I was asked this question recently by a reader – he specifically wanted to know if it was a good idea to spend a year on a volunteer program in Africa before reapplying for top schools like Stanford and UPenn.
My answer: a qualified yes.
Why a “qualified” yes and not outright yes, yes, yes?
Because there are many variables that come into play. Here’s what you should consider when debating whether to take a gap year:
1) Taking a year off makes sense if you keep yourself busy and do interesting things in that time. Sounds familiar to my advice for summer activities, right?
2) Taking a year off makes sense if your activity/job/volunteer program/startup fits into the story you’re trying to tell Admissions Offices. Are you passionate about global warming? Spending a year doing research on climate patterns in Norway would be a great idea, then
3) Taking a year off only means 6 real months. Common Applications are due near the end of the year, which is about 6 months after your high school graduation. It’s not really a full year
4) Taking a year off is fine if the other parts of your application are strong. It shouldn’t be treated as a Hail Mary pass. If you have very low grades, a very low SAT score, a weak transcript, and nonexistent extracurricular activities, a strong gap year won’t be sufficient
Take these 4 factors into consideration when debating whether you should go work for your dad’s textile sales company for a year before applying to Ivy League schools.
Ultimately, it can be helpful. But make sure you’re a strong candidate already, and only do things that fit into the story of your candidacy.
Gap years are great for personal development, and they can be worthwhile if you need a break from the academic life. But don’t treat them as a panacea for college admissions, or you’ll be disappointed.
Hope that helps! As always, don’t hesitate to email if you have any questions. For more info, read my guide to Harvard admissions.
Want to attend Ivy League schools? Check out my insider’s course and guide to getting into Harvard, even with a 1360 SAT from a public high school.