With January 1 behind us, most seniors have finished submitting their college applications.  Now, some of them are turning their attention to the prospect of taking a gap year, an option that has long been popular in other countries but is becoming increasingly common in the U.S.  Younger students may be considering a gap year as well.  Undoubtedly, students and their parents have some questions about this option.  Below are some gap year FAQ’s, as well as answers.

What is a gap year?  A gap year is a year between graduating from high school and starting college.  However, rather than a “year off,” gap year proponents categorize it as a “year on” — a time for students to engage in self-discovery and exploration, to learn and grow.

What can a student do during a gap year?  A better question might be, “What can’t a student do during a gap year?”  There are as many options as there are types of students.  Organized programs offer opportunities to volunteer, travel, do an internship, and/or take classes.  Alternatively, some students take classes on their own (i.e., at a local community college), work, or volunteer in their community.  If you are interested in taking classes during your gap year, check with the college you plan to attend to make sure the credits will transfer.

What are the benefits of a gap year?  Often, a gap year allows students to explore and identify their interests before they start college.  This can help students choose a major and begin taking classes for their major earlier in their college career.  Some students use a gap year to work and save money for college so that they don’t have to take out so much money in loans.  Gap years can also help students gain the maturity and independence they’ll need to succeed in college and beyond.  For students who are not academically/socially/emotionally ready for college, there are programs that address these needs.

How likely is a student to go to college after a gap year?  One of parents’ biggest concerns about gap years is that their child won’t actually go to college after taking one.  Yet, evidence indicates these concerns are unfounded.  In fact, one study found that 90% of students go to college within six months of finishing a gap year.  Additionally, research shows that students who take a gap year have higher GPA’s and are more likely to graduate in four years.

Will colleges hold a spot for a student who decides to take a gap year?  Generally speaking, yes!  Most colleges allow admitted students to defer, meaning they can enroll the following year without having to reapply.  In fact, several colleges have started their own gap year programs, which students can express interest in when they apply or that might be offered to students upon admission.  Even if they’re planning to take a gap year, the majority of students should apply to college during their senior year of high school, unless they are using a gap year to try to improve their chances of admission.

What happens to students’ financial aid if they defer?  If a student has been awarded a merit scholarships, some colleges will carry the scholarship over to the following year.  For students who’ve been offered need-based aid, they and their parents will have to apply for aid again the next year, just as they will have to reapply every year the student is in college.

How much will a gap year cost?  This largely depends on what a student does during a gap year.  Some programs cost as much as a year of college, while others are much less expensive.  Additionally, some programs offer scholarships/financial aid.  If students choose to volunteer or do an internship locally, there’s no cost involved.  If they work, they will, of course, be getting paid rather than paying to participate.

How can I learn more about gap years?  There are many websites and books that provide information about gap year planning and programs.  The Gap Year Association provides accreditation to programs that meet rigorous standards.  Additionally, USA Gap Year Fairs hosts fairs across the country where students and parents can meet representatives from and gather information about a variety of gap year programs.  The fairs are held between January and March, so check the schedule to see if there is an upcoming fair near you.

Although there are many benefits of taking a gap year, this option isn’t for everyone.  If it’s pushed on students who aren’t interested, chances are they won’t get much out of it.  Families should discuss a gap year as they engage in the college planning process, and as with college, it’s important that parents set expectations and are honest with their children about what they can afford.