Taking a gap year abroad after high school is a great option to help you fight burnout, develop new skills, connect with yourself, and define your goals before college. A big question on your mind might be, "does taking a gap year affect college admission?"
Deciding on an academic break can be both an exciting and scary prospect. You want to explore the world but not at the expense of your future. What do college admissions boards think of gap years? Is taking one a good idea? We answer all of your questions and more with the help of admissions officers from top universities. Don't be nervous, it's good news!
When to apply to university: before or after your gap year?
You've decided that a gap year is right for you, but when should you apply for university? You have two main options: before or after. Let's take a look at both to understand how the process works.
Before your gap year (deferring admission)
A popular route is to apply to university alongside your classmates following the normal high school timeline. Once accepted, you'll need to pay your deposit and then ask your university to defer your start date a year in order to take a gap year. While this may sound risky, more and more universities are adapting their policies to support admitted students who wish to take a gap year before beginning their studies. In fact, according to the Gap Year Association, some universities actively encourage it, allowing students to keep their competitive scholarships and making the transition smooth.
During or after your gap year (delaying application)
Some students though may feel the need to fully disconnect and decompress following 12 years of progressively intense study. If you choose this route, you won't apply for college until you've finished or almost finished your gap year abroad.
“To me, the best and most liberating part of a gap year can be putting the college application process behind one and doing something that, for once, has nothing to do with enhancing one's candidacy for college and everything to do with pursuing something important to the student.”
Although gathering your documents while overseas can be daunting, there are ways to prepare before you go. Scanning and saving your final transcript as a PDF can be helpful in the initial application process as many universities will accept unofficial transcripts (as long as official copies are provided after a positive admissions decision has been made). SAT scores can be sent easily online, directly to your universities of choice.
So, will applying to college after your gap year negatively affect your admissions chances? Will it help you get into a better school? Let's see what leading admissions officers have to say.
Does taking a gap year affect college admission?
Many colleges and universities are increasingly open to the idea of students taking gap years before entering as freshmen. In fact, those in favor proactively support students through scholarships and/or preferential admissions to gap year alums. For example, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and McDaniel College in Maryland remind students to highlight gap year experience on their applications, noting that it will count favorably for them and could make them eligible for scholarship funding.
A big reason why so many universities are encouraging students to do gap years is that they’re coming to recognize that gap years can actually help develop a number of practical and interpersonal skills, as well as demonstrate a commitment to volunteerism, service, and global engagement.
In the end, though, it's what you take away from your gap year that counts.
“If a student is applying to college during their gap year, taking a gap year isn’t itself what would make a student stand out. What’s important is that a student understands what’s important to them, and then acts on it in a positive way.”
Evaluate your reasons for taking a gap year and make sure that it is for your own personal growth and exploration and not to beef up a college application. Your experiences and ability to draw meaningful connections to your future are what will impress the admissions committee, not the act of taking a gap year itself.
What is the best way to present a gap year on a college application?
Your gap year is bound to be filled with a wide array of incredible experiences and moments of personal growth. The key to improving your college applications is to properly frame your time abroad in a way that demonstrates the transferrable skills and maturity that you've gained.
“I definitely believe that growth, maturity, focus, curiosity, and other qualities can be enhanced by taking a gap year, and evidence of those qualities can help strengthen an applicant's application.”
When writing your admissions essay, think about how elements of your gap year connect to your future higher education journey. Here are some ideas on ways gap years promote personal growth and learning.
Gap years can help you to...
- Demonstrate responsibility and independence: Completing a gap year also shows that you can make a commitment to something, plan it and follow through on it. The proven ability to carry out complicated tasks and fulfill obligations, and the independence to do it all on your own, are qualities that will be very appealing to whoever reads your application materials.
- Deal with stress: International travel and work are incredible, enlightening experiences, but they can also be extremely challenging and stressful at times. This experience of learning to manage your emotions and deal with high-stress moments in real life will help prepare you to effectively cope with schoolwork and other sources of stress once you get to campus.
- Understand what you want for your future: If you’re hoping to go into a field like international relations, development, global/public health, or education, gap years can provide an ideal chance to gain real-world experience and help narrow your focus before jumping back into academia. Or, you could get to the end of your gap year and discover that you have a whole new set of interests and maybe even a new intended major. The beauty of taking a gap year is that it can reinforce your current plans or guide you in a totally new direction.
- Gain a new skillset: Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, during your gap year you could develop your language skills, pick up leadership know-how, and build your teamwork capacity. You may even learn how to teach, farm, or scuba dive.
- Give back in a meaningful way: While gap years are the perfect opportunity to reconnect with yourself, they can also be a great way to help others. Supporting communities through sustainable projects shows your commitment to service. Empathy, understanding, and intercultural communication are priceless soft skills that can help you not only in your school and work life but in your personal relationships, too.
Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University, affirms that universities want well-rounded candidates.
“Most colleges are looking for students who are academically capable, who know how to make a commitment and follow through, and who have a positive impact on their community," he explains.
Will my gap year affect my transition into university?
It doesn't have to! If you're worried about whether you'll be ready to jump back into studies after an extended break, there are certain activities you can get into during your gap year. Studying a new language at a language school, learning a new skill like scuba diving or first aid, or taking an online class can activate your student mode.
Above all, don't worry. Going back to school can be like riding a bike -- you won't forget how to do it! A 2020 Gap Year Association survey reported that 95% of returned gappers said that their time abroad prepared them either somewhat well or very well for their transition back into education or the workforce. Keeping your eyes on the university prize will remind you that this year abroad is an important stepping stone to building your future career.
Additionally, research conducted by the Gap Year Research Consortium at Colorado College showed that rather than losing their "academic momentum", students returning to college after a gap year actually performed better academically than expected and consistently engaged with their classes in meaningful ways.
Read more: How to Earn Academic Credit on Your Gap Year
Ready for your gap year?
With all of these benefits of a gap year -- and increasing recognition on the part of universities of the positive results of a gap year -- it almost seems like it would be a shame not to go.
So, what's the final verdict? Weigh the pros and cons of taking a gap year to figure out if it's right for you. But as for your future college journey, we say get out there and get some real-world skills! Don’t worry, the admissions office will still be here when you get back.
Read up on gap years and how to make yours happen: