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Whether you are looking for time away from the classroom or eager to gain real-world experience, a gap year — a year between high school and college — is worth exploring.

“Students often feel like they are on a conveyor belt toward college and then life,” John Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School in Maryland. “[A gap year] is an opportunity for a break to explore and think about yourself in a way you never would otherwise.” And it can pay off. “There’s a lot of research on students who begin college after a gap year, and typically they are more focused and ready to pursue a path that they’re excited about,” says Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling

How do you decide if a gap year is the right move for you? Asking yourself these questions is a good first step. 

Why Do You Want to Do This?

Marion Taylor, gap year adviser and founder of Taylor the Gap, suggests that every student considering a gap year start with their “why.” “What is their intention and motivation for taking time out and away from higher education?” she asks. A gap year is the right fit for students with goals that can’t be achieved in a typical classroom setting. Taylor says goals like language immersion, travel or certification programs lend themselves to successful gap years. 

A gap year is the right fit for students with goals that can’t be achieved in a typical classroom setting.

How Will You Spend the Time?

Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, describes a gap year as a “choose your own adventure” because the options are endless. He actually describes the process of forming a gap year plan as a bit of a battle because of the “tremendous range of opportunities out there.” But, it is important to whittle down your options to a detailed action plan that serves your gap year goals. Without a plan, a gap year could devolve into binging television and catching up on sleep, which won’t lead to the kind of enrichment you, your college or future employer are looking for. 

You can arrange a gap year itinerary by yourself, using your own research and connections. If you need more support or structure, there are also gap year programs you can apply to and organizations that plan customized gap year experiences. 

How Will You Pay for It?

Unless your gap year involves well-paid work, you’ll need to create a realistic budget for how you’ll cover your costs. Programs can run thousands of dollars, however, and low-paying internships are, well, low paying. Calculate a budget that includes travel, lodging, food and a buffer for unexpected expenses. 

Typically, gap year funds come from a combination of work, savings and family help. There are also some grant programs and financial aid available for gap year students. “Last year our data showed gap year organizations gave out more than $5 million in mostly need-based aid,” says Knight.

Weingarten warns that there are costs beyond the gap year itself to consider. “The potential cost of a gap year includes a whole year of income lost upon graduation and a more expensive college cost,” she says. She offers this example: “The cost of attendance for 2021–2022 is most probably going to be cheaper than in 2025–2026.” It’s wise to factor in some long-term financial thinking while calculating your budget. 

You do need a plan for how you’re going to get back on the college path before you step off it.

What’s Your College Plan? 

A gap year is a year off from formal schooling. However, you do need a plan for how you’re going to get back on the college path before you step off it.

If you’ve already been accepted to college, make sure you understand all the paperwork and deadlines associated with requesting a gap year deferral. Some schools will easily allow you to defer while others may require you to reapply in a year. Talk to the admissions office at your school to understand the policies.  

If you’re planning to apply to college during your gap year, Talmage suggests reconsidering that decision and applying to at least one school while you’re a high school senior. Talmage’s reasoning: “The application process will let them learn about college admission while still being a senior — when their high school classmates, teachers and counselors can readily support them.” Plus, it’ll be easier to gather your application materials, like transcripts, while you’re still a student at your high school, and you’ll get more accurate letters of recommendations when you’re fresh in your teachers’ minds.

Are You Factoring in All Aspects of COVID-19?  

COVID-19 has radically altered the college experience. You may be considering a gap year to avoid the campus life limitations in the hopes of returning to school when a more normal college routine is available. Terry Mady-Grove, founder of Charted University Consulting, cautions that may not be reason enough for a gap year. She encourages students motivated by COVID-19 to review their gap year goals and plans and determine if they’re feasible during the pandemic. For example, extensive travel or hands-on job experience will likely not be possible. “Make sure that what you envision doing during this period is realistic. If the alternative [to going to college] is not doing much, being engaged with classes may be a much better alternative,” she says. “In addition, colleges have learned a lot since the beginning of the pandemic and have made great strides in both online learning and social interaction.” So, your college experience could be more fulfilling than you anticipate. 

That said, there are COVID-19–friendly gap year programs available. Depending on your goals, a program like Adelphi University’s virtual program, in which gap year students work for a startup, nonprofit or Fortune 500 company, may be a fit. American University also offers a program that includes a remote internship. These are just two of many options. With enough research, you may be able to find compelling virtual gap year programs that suit your needs.

A gap year can be a wonderful opportunity to expand your world experience prior to college, but it’s not a fit for everyone. If you’re still having problems answering whether a gap year is a good next step for you, consult with your family and high school counselor. They can help you figure out if a gap year is the right move for your future. 

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2020.