Students who took a year off between high school and college self-report high rates of personal growth, personal reflection, increased maturity and self-confidence.

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Courtney Miranda, of Bozeman, Mt., had college-acceptance letters in hand for her senior year of high school. But when fall arrived, she wasn’t in a classroom — instead, she was in Brazil, staying with a host family and learning Portuguese.

As part of the Rotary Youth Exchange, Miranda spent a gap year in Brazil, taking fun art classes and played indoor soccer while learning about life in Latin America. “My year abroad was one of the most fundamental building blocks of who I am now,” she says.

Halfway through her year abroad, she decided to apply to Pacific Lutheran University, where she now minors in Hispanic studies.

“To be quite frank, more should consider this wonderful option,” says Kiersten Murphy, founder of Murphy College Consultants, on the Eastside. “I believe that many colleges feel that students burn out in high school and this gives them a chance to recharge before jumping into college work.”

Bob Dannenhold, a Seattle-area college admissions expert at Collegeology, relates the story of a client who said: “I always knew my parents believed in me. But it was about halfway through my gap experience in India that I realized I believed in myself.” The student went on to attend colleges — and open his own startup business.

“There is no better time than the year between high school graduation and the first year of college,” Murphy says. Take the full year, she recommends; otherwise, starting the second semester of freshman year means a student won’t attend incoming-class orientation, perhaps missing out on bonding activities.

Gap-year participants self-report high rates of personal growth, personal reflection, increased maturity and self-confidence, along with an increased interest and communication ability in international contexts, according to an AGA National Alumni Survey in 2015.

Gap year and the application process

“When students apply to college, they should review each college’s policy on deferring enrollment,” Murphy says.

During the application process, hold your gap-year cards close. “I would encourage them to keep it confidential for now,” she says. A student might change his or her mind about pursuing a gap-year experience, and it’s helpful to keep options open.

“While students are in their senior year of high school, they would still go through the process of writing their college essays and applying to the colleges of choice,” she says. “After decisions have rolled in, they can re-examine each college’s policy on deferring enrollment for one year, and then enroll with this option.”

Interested students typically write a letter requesting deferment, outlining how they’ll use time off, while restating excitement around attending college, Dannenhold says.

“Colleges are very supportive of gap years,” he says, as the break brings more interesting students into classrooms and dorm rooms. However, some public universities tend to avoid offering deferments, making exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

“Private universities tend to be most welcoming; however, it seems to also depend on what the gap year plan entails,” Murphy says.

Gap options

Gap-year programs can be expensive, but they don’t need to be, Dannenhold says. Some students might take time off to work and save for college; travel overseas; or participate in a volunteer program like City Year.

Other students decide to take a year to work on weaknesses; he points to students in Oxford Advanced Studies classes abroad. “The kids can’t write, and they come back so much better,” he says — important when writing is such an integral aspect of college.

Some of Murphy’s clients have pursued gap-year experiences in the culinary world, the hospitality industry, the outdoors and even ballet.

“I suggest taking a gap year to every student,” Miranda says, now happily attending classes at Pacific Lutheran University. “The required amount of personal growth was incredible, and totally shaped my life as a student, community member and contributor to society. It made me feel like I could conquer anything.”

USA Gap Year Fair: Feb. 16, 2017, in Seattle.
See the American Gap Association’s most recent list of gap-friendly schools.