by Rebecca Kern

While it has been a longtime tradition for high school graduates in Europe to spend a "gap year" traveling the world and volunteering before college, this practice is becoming more popular and accepted in the United States. We spoke with students who took a gap year before college, as well as gap year counselors and college admissions officials, to answer common questions related to taking a gap year.

1. What exactly is a gap year?

The all-encompassing term "gap year" has taken on different meanings over the years. Holly Bull, president of the 30-year-old Center for Interim Programs, the first and longest-running gap year counseling organization in the United States, defines a gap year as a period of time that people use to explore areas of interest. Bull, who took a gap year before college and another one during college, has been counseling for 20 years, and says a gap year doesn't have to last a full year and can be taken at any age, but the typical gap year is taken by students between high school and college.

Gail Reardon, who runs the gap year counseling firm Taking Off, says the term is a bit of a misnomer. "The name implies that students are taking a gap in their education, when really the gap is to fill in what they haven't learned in school," she says. "A gap year is about what happens after school, how you make decisions, how you figure out who you are, where you want to go, and how you need to get there. It's about the skill set you need to live your life."

2. I want to go to college. Should I apply before or after I take a gap year?

Most counselors and college admissions officials encourage high school seniors to apply and get accepted to college before taking a gap year. Reardon says students should apply to college while in high school because their junior and senior years are set up to support the college application process. William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard , says Harvard accepts students who apply after their gap year. However, he says it is logistically easier for both students and admissions officials when the student applies before taking a gap year, particularly if they are going abroad where correspondence may be difficult.

Students who have been accepted to a college, but want to take a gap year before attending, should defer their admittance, says Kristin White, director of Darien Academic Advisors and author of The Complete Guide to the Gap Year. Students wishing to defer college should send a letter to their college's director of admissions and outline what they plan to do for their gap year. The admissions committee will evaluate the letter and, in most cases, grant the deferral, she says. White advises students to send their deferral letters between April and mid-June. At the very latest, students should send their requests before their first fall tuition payments are due, which is usually July 1 or August 1.

3. Can I still get financial aid and scholarships for college after doing a gap year?

If a student has qualified for federal financial aid but has deferred college for a year, he or she will have to re-apply the following year by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If their family's financial circumstances haven't changed significantly, the student will likely receive aid again, says Bull of the Center for Interim Projects.

Some scholarships offered by colleges can be held for the student until they attend the next year. "Scholarships vary by school, but if you've been offered it once, you have a good shot of being offered it again," Bull says. Cheryl Brown, the director of undergraduate admissions at Binghamton University , reassures students and parents about scholarships from her school, saying, "If the student is accepted for any scholarship, depending on the parameters of the scholarship, we try to hold it for them when they return."

4. Are there affordable options for a gap year?

Many domestic and international programs charge little to no fees. Bull recommends students look for programs that offer free housing and food in turn for volunteer work. But be prepared to work. Zack Sills just completed his gap year, and from September to November 2009, he lived for free on a ranch in British Columbia. In return for food and housing, he cut firewood, took care of livestock, and worked in the kitchen. The only expensive part was the flights to and from British Columbia to his home on Chicago's North Shore, he says.

White, of Darien Academic Advisors, recommends students look into AmeriCorps programs, which provide health care benefits, a living stipend, and $5,350 from the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award at the end to use toward college. This amount is tied to the maximum Pell Grant amount. Better yet, 92 colleges and universities offer to match this AmeriCorps education award, essentially doubling its value. Students can also volunteer for programs such as Habitat for Humanity and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms , commonly known as WWOOF, though students will have to fund their living expenses in some cases.

Gap years can also save parents money in the long run. Steve Goodman, an educational consultant and college admissions strategist, says, "If a gap year clarifies what a student is going to do college, it pays back in college because you're saving tuition money for the time a student may have spent clarifying their major."

5. What are the benefits of a gap year?

Gap year consultants, students, parents, and even college admissions officials all claim that gap year experiences make these students more mature, confident, and career driven. Goodman says, "Taking a gap year can clarify the intellectual, academic, and professional objectives of a student." While there has been no formal research done by the U.S. government on the benefits of a gap year experience, Rae Nelson and Karl Haigler, authors of The Gap Year Advantage, surveyed 280 gap year alumni from November 2007 through February 2008 about how the experience molded their lives. Sixty percent said their gap year affected their majors and careers by either confirming an early direction or channeling them to a new path. Brown, of Binghamton University, says, "The students do very well when they enroll at Binghamton--many become leaders in cultural clubs and organizations and bring an increased maturity and cultural savvy to the campus."

The students emphasize that the experiential learning during their gap year was unlike any they could gain in the college classroom. Sills, 19, says, "I learned just as much in my nineteenth year than I probably learned in my last two years of high school. When I was in Canada, I was the only American at the ranch. There were Canadians, Germans, and Australians, so it really made me appreciate other cultures. I learned a lot in Canada; the type of work I did made me come outside of my comfort zone." Sills spent the other half of his gap year interning for a film production company in New Zealand. He says this experience helped prepare him to pursue a film degree this fall at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Emily Carr, 19, spent September to December 2009 taking courses related to marine biology while on a boat that toured the Eastern Caribbean. For the rest of her gap year, she spent this spring volunteering for a penguin and sea bird hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, and then in an animal rescue and refuge center outside of Bangkok, Thailand. "My gap year helped me build my people skills, gain more independence, and more maturity. There's no way to not become more mature after this," Carr says.

6. What do college admissions officials think of gap years?

College admission officials have become more accepting of the gap year over the past several years. Some even encourage their admitted students to take one. For more than 30 years, Harvard's acceptance letters have included a suggestion that students take time off before enrolling. Fitzsimmons encourages students to take a gap year so they don't burn out in college. Those who come to school after a gap year are "so fresh, anxious, and excited to be back in school," he says. "The feedback from students almost all the time has been that this experience was transformative. The more life experience you bring, the better off you are in school." In 2009, a near-record 107 of the 1,665 Harvard freshmen had taken a gap year.

At Binghamton, Brown has also noticed an increase in the number of students taking a gap year. In 2009, 52 of approximately 2,100 freshmen deferred for a year to work or volunteer. Brown says she's only seen positive results from these students. "I think the increased maturity, self confidence, sense of problem solving, and recognition that they can do these kinds of wonderful things only serves them well in their college experience," she says.

7. Will it be hard to transition to college after a gap year?

"Students who are going to college after a gap year are going into it more mature and better prepared than others," says White, of Darien Academic Advisors. Many of these students have some apprehension about returning to the classroom, but are able to transition easily because they have already been away from home, White says. Carr, who just finished a gap year, plans to work in her hometown of Princeton, N.J., this summer and possibly this fall, and apply to Colorado College for the spring 2011 semester. "I'm excited to go back to school. I really want to continue the learning process," she says. "However, I think it's going to be really hard at first, to have to write papers and study for tests. It will be a transition. I'll have to adapt to that environment again." But Carr says that, if anything, the gap year experience has taught her to adapt well to new locales, anywhere from Cape Town to Colorado.


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Questions to Ask When Considering a Gap Year