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AUG 01, 2019 • 6 min read
Taking a gap year
Applying to colleges in the US or UK is a complex process requiring top grades, involvement with extracurricular activities and scores on a range of standardized tests, in addition to other requirements. Many high school students find that they can’t reconcile these added tasks with their regular commitments or, after beginning the process, conclude that they could use an additional year to strengthen their profile and reach their full potential. Other students apply during high school, but don’t win admissions to the universities they most want to attend. In these situations, it can make sense to take a gap year, an additional year between graduating from high school and beginning your university studies.
While you might feel the pressure to get started with your university studies as soon as possible, taking a year off before applying can benefit you personally and in terms of your applications in diverse ways.
Taking a year off before applying or applying again after you have graduated from high school means more time to prepare and present the best application possible, without the competing demands of school. You can take the opportunity to develop a skill or pursue a passion that you never had time for, or delve more deeply into your existing interests. Further, you can study independently, take a course or receive tutoring for your standardized tests without having to worry about academic exams and assignments, focusing on achieving your target score for your dream university. Organizing your time independently can have the added benefit of improving your time-management skills and increasing your maturity, both fundamental traits for success at university.
According to empirical studies analyzed by the Gap Year Association, taking a gap year has a generally positive impact of students’ personal development and can even, according to one study, increase their academic performance during their four years at university. Given this, taking a gap year - if planned properly - won’t negatively affect your chances of admission to top US universities.
Although a gap year can benefit your application, it is essential that you plan your time well. Because you will have extra time to improve your application, admissions officers may have even higher expectations when it comes to your extracurricular, academic, and leadership profile. Further, they will expect you to justify your gap year in some way and be clear about how you used your time. This means that an additional year watching Netflix and hanging out with friends or even exclusively studying for the SAT won’t improve your admissions chances. It is essential that you engage in productive activities that contribute to your personal or academic development in some way and that fill your time.
Whether applying for the first time or for the second time during your gap year, before planning how to stay engaged, reflect on the weak points of your application. Maybe your test scores are outside the range for your target schools? Or perhaps you need to show involvement in more activities related to your career interests? Based on each area for improvement, brainstorm a few strategies to address it, be it going after an internship or investing in an SAT prep course.
Since taking a gap year involves taking a year or more off from formal education, it is essential that you can show colleges that your study habits and academic skills don’t atrophy during this break. Audit a course at a local college, take a free college class online through platforms like Coursera and EdX, get through all of the BBC’s 100 Books to Read Before You Die, or tutor current high school students in your strongest subjects to show that you are maintaining your academic engagement.
College research is often one of the most neglected aspects of the application process, in spite of being one of the most important. After all, you are choosing a place where you will both study and live for four years of your life. With more time on your hands, truly dedicate yourself to the research process, scheduling a tour to visit your target college, speaking with current and former students, or using the numerous online research tools like the College Admissions Calculator to get the full picture of each of your target universities. Conducting detailed research on each college will also help you with the application process, as many colleges require essays where you explain why you are applying and nearly all college interviewers will ask you the same question.
After graduating from high school, having so much free and unstructured time can be a challenge for some students. Combat this by building a daily routine, scheduling in time for your extracurricular activities, test preparation, exercise and application prep (college research, essays, etc.). Creating a schedule and sticking to it - just like when you were still in school - will guarantee that you make the most productive use of your time.
Originally from Washington DC, Laila has spent the past 7 years in Sao Paulo, moving there after completing her undergraduate studies in History and Literature at Harvard. She has supported hundreds of students in gaining admissions to Ivy League and top 30 international universities.