When you first make friends in college, they ask you all sorts of questions. What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? When people ask me why I’m a math major, how I manage five classes and extracurriculars, how I became a TA in my first year as an undergrad, or why I’m so old for a freshman, I tell them, “It’s because I took a gap year.” Taking that extra year between high school and college was, without a doubt, the best decision I’ve ever made.

Unfortunately, only a small number of students are familiar with the gap year option. A gap year, also known as an interim year, a year off, a year abroad, or a student sabbatical, is an amount of time dedicated to self-exploration outside a formal academic setting, most often taken by students transitioning from high school to university or from undergraduate to graduate education. It’s not “time off,” or any sort of vacation. Students involve themselves in any sort of combination of work, internships, study, research, service work or travel abroad. The gap year option is an incredible way for students to grow in largely non-academic environments, helping them better define who they are and what they want out of life.

Some say college is where you explore who you are and what you want to do with your life, that there’s no need to take a “year off,” that a gap year will only let you get behind in your career development or push you away from ever developing a career at all. I definitely believe this is an uninformed opinion. The gap year option helps students define their values, passions, and self-image; college helps them realize their goals in the real world by acquiring an education. Gap years give you the opportunity to do ANYTHING YOU WANT, which is great preparation for deciding exactly what you want to do with your life in college. This option helps kids realize that they are more than just numbers in a system, that they can take control of their own lives.

The gap year trend is starting to pick up pace in popularity, with more support from colleges and universities themselves. Originally popularized in the UK in the 1960’s, this gap year trend is beginning to make its mark in the US. Harvard University is a huge promoter of the gap year option, writing to prospective students in their acceptance letters to consider the option. Other well-known schools, such as Stanford and NYU, even allow 2-year deferrals. “Colleges increasingly are offering a deferred enrollment option as more and more ‘gappers’ arrive on campus with enhanced focus, motivation and maturity – all of which bodes well for their undergraduate years in college,” says USA Today.

Now you ask about the term “deferred enrollment.” Most students accept a college’s offer of admission in the spring and immediately matriculate in the fall. Deferring enrollment postpones your matriculation date for a certain time period, typically for a single semester or a full school year. You fill out an application or send a formal email to a specific admissions officer, in which you “pitch” to university admissions as to why you want to take this gap year, how your growth will benefit the university, and what you’ll do during your gap year. You also agree not to apply to other universities while on your gap year, as this that would take away the opportunity for a wait-list student to be accepted by the university, which would be pretty horrible of you. This deferred enrollment request and contract is typically due in early June. You send a follow-up email in the following December or January keeping admissions up to date with your gap year progress and emphasizing your commitment and excitement to matriculate in the fall.

Deferring enrollment during your senior year of high school is a much safer option than applying to colleges during the fall of your gap year, because deferred enrollment guarantees your acceptance to that school. On a side note, your financial aid award may or may not carry with your deferred enrollment; if not, your financial aid will be recalculated once you resubmit FAFSA and CSS Profile applications during the spring before your matriculation.

Realize that some colleges won’t let you defer enrollment. Many state schools, for example, don’t offer a deferring option; their enrollment size attracts such a large number of applicants that these schools can’t afford to accept students who won’t immediately enroll. (This is why I didn’t apply to any of the UC schools in California, to the disappointment of my grandmother, a UC Berkeley alumna). You can check on the admissions page of a college’s or university’s website to check for the option of deferred enrollment.

After researching the gap year option and mulling over the idea, you ask yourself, “Is taking a gap year the right thing for me?” Say, you’re burnt-out academically. You’re resisting the idea of diving right back into formal education after finishing 13 consecutive years of grade school. Or suppose you haven’t been accepted to your top-choice college, and want another go at the college application process. Perhaps you don’t know what kind of career you want to pursue, and want to pursue your passions in a non-academic environment to develop a sturdier foundation for career exploration in college. Maybe you can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars in college costs, and you want to spend a year working to earn some money towards tuition. Or maybe you’re honest enough with yourself to know that you’re personally not mature enough to handle living on your own away from home quite yet.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Welcome to the Adventures of Gap Year Hooligans, a series that tells the stories and experiences of students who have taken gap years in the past or are currently taking gap years. Along the way, you’ll learn some valuable information (like how to take a gap year without burning a whole in your wallet) and hear about some crazy adventures along the way.

Want to learn more about gap years? Use Google. Do your research. Start here:

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