IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Should your child choose a gap year like Malia Obama?

Malia Obama's decision to take a gap year before starting her freshman year at Harvard might make the idea more attractive to American high school students. But is it right for your child?
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Like many thousands of high school seniors, Malia Obama officially committed to her college of choice on Sunday. But perhaps just as notable as her choice — the ivy-covered halls of Harvard University — was the additional announcement that Malia will be taking a gap year, deferring her Harvard entrance until the fall of 2017.

Though “gap” years between the end of high school and the beginning of college have never been as fashionable in the United States as they are in Europe, “Malia Obama has made the gap year relevant and cool,” said Sara Harberson, founder of private college admissions counseling service Admissions Revolution. “Her decision is bound to send positive shockwaves to this generation, effectively validating the gap year as a worthy and viable option for all college bound students.”

Is a gap year the right decision for your child? Five things to consider:

1. A gap year is not a vacation.

Though there is no set expectation for what students do with a year between high school and college, a well-considered plan for their time will be more beneficial to them and more attractive to their colleges. “There are many reasons why a student may request a gap year,” says Andrea Felder, Director of Freshman and International Admissions at the University of Florida. “Many schools like to see that the student is using the year productively.”

Travel is definitely considered a worthy use of a gap year, but students can also choose to stay close to home and to incorporate educational or occupational growth into their experiences. Internships, volunteer work, academic programs, and 9-to-5 jobs are all ways that students now are choosing to spend a year between high school and college.

2. A gap year does not have to be expensive.

On the contrary, students can spend the year actually making money, if they find opportunities to grow that also give them a chance to work for pay. Many colleges, including Tufts University and Princeton University, also offer “bridge year” programs that send admitted students to another country for a year of service and the experience of staying with host families. Bridge year programs offer very generous financial aid; Princeton’s program, in fact, is actually completely tuition-free.

3. Students can apply to college before they take a gap year OR afterward.

Malia Obama chose to apply to Harvard and defer admission for a year in order to take a gap year, but that’s not the only way to do it. Students can also choose not to apply to college at all or not to accept an offer of admission and reapply the following year, while they are in the midst of taking the year off.

“Students who have blemishes on their high school records can apply to college during the gap year instead of their senior year of high school,” said Harberson. “The distance usually gives a student perspective on who they are and what they want out of their life, and colleges will be more willing to admit a student with a less-than-perfect application if time has passed.”

4. A gap year can make students more attractive to colleges.

There’s no doubt that students could gain a lot with a year between high school and college in terms of life, work, or volunteer experience. But many colleges also believe that students who take gap years bring a lot to their campuses when they arrive. “The student is often much more mature than the typical freshman. Even if they get to travel with an all-expense paid trip from their family, they've gained valuable coping skills along the way which can be put to good use with dorm life, roommates, peer pressure, and the general transition to college,” said Harberson. “College deans and administrators often comment that gap year students make a positive influence in group settings, classroom environments, and social settings.”

5. Gap years are not for everyone.

Students who thrive in more structured educational setting with peers their own age generally do not want to pursue a gap year, said Harberson, and many high-achieving students shy away from the option because it seems too unpredictable to more traditional-minded parents and families. Students who receive financial aid also need to make sure that a gap year would not affect that aid.

But Harberson said the risk could pay off. “The gap year is an enticing option and helps students realize that predictability and orthodoxy can be quite limiting to their growth,” she said. “If we encouraged students to take positive risks in high school, they might be more willing to consider the gap year option – and much more after this.”