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Making the most of a gap year before college

  • Gap years are spiking in popularity.
  • The time off after high school could include travel, work, research or volunteering.
  • The important thing is that the time is spent wisely.

For some high school seniors, putting college on hold could be just the right thing.

Also known as a "gap year," the break between high school and college might include travel, work, research or volunteering before continuing academic studies.

Now, more than 35 percent of high school students are thinking of taking a gap year, according to a recent survey by TD Ameritrade.

That represents a sharp spike from previous years, said Carrie Braxdale, head of investor services at TD Ameritrade.

For teenagers, the year off may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world, score a unique internship — as Malia Obama did before starting at Harvard – or, more practically, provide some extra time to work and save money to pay for college, Braxdale said.

According to the AGA, a nonprofit that accredits gap year programs, between 30,000 and 40,000 students are taking time off for a semester or more. The group says that figure is up 23 percent year over year.

On the upside, "students who take a gap year tend to be more academically focused," said Danny Ruderman, a college counselor in Los Angeles.

AGA research found that 90 percent of students who take a structured gap year return to school within a year, and are more likely to graduate on time and with a higher grade-point average.

"Students who take a gap year tend to be more academically focused." -Danny Ruderman, a  Los Angeles-based college counselor

Some schools, like Princeton University, encourage the time off. The Ivy League university offers a nine-month tuition free "bridge year" for incoming freshmen who are interested in volunteering abroad.

"A gap year is a wonderful opportunity for young people to take a year to follow a passion before attending college," said Avis Hinkson, dean of Barnard College in New York. "Some will have internships, some will travel, some will fulfill religious responsibilities and some find paid work. All-in-all, they will grow and mature."

Other colleges, however, are less supportive or disallow gap years altogether. Ruderman advises rising freshmen to ask the admissions office directly about its specific policy.

Kolby DeGarmo, 19, had her admission to college rescinded when she chose to take a gap year living and working in Australia. Still, she said, it was worth it.

"I loved every minute," she said. "I would encourage other students coming out of high school to do it, especially if they are lost," DeGarmo said. "It's a real opportunity."

Kolby DeGarmo spent her gap year living and working in Australia.
Source: John DeGarmo
Kolby DeGarmo spent her gap year living and working in Australia.

While the reasons for a gap year can vary from the pursuit of a passion project to simply needing to work to earn money toward that degree, in every case, the year should be a worthwhile use of time.

"There are the hard benefits of making money and the other benefits of expanding one's world view," Ruderman said. "Schools want to see you do something productive – where you are getting a discernible benefit."

"If in six months they are playing Xbox, that is not a good use of finances or resources," he said.

For students who didn't get into their first-choice school, a gap year can also be one way to boost their profile in order to reapply later.

That was the case for DeGarmo, who applied to additional schools in her gap year and recently completed her freshman year at the University of West Georgia.

But the odds are that applicants will only successfully increase their chances of admission if they pursue something truly unique, Ruderman said, assuming a student's grades and standardized test scores have stayed the same.

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