Gap years have been popular in Europe for years, but now more American students are starting to take a second look at them.

President Barack Obama’s daughter, Malia, opted for a gap year before heading off to study at Harvard University, prompting several news outlets to report on the trend. According to a report in The New York Times, students who take a yearlong sabbatical between high school and college tend to be more successful than their non-gap year peers and end up in more satisfying careers.

Take the time to explore the ins and outs of how to take a gap year — and how to fund it — as well as the reasons why graduating high school seniors may want to consider taking one.

Gap Year 101

What is a gap year? It’s a year typically taken between high school graduation and the beginning of college. During this time, students take advantage of the extra time to travel or volunteer.

Some of the country’s most prestigious universities are encouraging incoming students to defer their admission to take advantage of a gap year, and some grant fellowships or fold service-based programs into their curriculum, says independent college counselor Kristen Moon, founder of

“I advise my rising seniors to apply to their list of colleges. Once accepted, defer admission and pursue a gap year,” Moon says, calling it a “life-changing year.”

A Year “On,” Not a Year Off

“A good gap year should be hard,” says Anthony DeHart, who spent two years after graduation working for City Year in New York. “It was the hardest, most life-changing thing I have ever done. Many students find themselves academically ahead of the game, but lacking in other areas such as work ethic, critical thinking and real-world problem solving. Look for a program that develops these skills.”

College admissions experts agree.

“Beware of a gap year that looks like you just goofed off and slept in a lot before heading to college,” says Erin Goodnow, cofounder of GoingIvy. “Working, volunteering, making the world a better place, starting a business … these are all nice activities to see a student doing during a gap year.”

Be sure to talk your plans over with your intended college admissions office to verify that a gap year is allowed. “Not every school will allow a student to delay admission,” says Pam Andrews, college admissions coach for the Scholarship Shark. “If you have applied and been accepted to a university, you will need to see how this will impact the disbursement of scholarships and your offer of acceptance.”

Alternatively, you can delay your college application until close to the end of your gap year. “In the end, colleges want to know what is the benefit of your gap year experience, and how you will bring that experience to their campus,” says Andrews.

How to Fund Your Gap Year

One of the biggest misconceptions about gap years is that they are prohibitively expensive and only for very wealthy people. That doesn’t have to be the case, says Moon. “A growing number of students are using funds they already have in their 529 [college savings] plans to pay for their gap year,” she says.

Additionally, you can look into programs that are service-based and even offer grants or scholarships toward participating in the program. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill awards a Global Gap Year Fellowship, which grants $7,500 to use toward a service-oriented nine-month gap year. Princeton’s Bridge Year offers a tuition-free nine-month gap year program in one of five international locations.

Planning for Your Gap Year

There are several gap year support programs available that students can choose, but look carefully into these programs and communicate with your chosen university to ensure that any college credits you may earn will actually transfer.

This is what happened to Professor Sue Ramlo when researching gap year programs with her daughter. Despite finding several expensive programs that promised college credit, she discovered they actually had no value back at her daughter’s home institution. If that’s the case, students and their parents should look into overseas volunteering programs. “Seeking a combination of short-term volunteering, fundraising and working is a good idea, as well, and helps break up feelings of homesickness or disappointment in a volunteering experience” should that arise, Ramlo says.

To help ensure that students keep up academically during the gap year, students can consider MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which are offered by top universities and free for anyone to enroll. These courses also allow students to “test drive” different areas of study before they commit to a major, says Anant Agarwal, professor at MIT and founder of edX, a MOOC provider. Some online courses even offer options for earning college credit, which can add up to a significant amount of savings in the long run.

“Preparedness is hugely important for students entering college,” says Agarwal. “Those who go to college unprepared may be required to take remedial classes to catch up, incurring additional costs for education.”

With the proper planning, taking a gap year not only can offer you a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience but also may help you be better prepared to thrive in college. And that’s the best possible outcome.

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