Like a lot of students I work with, I applied to college right out of high school. I was fortunate to be admitted to a place that really fit me, and I was excited to go. College was a great experience for me in many ways.

However, in retrospect, there are a lot of things I know now, as a college counselor, that I would have done differently back then. My biggest regret is not taking a gap year between high school and college.

A gap year—a tradition of taking a year between high school and college to work, volunteer, travel, or to do some combination of activities—has become more popular in the U.S. within the last two decades. And more universities are recognizing the value of a gap year, encouraging students to take a year off between high school graduation and starting college.

The Benefits of the Gap Year

While many students are ready academically to start college, they may not be ready developmentally or psychologically. Many young people still need to grow rather than go from the grind of difficult high school work straight into difficult college work. Aso, they may need to see the world a little bit and get a taste of how things work.

A gap year can provide exactly that—time to mature.

What Does a Gap Year Look Like?

A gap year usually looks quite different for different students.

hiker with backpackIf you take a gap year (and I think you should), the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to always have a plan for what this time will look like. Make sure this plan is realistic and interesting to you and that your family can support it.

You have almost twelve months to do a variety of different things. It all becomes sort of a smorgasbord of opportunities that suit you. There is no shortage of gap year programs, short-term travel opportunities, guided programs, and independent programs available. You can grab a backpack and just travel around for cheap, or you can do something very structured and guided.

The most important things to remember is—have a plan! Do not let this become a wasted year.

Are You Reluctant to Take a Gap Year?

Both students and parents alike have presented me with a variety of objections to taking a gap year. Here are three common ones:

1. How do you handle choosing a gap year in connection with college applications? Will it not jeopardize my acceptance to a school?

Taking a gap year can be part of a plan, but it should never be a way to avoid going to college or even applying to college.

Therefore, it is important that you first apply to college at the traditional time—at the end of high school—before you take the gap year. Then, when you request a gap year, in the vast majority of cases, there are simple but important procedures to follow for deferring your admission at the university to which you have chosen to go.

Still, there is an exception. Some colleges do not defer a student’s admission for a gap year. They do this not because they frown upon it, but because they do not have a procedure for deferring admission for a year. If you choose to take a gap year, you are welcome to reapply the following year. However, these types of colleges are an exception, rather than the rule.

To be prepared, do your research and find out how the colleges to which you want to apply handle students wanting to take a gap year.

2. I could not possibly take a gap year because… what if I do not go back to college?

While I am sure that could happen, I have never seen it happen. And I believe it is simply highly unusual that a student would forget about college once they have been admitted.

This is why I recommend that you apply to college while you are a senior in high school. You get the process started, get admitted, and decide where you would like to go. Thus, you are not left applying to college during your gap year.

It is no secret that there is often a lot of partying during the first year of college. That generally happens because first-year students are away from home for the first time, freed to experiment and do whatever they like. Therefore, that first year of college can become a wasted year academically if it is just all about experiencing independence.

I personally think that the benefits of taking time out to regroup, grow, and mature can truly help you become more focused on why you want to go to college.

3. How can I take a year away from pursuing the goals I have for becoming an adult and having a career? I would fall an entire year behind!

A whole year behind what?

At the risk of sounding like I am lecturing, let me tell you from my own experience that I regret only understanding after attending college that being an adult is not a race. There is plenty of time! But the time to do the kind of activities you could be doing during a gap year—like travel or work abroad or dig into volunteer work—passes by very quickly.

Graduating from college, entering the work world, and maybe considering big adult decisions (a home, a life partner, a family) are all exciting things to consider. But, at the same time, the door often closes on the types of activities that a gap year would have allowed you to experience.

That is what lies at the base of my biggest regret of not taking a gap year—not having taken the opportunity to do some of the other great things that a gap year could have afforded me.

And that time only comes once.

I am an Independent Educational Consultant with many years of experience. If you would like to know how I can help you make better decisions about college plans than I did when I applied, please learn more about my approach to high school college counseling.