How to Plan a Gap Year: The Ultimate Guide

Updated Oct. 21, 2019

Have you heard your child’s school counselor or other parents mention a “gap year,” but you’re not quite sure what it is and all that it entails — and, most importantly, whether it is a good idea for your young adult? Let us help demystify the gap year and guide you in the right direction.

What is a Gap Year?

A gap year refers to the year before college when some students decide to defer admissions to college for travel, work, or alternative methods of study. In other words, a gap year is a break from traditional school and a time to explore the world, oneself, or a meaningful cause before four or more years of rigorous study.

In several countries, a gap year has long been the norm for high school graduates. However, this practice has only recently been significantly embraced in the United States. William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College; Marlyn E. McGrath, Director of Admissions at Harvard College; and Charles Ducey, Adjunct Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education added substantial momentum to the movement with their article advocating for gap years, “Time Out or Burn Out.” And when Malia Obama announced she was taking a gap year before attending Harvard, curiosity about gap years increased even more in the U.S.

Gap years can be appropriate and energizing at any stage of life. Students take them between undergraduate and graduate school, and adults can take them, too. A plethora of gap year programs and resources have developed alongside this movement. This guide will kickstart your gap year thoughts and answer your most pressing questions about the basics, program options, experiences, and potential impact of a gap year for your child and family.

Should Your Child Consider a Gap Year?

Is your child burnt out after senior year? A gap year can provide him or her the time to step back from the pressures of school and reset before returning to an even more rigorous college curriculum.

Does your child want to explore the world before committing to an academic or professional track? A gap year might be the only chance he or she has to travel for a significant amount of time.

Does your child need a little extra time to mature before starting college? A gap year can provide the time for your child to learn to live alone and gain some independence before college.

Is your child undecided about what to study in college? He or she could take the year to do several internships and understand the working world so that your money is best spent on a college degree that makes sense for your child’s future.

Did your child get rejected from his or her dream school? Although many gap year students apply to college, get accepted, and then defer admission for a year, some students may choose to re-apply to colleges during their gap years. Their decision to take a gap year, to re-apply, and to do something meaningful with their time might make them stronger applicants.

Does your child want to become fluent in a foreign language? In our increasingly global world, foreign languages give any student an edge. A year immersed in another country can give your child the opportunity to become proficient in a foreign language.

Peru is a top destination for gap years
Machu Picchu, Peru — According to gapyear.com, Peru is one of the top 10 destinations for gap years. (Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash.)

College Application and Deferral Process

Most students will apply to college before their gap year to avoid the stress of applications during their year off. However, some colleges have term-specific acceptances and require students to apply the year they intend to enroll. Speak to your college counselor or to the admissions office directly to ensure that the college your child wants to attend allows deferrals.

After your student has been accepted to colleges, the next step is to let the college know about his or her intention to defer. Your child needs to send a letter to the admissions office requesting deferral for one year including an explanation of what he or she will be doing with the year and why it is important to their future college career. Most colleges will accept the deferral, but it is safer to let the colleges know sooner rather than later.

Financing a Gap Year

Although it is possible to do a gap year on a budget, they can get expensive. Therefore, it is important to have a financial plan so that the year does not break the bank. Unless your child intends to take a paid job for the year, which some students do, a gap year means another year on your dime. There are scholarships, grants, and other resources available that you and your child can research to help pay for the year. Students intending to volunteer can fundraise or crowd-raise to pay for volunteer programs. Students wishing to do an adventure trip can do it for charity and find sponsors to support them. However, a gap year does not necessarily mean your child flies around the world volunteering or traveling. Gap years can mean different things for different students and can take place close to home or on the other side of the planet. See our list of program options below to see which one makes the most financial sense for you or your child.

Several colleges, such as Princeton, offer tuition-free bridge programs that send incoming students on a nine-month program overseas. If your student is set on taking a gap year, encourage him or her to apply to schools that offer this program.

Planning a Gap Year

planning a gap year
Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash.

After you and your child decide that a gap year is the right decision, the next step is to figure out what he or she wants to do for that year. Although there are many programs that your child can enroll in for the year, it is also entirely possible to plan it yourselves. From working or interning, to volunteering or adventure travel, there are many opportunities to make your child’s year meaningful. Several opportunities can be found here and below.

Gap Year Programs

More Resources

Gap Year Articles from Better:

Gap Year Articles from National Resources:

Books About Gap Years:


Macon BianucciMacon Bianucci is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is a former intern at Better, and she enjoys writing about social justice issues and politics. Macon is a longtime supporter of The Foundation For Tomorrow, a NGO in Tanzania that provides education and support for orphaned and vulnerable children.