The Big Gap in “Gap Year”

After enjoying years of popularity in Europe, gap years are becoming trendy in America as a way for high school students to gain perspective and maturity before going off to college.  After graduating from high school, students begin their college career 15 months later, entering college in the fall term.

However, one obstacle to such plans is too rarely discussed – many colleges do not accommodate gap years easily, if at all.  Here are some of the college admissions issues that students and parents should consider when planning for a gap year.


When to apply to college

For students, the most convenient time to apply is along with their peers, during their senior year of high school.  However, a significant number of colleges, particularly public institutions, refuse to defer acceptances to the following year.  For example, the University of California and the California State University systems do not defer admission.

In those cases, students will have to apply during their gap years.  This means making sure that they secure new letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors long after the students have left campus.  This is particularly difficult if the students spend that “gap year” overseas.

Although the American Gap Year Association maintains a list of “gap year friendly” schools, many colleges are not included.  See  Based on a recent search for a Midwestern student, I would add the following public institutions to their list as “gap friendly” colleges:

Iowa State

Kansas State (except for certain departments, such as landscape architecture)

University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)

The Ohio State University


Will colleges defer merit and need-based financial aid?

Even if a college will defer admission, it may require the student to re-apply for financial aid, both need and merit based.  This is true for federal financial aid, for example.  Further, many colleges take the position that a family’s financial condition may change during the gap year.  Thus, families should be prepared to file a new FAFSA or CSS Profile during the gap year, and, perhaps, compete again for merit aid and scholarships.

There is a risk that a “gap year applicant” may be considered a captive audience in such situations.  Unless the student has applied (or re-applied) to a number of colleges, they may, or may be perceived by colleges to be, in a weak position to reject financial aid offers.  We do not have enough experience with gap years to determine whether this a significant risk.

Students planning gap years may should consider a two-stage strategy:  1) apply during the senior year to “gap friendly” colleges in the senior year, and pay a nonrefundable enrollment deposit to the school which admits you on the most favorable terms; and 2) apply again during the “gap year”, and pick the winner after evaluating the next round of acceptances and financial aid packages.  This is not particularly fair to the schools that agreed to defer admission in the first round, but students may not feel they have a choice if those schools did not offer affordable financial aid packages.


Ask prospective colleges for their policies on gap years

Many colleges have a web page devoted to their gap year policies.  See e.g., (The Ohio State University).  However, too many colleges do not, and even those that do may change their policies.  Therefore, I recommend sending the following e-mail to each college on your list:


Dear (Admissions rep for the student’s area):


My son/daughter, [NAME], would like to apply to [INSERT COLLEGE AND SPECIFIC SCHOOL/PROGRAM] this Fall, but is planning to take a gap year [include a brief, attractive description of the gap year plan, with a web site reference to any program that the student will be attending – this indicates a seriousness of purpose].  NAME will not enroll in any college institution or earn any college credits during that year.

If your college accepts [NAME], he [substitute “she” where appropriate] will ask to defer enrollment to the Fall of ___.  He will be applying for need-based and merit aid.

We have been unable to find any reference on your web site to your policies concerning this situation.  Would you please tell us:

1.       If accepted, will he be allowed to defer entry until Fall 2018?

2.       If he is allowed to defer entry, will any need-based financial aid award be affected?  Will he need to reapply for that aid?

3.       If he is allowed to defer entry, will any merit-based financial aid award – including scholarships – be affected?  Will he need to reapply for that aid?

Thank you very much,


Read the college’s response very carefully to make sure that it covers all of the issues and that it applies to the particular school or department to which the student is applying (e.g., fine arts).  For example, Kansas State as an institution will accept deferrals, but its landscape architecture department will not.  If your student has a particular school or program in mind, you may need to send a separate e-mail to an admissions officer in that school or program.


Do not take college credit during the gap year

Finally, students should not earn college credit during their gap years.  Students who do so risk being treated by colleges as transfer students, forfeiting many of the financial aid advantages of being a high school applicant.  Colleges that defer admission will frequently require students to agree to this rule as a condition of deferral.

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