this educational interlude as "a semester or year of experiential learning , typically taken after high school and prior to career or postsecondary education, in order to deepen one's practical, professional and personal awareness." Some students elect to take a gap year in the middle of pursuing a degree.

Typically, students use this time to travel, work or volunteer and figure out what they want to study when they do eventually go to college, experts say. Some students may be experiencing burnout and are taking a break to focus on their mental health.

While experts say the concept has long been popular in Europe, it has grown in the U.S. more recently. One major boost came when former first daughter Malia Obama announced in 2016 that she would take a gap year before attending college, which caused the term to spike in Google searches that spring.

Experts suggests the move not only introduced many students to the concept but gave them social permission to pursue it.

“A gap year, if done right, can position you really strongly for college,” says Cathleen Sheils, senior associate director of college counseling at New York-based Solomon Admissions Counseling.

How Gap Year Experiences May Vary

For high school students or graduates considering a gap year, the options are plentiful and include structured programs or self-guided exploration.

The Gap Year Association, which accredits numerous programs , lists experiences with a focus on ecology, animal welfare and conservation, language studies, coding, cultural immersion and a variety of other topics.

Another option is AmeriCorps, which offers a number of service programs throughout the country for those 18 or older. Students who participate are eligible for benefits such as a living allowance and an education award that can be used to pay off loans or put toward future tuition.

Students may also elect to work during a gap year, either to make money for college or to earn college credit through an internship.

"The best gap years tend to be the ones that push students to think about who they are and their role in the world," says Joe O'Shea, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at Florida State University and author of "Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs."

O'Shea says a gap year can help motivate and inspire students and better prepare them for college. He notes that the "natural break" between high school and college is an ideal time for students to "pause and reflect" and explore options before their studies begin.

"Often you see students who struggle in higher education because they don't have a sense of purpose and direction," O'Shea says. "Gap years – because they give students a broader sense of the world and their place in it and how they can contribute – help to supply and empower students with the kind of motivation and purpose that can animate their entire college experience."

How a Gap Year Affects College Admissions

If students are considering a gap year, they should go through the college application process as a high school senior as if they're planning to attend right away, rather than waiting to apply during the gap year. It's much easier to complete college applications when students are still in school and have the help of counselors and teachers, says Colleen Paparella, founder of DC College Counseling.

O'Shea suggests that high school students considering a gap year research whether the colleges they're interested in support that effort.

Experts typically recommend that students not divulge gap year plans on their college applications or before being admitted. But students can reach out to admissions offices to find out their general policy on gap years. “We definitely tell them this is not something you want to advertise at the time that you’re applying, because that’s not going to make you a more attractive candidate,” says Paparella. “Not to say they won’t get in, but it’s just going to make things more difficult.”

After being admitted, students might want to have a formal conversation with an admissions officer about considering a gap year.

While it's rare for colleges to deny a gap year request, it's common for them to want more information about why the student is taking a gap year, and they may require paperwork, Paparella says. Some schools have policies for how students can take their gap year. They might require students to check in mid-year to make sure the plan is still on track, or they could stipulate that students can’t take classes at another institution, she says, as that could possibly change their status to a transfer student.

Generally, students can then defer enrollment, paying a deposit to retain their spot and enrolling after their gap year. Keeping in mind that the decision day for most colleges is May 1, Paparella says students should wait until they are absolutely certain about taking a gap year to fill out any forms from the school, but to still be cognizant of their timeline to allow for alternate plans to be made.

“Somebody who feels like a gap year is a great idea in September of their senior year might feel very differently eight months later,” she says. “We say just keep your options open. Don’t disclose that now, and when you’re sure you want to do it and you have schools you’ve been admitted to, you can go ahead and ask for a gap year.”

Some students, however, take a gap year because they weren't admitted to their desired school but are intent on attending that institution. A gap year is a way for those students to rebrand themselves and stand out among other applicants. Those students will reapply either during or following their gap year, says Sheils, who previously served as director of admissions at Cornell University .

Colleges expect to see more maturity and perhaps more direction from those applicants, she says, and there needs to be some connection between how students spent their gap year and their future academic goals.

“Not every gap year is created equally or is seen by admissions officers as credible,” she says. “What you’re looking for is, what did they do during that gap year to actually grow their academic profile?”

How to Know if a Gap Year Is Right for You

Students should not take a gap year simply because they're putting off their next step. Whether their plan for that year is to work, travel or recharge mentally and emotionally, students should have a specific reason for taking time off.

“They need to have a very clear idea in mind about what they’re going to do afterwards," Paparella says. "I would definitely never do this and keep it open-ended at the end. That’s not going to work.”

Some students, Sullivan says, are deterred from taking a gap year because they don't want to be behind their peers academically and socially. Some might regret missing out on certain college experiences that their friends are having.

Experts say students should determine what motivates them, what their long-term goals are, and whether or not they can make it work financially. Formal programs offering travel or internship opportunities can cost more than $50,000 on the high end, although students may pay less due to scholarships and other financial aid, O'Shea explains. And for low-income students, certain programs may be subsidized to enhance affordability.

O'Shea notes the need in higher education to support gap year students and points to scholarship funding from FSU that aims to do so through its Gap Year Fellows Program. He believes such initiatives are making the gap year concept more available to students with limited financial means. While gap years have been the domain of middle-class families and above, O'Shea thinks that is changing as enrichment programs become more affordable.

Money aside, students need to determine how a gap year will ultimately help them.

"I have worked with individuals who have taken a gap year to focus on their mental health or passions (such as art or teaching English abroad), which has helped them gain perspective, different skills, and mature emotionally before returning to academics," Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, wrote in an email. "These individuals can then begin school with newfound confidence that may not have been possible had they gone to college straight from high school."

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Biggest gap year ever? Sixteen percent of high school seniors say they’ll take a gap year

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Even as she was applying to college last fall, high school senior Taylor Fang was thinking about taking a year off first to find herself. But her parents didn’t think it was a good idea.

student report gap year

“They worried that I would be behind,” said Fang, 17, who goes to Logan High School in Logan, Utah, and was accepted to both Harvard and Yale.

Now, she said, because of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, her parents don’t need much convincing to let her take that gap year.

student report gap year

“Especially with the possibility of having college online, they are actually a lot more on board,” Fang said.

If she can’t go to classes in person, she said, “I would definitely want to take a gap year. It is such an investment, and I just feel like I would be missing out on a lot.”

Get ready for what early indications suggest could be the biggest gap year ever.

Roughly one in six high school seniors say they definitely or most likely will change their plans to attend college in the fall because of the coronavirus, according to a survey of 1,171 students conducted April 21 through 24 by the higher education market research firm Art & Science Group. Of those, 16 percent say they will take a gap year .

That compares to fewer than 3 percent of first-time first-year students at four-year institutions who previously went to college soon after graduating high school, but first took off a year or more, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“We expect to see an increase in gap years and, actually, gap semesters,” said Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut and newly named chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.

Related: Desperate for students, colleges resort to previously banned recruiting tactics

That raises the question of what all those students might do instead of attending college. Gap years traditionally involve travel abroad, internships, full-time work or volunteering, which will be off the table if international borders remain closed and jobs prove hard to come by.

Roughly one in six high school seniors say they definitely or most likely will not attend college in the fall because of the coronavirus; of those, 16 percent plan to take a gap year. That compares to fewer than 3 percent who have taken a year or more off between high school and college in the past.

One option might be a national service program such as AmeriCorps, which some officials have said could be critical to the nation’s response to the pandemic. Two Democratic senators have introduced a bill that would increase the number of AmeriCorps volunteers to as many as 500,000 , and double the stipends that participants receive.

Still, “if you’re an 18- or 19-year-old, your alternatives are pretty limited,” said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at the consulting company Eduventures. “Your job prospects are very much curtailed. Your ability to travel and volunteer [is] very, very much curtailed.”

That realization may be one reason the proportion of students saying they would opt for a gap year has declined from March to April .

But this crop of college prospects has a lot of other motivations for taking a year off.

“I don’t think they’ll be doing it for the traditional reasons,” said Jayne Caflin Fonash, an education consultant and president of the NACAC board of directors.

Because of fast-changing financial circumstances, some might want to earn more money to defray the eventual cost of tuition or need to help support parents who have lost their jobs.

Some might just need time to process the ways in which they’ve been impacted by the pandemic, whether that’s loss of family income or missing out on major milestones during their senior year, Fonash said.

Related: College in the time of coronavirus

Felicida Barajas, a school counselor at Jurupa Valley High School in Jurupa Valley, California, said that many of her seniors, after their parents were laid off, now help support their families.

student report gap year

Barajas works at a high school with many students who would be the first in their family to go to college, a significant proportion of them Hispanic; one study found that students’ whose enrollment decisions may be most affected by the pandemic are nonwhite and those whose parents do not have experience with higher education.

“Now a lot are debating whether to select a college closer to home to assist with finances, go part-time or take a gap year,” she said.

But, like Fang, many students have a simpler reason for considering a gap year: They consider it better than spending a semester or even a year taking college classes online.

If she can’t go to classes in person, “I would definitely want to take a gap year. It is such an investment, and I just feel like I would be missing out on a lot.” Taylor Fang, a high school senior in Logan, Utah, who was accepted to Harvard and Yale

“I would rather take the year off and not pay $70,000 per tuition for the same education that I can get anywhere,” said Josh Miller, a senior at Maple Grove Senior High School in Maple Grove, Minnesota, who has been admitted to Northwestern University but doesn’t know what he’ll do if classes remain virtual.

student report gap year

He picked Northwestern, Miller said, “because of the quality of students that I would be around. If I’m not going to have that, I just don’t see the value in a Northwestern education.”

When the coronavirus first hit in March, many students who had been planning on taking a gap year decided college might be a safer option, said Eva Vanek, admissions director at a gap year provider called Where There Be Dragons.

“Now, in the last few weeks, that conversation is definitely shifting, where we’re hearing from a lot of students who are in particular nervous that they’re going to have to start their freshman year online,” Vanek said.

Even some students already enrolled in college are considering taking a gap year in the middle of it, an indication of how many doubt that their campuses will return to normal in the fall and want to avoid another semester or two of learning online.

Related: Online higher education isn’t winning over students forced off campus by the coronavirus

Parents, too — who have often historically pushed back on their children’s plans to take a year off before college — now seem in some cases to be encouraging it. More than 40 percent of parents in a survey by the investment banking and strategy consulting firm Tyton Partners say they are “either uncertain or would not send” their children to school for the fall semester “in a remote-learning scenario.”

“My worry is that we’re paying for the in-person experience,” said Kim Estep, a Connecticut resident whose daughter Morgan is a freshman at James Madison University in Virginia and whose daughter Ryleigh has been accepted to Elon University in North Carolina. “And I don’t feel like online is worth it, at least not based on what I’ve seen from what [Morgan] has received so far.”

student report gap year

Morgan Estep, who is majoring in intelligence analysis, wants to keep studying at James Madison, even if her classes are online. “It’s a really hard conversation that my parents and I and my sister have been having,” she said. “I don’t really want to take a gap year because I’ll fall behind because of the way [my major] is set up.”

Ryleigh Estep, on the other hand, would rather wait for an in-person experience at a college known for its international education opportunities. “If it came down to it, my sister would rather take a gap year than have her first year of college online,” Morgan said. “She is going to Elon” — the college is highly ranked for its international programs — “because she wants to study abroad and see the world.”

Pérez expects many colleges and universities to be flexible when it comes to allowing students to delay enrollment. “Colleges and universities are probably going to have fewer students,” he said, “but personally, I’d rather a student tell me that they’re going to defer or take a gap year because I still want them to be on my campus, even if it takes a year.”

Not everyone who wants to take a gap year will be able to. Sama Kubba, who is valedictorian at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, has committed to Harvard, where she got a full-ride scholarship.

student report gap year

“I actually really wanted a gap year because I wanted to enjoy my college time without worrying about COVID-19, but my family just can’t afford it,” the 17-year-old senior said.

Her family receives public assistance that will be reduced when she turns 18 in November. “For me to be under a college’s wing — to have health insurance, meals, housing, all of that covered — was just a really important factor for me,” Kubba said. “I cannot take a gap year because then I wouldn’t have all of that support anymore. It would literally be a gap in support.”

Related: Choosing pass/fail grades may help college students now, but could cost them later

Other students have run up against institutional restrictions. Rachel Strickland, a 17-year-old senior at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has been admitted to Florida State University, which has a program under which incoming students can first take a formal gap year , but the deadline has passed and the admissions office told her that if she takes a year off now, she’ll have to reapply next year from scratch.

“We expect to see an increase in gap years and, actually, gap semesters.” Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success, Trinity College

Yet some think college may be the best place to ride out the toll of the pandemic after all.

Malhaar Agrawal, a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York, had been planning to take a gap year to work on a political campaign before enrolling at MIT. He’s changed his mind.

“Now with all of this uncertainty around employment etc.,” said Agrawal, “education seems like a more stable place to be.”

This story about a gap year was produced by The Hechinger Report , a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter .

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Gap Years: What Does the Research Say?

student report gap year

For American high school students, applying to college sometimes feels like a fulltime job. Grades and transcripts, sports and extracurriculars, essays and SATs, AP classes and early admissions—the pressure can be intense. After all of that work, postponing matriculation for a year might feel a little counterintuitive. And few do: a recent study by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA found that only 3% of American students take a year off before heading to college.

In Europe and Commonwealth countries, however, the “ gap year ” has been a well-established tradition since at least the 1960s. The concept is simple: after twelve-plus years of constant schooling, a year away from the classroom gives young people the chance to reassess, take stock, and enjoy a different type of learning experience—be it in the form of travel, paid employment or internship, studying a foreign language, or performing service work. Recharged and with a year of real-world experience under their belts, students can then face the college workload with greater maturity and equanimity.

But however romantic it might sound to pack your bag and grab your Eurail Pass , are gap years really a good idea? Do students become less motivated or forget their academics during a “year off?” Let’s take a look at the research.

student report gap year

Experience and Excellence

In a 2015 national alumni survey conducted by the American Gap Association in conjunction with Temple University, students who had chosen to take a gap year were asked about their motivations for doing so: the top answers were to gain life experiences and grow personally (92%), to travel and experience other cultures (85%), and to take a break from the academic track (82%). One in two respondents also included exploring academic options and volunteering as key motivations.

As to whether their experience during the year had proved fruitful, the response was almost unanimously positive: 98% said their year had helped them develop as a person, 96% found it increased their self-confidence, and 93% agreed that it had increased their communications skills. Robust majorities also reported that their gap year helped them acquire skills to be successful in their careers, develop a greater understanding of other cultures, and made them see themselves as global citizens.

student report gap year

Taking a gap year may also improve students’ future academic performance. According to a study of GPA results by Robert Clagett, the former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, gap-year students tended to outperform in college by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale, with the positive effects lasting over the entire four years. And as for the worry that a temporary step away from formal schooling might cause people to abandon the academic track altogether, some 90% of gap-year takers return to college within a year.

Experts recommend that the best way to guard against the risk of dropping out is to gain admission to your college of choice first, then ask to defer. Many schools not only allow this type of deferral, but are also offering gap-year opportunities themselves : Princeton, for example, offers a tuition-free year for students who wish to do service abroad, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers financial assistance to select students to fund their service year.

At Florida State University, all students who apply for a gap-year deferment are automatically considered for financial assistance to fund their activities. Financial aid options are critical in order for gap years to not become the exclusive domain of those who can afford to take them.

student report gap year

A Creative Time-Out

In addition to personal fulfillment and skill-building, gap years could also help address a serious problem in American education: mental health. Mental health in American schools has reached crisis levels , with one-third of American college students experiencing difficulty in functioning due to depression, and nearly half having experienced overwhelming anxiety in the last year.

Most alarming of all, over 30% of students seeking mental-health services report having seriously considered committing suicide at some point in their lives. Students under a panoply of pressures, including studies, work, loans, and relationships, often find themselves unable to cope. Many will drop out: only 56% of American students complete their bachelor’s program within six years, the lowest rate among developed nations. In the worst cases, students turn to drugs or other addictions as a way of coping.

This is where gap years can work as a productive, creative time-out from sources of stress, helping equip students to go to college in the right frame of mind—and with greater capacity to handle emotional and academic stress.

“Gap year experiences,” write Joe O’Shea and Nina Hoe in Quartz Magazine , “have been shown to equip students to approach college from a place of increased mental stability. Research…shows that gap years promote qualities such as resilience, tenacity, and grit.” It is important, the authors conclude, that the gap-year experiences be properly designed in order to “challenge students with new roles and perspectives that accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens.”

New Perspectives Through Service

One way for students to challenge themselves with new perspectives is through service, both nationally and internationally, but also right near home. The SCA offers a series of tailor-made gap-year programs in a variety of fields and locations, ranging from team-based programs to individual internships in fields ranging from climate change to habitat restoration to environmental education.

SCA’s programs connect youth with the most relevant government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporate sector partners leading the way in conserving the environment and combatting climate change. Some programs even offer the possibility of enrollment in SCA AmeriCorps , allowing members to earn up to $5,700 that can be used to defray tuition and other educational expenses. Find out more about our gap-year programs here .

student report gap year

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Why Gap Year?

What is Gap Year?

A gap year is an experiential period of time (a few months, a semester, or a full year) typically taken between high school and college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness. – What is a gap year?- Gap Year Association

While Gap Year has become a very broad term for a wide range of experiences, it is essentially a time for students to take some time between high school and college to recharge, review, and refocus themselves and their aspirations. Depending on how one spends the year, this endeavor can help build character, develop essential life skills, and hone independence before a student launches into the complex college campus environment.

There are many advantages to taking a Gap Year. These are some general highlights of why students take a Gap Year.

Preparation for College

Many students begin college without a clear career path. Even those who have decided on a major may not know the full extent of what that major entails, and may change their career goals several times during their college career. Taking a gap year before college begins allows a student to further develop their professional aspirations, while continuing their maturation as a thinking adult. 

According to the American Gap Association’s National Alumni Survey Report conducted by Temple University

45% of high school students feel prepared for college

73% of respondents reported that their gap year helped them increase readiness for college*

59% said it increased their interest in attending college

57% said it helped them figure out what they wanted to study in college*

80% of students change their majors in college

Students will change their major an average of three times.

“College requires…adaptation skills, and [students] will be much more ready to handle it if [they’ve] already shifted societies once before.”- 10 Reasons You Should Take A Gap Year- Huffington Post

Transitioning from 12+ years of rigorous education straight into college can lead to burnout for many college students. A gap year allows students extra time and space to explore new opportunities, take a much needed break from the grind of  standard school structure, and begin college with newfound energy and purpose.

Burnout is one of the top reasons students take a break- How a Gap Year Can Make Students Successful- US News

In one study, 71% of students referenced the stress and pressures of  high school and college acceptance driving their desire to take a gap year- Not All Types of Delay are Equal: Postsecondary Delay in the US And Taking a Gap Year- University of Pennsylvania

“Burnout is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals. Time out can promote discovery of one’s own passions”- Harvard First Year Admissions Portal

Personal Development

Spending significant time away from home allows students the opportunity to be more independent, take on responsibilities, and focus on their self-growth. Most students who take a gap year cite the desire for self-discovery and personal development as a main reason for choosing their experiences.

“98% of students who responded to a 2015 survey from the American Gapyear Association reported that time off school helped them develop as a person. -Business Insider

97% said taking a gap year increased their maturity.” -Business Insider

Career Exploration

Through introspection and guidance, students can obtain a clearer picture of what their next steps in life can be. Additionally, while students are on a gap year they can find internships or shadow people who work in fields they are interested in to get a better feel for what it entails. Students can gain a broader understanding of what life is like in different careers around the world.

“84% of respondents said that taking a gap year helped them acquire useful career skills, and 77% said that a gap year helped them find their purpose in life.” – Business Insider

“I [wasn’t] ready. If I hadn’t gone on a gap year, I might have spent four years and $200,000 on tuition to end up in that same country and find out the same thing”- Monika Lutz, Business Insider

“A gap year experience can also expose kids to the realities of the world that awaits them on the other side of college”- Washington Post

Global Perspective/Global Citizen

Spending time in another country can open a student’s eyes to the world around them, beyond the borders of their homes. There is history and culture to be found outside of our communities, and there are programs designed to immerse students in these cultures to gain a deeper appreciation for the world. When considering Israel, a country steeped in our own rich culture and history, the chance for students to spend time learning, exploring, and even walking  the ancient streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, this can be an experience unlike any other.

85% [of Gap Year students] wanted to travel, see the world, and experience other cultures”- Temple University

“The general experience of “being in a new and different environment” was the most meaningful element of the overall gap year experience”- Temple University

“Taking time to explore new perspectives and grow as a person made a huge difference. I enjoy school now, and I’m succeeding at it.”-Simon, Times Colonist

Strongest Impact

Gap year programs can help students succeed in college and beyond, but not all gap year experiences are the same. Studies have shown that spending time abroad and being part of a structured program are two key elements to the gap year experience that will foster the greatest impact on students.


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  1. Gap Year Research

    Gap years are more common for students in the United Kingdom, ... The Alumni Outcomes Summary Report 2015 collected stratified data from a total of 498 NCCC

  2. High School Benchmarks 2021 Report Features Gap Year

    The overall gap year college enrollment rate for the class of 2020 declined slightly from previous classes, from 2.6% for 2018 and 2.2% for 2019

  3. What a Gap Year Is and How it Prepares Students for College

    The Gap Year Association, an Oregon-based nonprofit that helps students access gap year opportunities, estimates that on average, between 40,000

  4. Coronavirus fears could produce the biggest-ever gap year for

    That raises the question of what all those students might do instead of attending college. Gap years traditionally involve travel abroad

  5. New NSCRC Report Demolishes 'Gap Year' Theory for Class of 2020

    "Gap year" enrollment has not historically been high, according to the report. The NSCRC notes that just 2.6% of students from the class of

  6. Gap Years: What Does the Research Say?

    According to a study of GPA results by Robert Clagett, the former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, gap-year students tended to

  7. Did Students Really Take Pandemic Gap Years?

    The report wasn't able to collect enough data to conclude what types of students participated in formal gap year programs in 2020.

  8. Helping Students Determine if a Gap Year Might be Helpful

    How can gap years assist students in preparing for college and career? Based on data from the GYA, the top 5 skills that. GY alumni respondents reported

  9. What It Is, and What It Isn't: The Gap Year

    Similarly, it is untrue that taking a gap year inhibits employability and career prospects. The Gap Year Association reports that 88% of students who took time

  10. Why Gap Year?

    There are many advantages to taking a Gap Year. · Many students begin college without a clear career path. · According to the · 45% of high school students feel