Brief Background: A gap year, sometimes called a
bridge year, is an option for students who want to spend a semester or
year away from a traditional academic environment and immerse themselves
in an experiential learning environment, typically before starting
their first year of college or at some point during their early
The Gap Year Association
(GYA), a nonprofit membership association, estimates that about 80
percent of gap year participants travel internationally for some portion
of their gap year time, and 71 percent report studying abroad later in
college. The GYA focuses its work on four key pillars 1) gap year
research, 2) program accreditation and federally recognized standards,
3) resources for families and educators, and 4) equity and access.
A gap year is distinguished from a study abroad in its timing and
focus, and in the ways students experience, explore, and experiment with
different possible future pathways. Most students on a gap year will
touch on practical, professional, and personal learning outcomes,
whereas a study abroad is more focused on one particular area of study,
and accompanied by a credit-bearing academic component.
Some examples of a transformative gap year include working for two
months with baboons in South Africa, interning with a mobile cinema in
rural Argentina, studying solar panels in an international community in
Northern India, learning from a local artist in Mexico, or participating
in AmeriCorps’ CityYear program domestically in the US.
Good to Know: GYA defines a successful gap year as
one that: primarily employs experiential learning methods, and lasts a
minimum of two months. Gap year students are sometimes called gappers,
and should approach their gap year as an experience in its own right;
not as a strategy to get into a better school or get more financial aid.
General Structure: Think about a gap year as
multiple, independent activities superimposed onto an academic
calendar—trimesters or semesters. The best gap years include at least
two of the following distinct classes of experience: service-learning to
promote empathy and global citizenship, an internship or career
experimentation to inform college and career paths, paid work to help
fund a solid gap year and to encourage personal investment in the
experience, and a free time to leave room for the unknown.
The majority of students who participate in gap year spend most of
their year unaffiliated to a formal program, stitching together a mix of
experiences and travel. However, GYA recommends launching the gap year
with a structured introductory experience, leaving the remaining time to
be more independent and lower-cost. This ensures gappers have ample
opportunity to get trained on cultural issues, safety, global political
situations, responsible volunteering, etc.
Search: The GYA’s accreditation process is focused largely on pedagogy and safety. A searchable list of programs can be found on the GYA website.
For the last 12 years, USA Gap Year Fairs has collaborated with more
than 40 high schools across the country to host annual informational
events. These fairs connect a wide variety of gap year programs with
interested families, educators, and gap year alumni. Fairs begin with an
opening presentation designed to educate, inspire, and empower young
people to pursue experiential opportunities beyond the classroom. NACAC’s National College Fairs also provide students with an opportunity to meet with eligible gap year programs.
Other resources, like Go Overseas and TeenLIfe, offer more general
listings of gap year programs. While these programs are not formally
vetted they are peer-reviewed and can provide a greater variety for
students to consider. There are also a number of professional gap year
consultants who work with families to maximize the gap year. The GYA
also manages a process for accrediting Professional Gap Year
Apply: Programs that depart in the fall months are
usually filled by June/July of the same year. The vast majority of
students who participate in a gap year program will begin researching
options a year or more in advance. However, some students might not
begin considering a gap year until the spring of their senior year once
they have received decisions from the colleges they applied to and the
concrete reality of “four more years” settles in.
Typical Cost: There is no typical cost associated
with gap years—they range from paid (e.g., AmeriCorps) to expenses on
par with college. Gap year consultants, who charge a nominal fee, can
help families find low-cost or paid options, or, leverage familial and
friend networks to keep costs down. Many students will spend US$15,000
for a full program. At this price point, students are typically able to
find a program that meets safety and education expectations.
GYA-accredited programs gave away almost US$5 million in need-based
financial aid in 2017.
An increasing number of programs can be financed by US federal loans
and grants, which students access by filing the FAFSA. Contact the
program directly to determine if this is a possibility. Additionally,
several US Department of State scholarship opportunities are available
that could fund the entire year or defray a portion of the expenses.
Note that in order to be eligible for US federal loans and scholarships,
students have to be earning college credit (see below). The GYA website
can provide more information.
Some gap year programs offer college credit. In these cases, it is
typically applied as general education credit or on par with AP credit.
Shortening the overall cost of college, by coming in with a semester of
credit for instance, is how some students and families justify
participation in a gap year.
Students are strongly encouraged to check with individual
institutions about the potential financial aid implications of entering
college as a first-year student with some credit already earned. In some
cases, they may be treated as a transfer student even if they have
The method for assigning credit for a gap year experience varies
depending on the partnership between the gap year program and partner
university. Typically, organizations work to ensure the experiential
learning pedagogies of the gap year program are not sacrificed, instead
requiring papers, journals, and/or presentations after completion of the
program. Innovative models for fusing the gap year and freshman year
experience are emerging, like those offered by Verto Education—a
first semester abroad program that guarantees acceptance into one of
Verto’s partner universities to streamline the college admission
Gap Year Colleges: Some institutions run their own
gap year programs, such as Tufts University (MA), Princeton University
(NJ), Duke University (NC), Savannah College of Art and Design (GA),
Florida State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill. Each operates with a particular focus. Tufts, for instance,
focuses on service as the central theme. Find out more about
universities with favorable deferral policies though GYA’s Official Gap
Year Colleges listing.
Advice from the Field: A good litmus test to
determine whether a gap year would be appropriate for a student is to
ask what excites them about college. If they genuinely light up at the
academic prospects of an institution of higher learning, then they
should strongly consider matriculating. If, however, they show more
enthusiasm for experiential learning, or such academic excitement is not
present, then a gap year should be actively discussed. Counselors are
encouraged to initiate a conversation as most students do not know that
gap years are an option or may have misperceptions about its outcomes.
In an informal survey by the IECA,
50 percent of students who were offered a gap year option on their
college list chose to become a gapper. In every case, however, make sure
the student leads the way and their families don’t take on the lion’s
share of the work and exploration.
Gap year program providers offer varying levels of support, though
some students may require additional supports or accommodations. For
example, if a student requires therapeutic supports, they may be better
suited for a wilderness therapy program or a “pre-gap year” program like
Pacia Life, whose staff can provide regular, in-field therapeutic oversight.
In helping students identify gap year options, ask them to spend an
hour writing down the various elements—countries, languages, activities,
housing situations, physical/emotional/academic challenges, personal
goals—that they think would be most interesting. Keep in mind that as a
student’s research broadens and self-awareness grows, options will often
change, and a good plan will adjust with new information and
Many students who take a gap year have already applied and gained
admission to a university; it is much easier logistically to gather
materials and fill out college applications during high school. These
students then defer their admission for a year. If a student intends to
pursue an undergraduate degree following their gap year, encourage them
to share their gap year plans with admission officers at their deferred
or prospective institutions. Increasingly, colleges and universities are
developing formal policies for students choosing to defer so they can
take part in a gap year. Furthermore, some schools are recruiting gap
year graduates with higher merit-aid awards knowing that, on average,
they will significantly contribute to the college reputation and campus
Roughly 12 percent of gap year students change their college plans as
a result of the personal growth they experience during their gap year.
Some students apply to other schools during the gap year and some
reapply to schools where they were not originally accepted in hopes that
the gap year will improve their chances of being accepted. Again, this
experience should not be encouraged as a means to an end.
Several gap year programs provide participants with college
application resources and supports. Nonetheless, students should work
through the high school counselor who originally helped them with
college applications, and who has access to their transcripts and other
academic records. These should include letters of recommendation
requested by the student and written by teachers and the counselor
during the student’s final year of high school.
Conclusion: A running commentary in the gap year
field is: “Most students take a gap year, it’s just called their
freshman year.” This implies that stereotypical first-years in college
are expensive and focus more on social-learning than academics. Gap year
advocates are keen to highlight that participants emerge from their gap
years happier and more focused about their path because it is within a
broader context. As career and technical schools grow in popularity and
importance, gap years are being talked about as a smart way to help
students determine the appropriate next step for their education and
chosen career path.