Gap Year

Why and How to Defer College Acceptance for a Gap Year

Kate Evans

Kate is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa.

You’ve worked hard throughout high school -- made good grades, taken plenty of tough courses, filled your free time with extra-curriculars, and you’ve finally been rewarded with an acceptance letter from the college or university of your choice. Letter in hand, you know you’ve done it -- you’re well on your way to the next successful stage in your life that will lead to another and another and another.

We think you should defer for a year and explore life in a gap year.

But maybe you’re hesitant. Maybe these years of hard work and focus have left you a little burned out. You’re tired and the idea of four more grueling years of college, while exciting, makes you even more tired. If this is the case, it might just mean that you’re ready for a gap year. To do that, you’ll want to defer college for a year -- which is not only possible, but increasingly common.

Here’s why -- and how -- we think you should defer for a year and explore life in a gap year:

What is a Gap Year and Why You Should Take One

While a long-time British tradition, the gap year is becoming increasingly popular this side of the Atlantic. Americans are learning what Europeans have known for generations: taking some time off before college can lead to rich experiences, a deeper knowledge of self, and a better, more focused collegiate career.

Many people come back from gap years changed -- they're worldlier, more focused, more compassionate, and more self-reliant.

A gap year can take many forms. For some, it’s a solo-backpacking trip around the world and for others, it might be participating in a formal, structured program like GapForce's Nepal and India adventure. Often, a gap year takes young people to places they’ve never been before, or places they have never even dreamed of.

But why take a gap year? A gap year is a chance to experience the world at a time when you’re most open to it. It’s an opportunity to jump whole-heartedly outside of your comfort zone and see where you land. It's a time to press the refresh button, learn something you never could have learned in school, and -- if you do it right -- even become more successful once you enter college.

Read more: What is a Gap Year & How Do You Take One?

Why Defer College for a Gap Year?

The period between high school and college is a delicate time, one where teenagers are transitioning between being children in their parents’ homes to adults on their own. It’s a time for self-discovery and exploration, when you can learn who you are, what you want, and what your place in the world might be.

A pre-college gap year is a chance for you to spend some time doing things that don’t require you to ask “how will this look on my college application?” It’s a chance to travel, take a break, look around you, meet wonderful people, try new things, and figure out what you want to do.

Many people come back from gap years changed -- they're worldlier, more focused, more compassionate, and more self-reliant.

It’s no coincidence that many students come back from their gap year and change their intended major or have a more tangible career goal to apply to their studies. This is a time to focus on you and clarify your academic objectives.

Benefits of a Gap Year

While there isn’t much formal data on the kinds of skills that gap year students accrue during their gap year, academics, college administrators, parents, professors, future employers, and students themselves are finding that those who take a gap year before college come to school ready and focused. They also come with a whole set of new or polished skills that they gained along the way.

In addition to what we see in terms of greater focus in the classroom, increased GPAs, greater campus involvement, and an increased likelihood of graduating on time, students who take gap years are proving to have skills that benefit them both inside and outside the classroom.

According to the Gap Year Association, benefits of the gap year include:

  • Increased maturity
  • Greater ‘ownership’ of one's education
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Greater global awareness
  • Fluency in a foreign language
  • Self-confidence

Others cite:

  • Greater abilities to work as part of a team
  • Problem solving skills
  • The ability to deal well with unexpected frustrations
  • Successfully working in cross-cultural setting
  • Increased independence

Who wouldn’t want to walk into a freshman classroom armed with this kind of confidence and skill set?

Read more: Why You Should Take a Gap Year After High School

The College Deferral Process

The good news is that deferring your college admission for a year has never been easier or more acceptable. Universities and colleges are recognizing that gap years can result in a more mature, dedicated student body that brings with it a wealth of diverse experiences. That means that they are more open to granting deferrals to accepted students. In fact, the acceptance letter from Harvard University even suggests to its incoming freshmen that they might want to take some time off before starting college.

How to Defer College

  • Apply to college before you take a gap year.
  • Get accepted and confirm that you will attend.
  • Send a letter or email to the college's director of admissions and outline what you plan to do on your gap year / gap semester.
  • The admissions committee will evaluate the letter and grant / deny the deferral.
  • Send deferral letters between April and mid-June.

As Kristin White, director of Darien Academic Advisors and author of The Complete Guide to the Gap Year says, "in most cases, admissions offices grant the deferral." And although it's best to request deferral 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.”

Things to Keep in Mind about Deferral

Keep in mind that each college and university is different. The Gap Year Association has collected informal information on the specific deferral process at hundreds of American colleges and universities to help you, but contact your specific college or university for the most updated policies and procedures.

It's also important to note that many schools will grant a year deferral but not a quarter or semester, so be sure to factor this into you plans and budget.

Check with your college or university to see if there is any potential for gaining college credit for your gap year activities. It is rare that this is the case, but it’s worth asking. If you enroll in another school for classes during your gap year, you might have to reenroll in your college/university as a transfer student -- definitely ask your admissions office about their specific policies.

In terms of deferring financial aid or scholarships, be sure to check with your specific school. Just because you’ve been offered financial assistance with your initial acceptance doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed that same package when you return a year later. It might mean that you have to reapply for financial aid and scholarships before you start school, but the chances are if you were granted it the first time around, you'll be granted it again.

Again, the most important things to remember are that your college won’t think less of you as a student for applying for a deferral, and be sure to check on the specific policies of each school and follow their directions.

Read more: 10 Steps to Planning a Gap Year Before College

Returning to Attend College/University

So you’re sold on taking a gap year, but you want to make sure you have something to come back to. That’s why deferring your college acceptance allows you the best of both worlds. You get the security of knowing that your future is safe while getting to explore life during a gap year.

Some students (and parents) worry that taking time off will result in a loss of hard skills that contribute to success in college, but this is often not the case. Robert Clagett, a former senior admissions officer at Harvard University and dean of admissions at Middlebury College writes in Why Your High School Senior Should Take a Gap Year: “the prevailing wisdom is that kids are going to lose their hard-earned study skills if they take a gap year. The opposite is true.”

Instead, Clagett argues in his article for College Admission, “for many of those students, stepping off the educational treadmill for six months or a year between high school and college can be an important way to remind themselves of what their education should really be about.

It can also lead to a much more productive experience once they are enrolled in college, since those students will frequently be more mature, more focused, and more aware of what they want to do with their college education.”

William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University 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."

Yes! Defer College and Go on a Gap Year

If you’re feeling even the least bit like this is something you want or need to do, you should do it! Go on a gap year and enjoy a year exploring your world. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but for those who feel called to take a break before jumping into the rigorous academics of college or university, it could be the best decision of your life.

Some students (and parents) worry that taking time off will result in a loss of hard skills that contribute to success in college, but this is often not the case.

Colleges are realizing that gap year students come back revitalized, focused, mature, and self-aware. They are ready to engage and bring a sense of worldliness to the classroom. Schools are making the deferral process easier, or at least more acceptable, and some are even actively encouraging students to take time off before starting their freshman year.

Come back from a gap year adventure and be more ready than ever for a sterling collegiate career, and whatever excitement comes after it!

Exploring your gap year options? Don't miss USA Gap Year Fairs every winter! These free, public events are held in 40+ cities across the country to provide a broad exposure to gap year options and connect prospective gap year students, parents, gap year organizations, educators, experts, and alumni.

This post was originally published in May 2015, and updated in May 2020.

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