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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

On taking a ‘Gap Year’ by Matt McGann '00

Consider deferring college for a year.

I’d like to talk a bit about deferring entry to MIT, also known as taking a gap year.

My hope is that you will at least consider, just for a moment, taking a gap year (read on for details). If you are a member of the Class of 2012 and would like to request a one-year (or sometimes two-year) deferral from starting at MIT, it’s now easier than ever to do so. On your online reply form on your MyMIT portal, just choose

I will enroll at MIT and I request to defer my enrollment until the term beginning:

And then choose one of

  • September, 2009 (1 gap/deferral year)
  • September, 2010 (2 gap/deferral years)

We will then ask you to write us and tell us what you plan to do. We will grant a deferral for almost any reason. Come up with somewhat of a plan, and you’ll probably be fine. Some members of the Class of 2011 deferred to spend a year in Israel, others to do intensive music study. What you do is up to you.

I should also note that if your gap year plans are not certain by May 1, you can instead select the “Enrolling” option on the reply form, and then you can request a deferral any time right up until Registration Day in September (though I strongly suggest you do so well before that). No worries.

And if you already have submitted your reply form telling us you’re enrolling, again, no worries: you, too, can request a deferral any time right up until Registration Day in September (though, again, I strongly suggest you do so well before that).

Last year, Anthony wrote an excellent post on this very topic:

So you got into one of the best, most stimulating and resource-rich universities in the world. Welcome – MIT’s an amazing place (no matter what you’re here to study), and I bet you’re really eager to come – not just for Campus Preview Weekend, but to start your academic and life voyage as a freshman this fall semester. You’re probably already planning your summer, the changes from home to college … what to bring, how you’ll spend those last days with friends and family, perhaps visiting your favorite childhood haunts in a last bid to say goodbye. But what if you held off on all that?

Sounds crazy, right? – because you want to get away from your parents as soon as possible, start your own life, and not be told when to go to bed and what not to eat… well, whatever the reason, college is a way to leave home that’s accepted by both your friends and your folks (no matter how conservative), and you’re all ready to GO. It feels like the “right thing to do,” because after high school, don’t all good students go to college? And besides, what else would you do to prepare for that promising future you’ve always dreamed of (and, no doubt, the one everyone *expects* you to have)?

Let me ask you something else: if you had an entire year to do anything you want, with unlimited time, no expectations, no SATs or class ranks or gossip or student club presidencies to get in the way… what would you do? Let’s just pretend that after you graduate, instead of just returning to school in the fall, you finally get to work on that dream project, tinker in that lab, or spend a year overseas (all expenses paid) teaching something you know and learning everything you never knew all at the very same time. And you’d wake up every day knowing that MIT’s just down the road.

Anthony isn’t the only blogger who took time between high school and MIT. Karen deferred her enrollment at MIT for a year and spent that year in Taiwan

A few years back, the Associated Press has a nice story about “gap years” that was picked up by news organizations across the country. Since three years have passed, you’ll have to visit an archive to read the full story, but I’ve pulled out some choice quotes below for comment.

Many college admissions officers support the idea [of deferring admission for a year or two]. While cautioning that a “gap year” between high school and college isn’t for everyone — and that just goofing off isn’t worthwhile — they say many students who take one return more confident and self-aware. […]

Generally, schools make students submit a proposal beyond “lying on the beach,” but often little more is required. The University of Chicago says it will grant deferrals for almost any reason as long as students don’t apply elsewhere.

“It’s reached the point where a lot of us in admissions are talking about ways to get students to just kind of relax,” said Martha Merrill, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College.

“Gap year” is a bit of a loaded term, I think, with images of British aristocracy vacationing in the south of France coming to mind. But during my years in admissions, I’ve seen students take some time before starting MIT for many great reasons. For example, one of my favorite students spent a year as an EMT in Israel before his freshman year. This gave him a lot of perspective on the world, and when he got his first bad grade at MIT, he knew that it wasn’t a disaster, but rather an indication that he might want to reexamine his study habits and try a little harder next time. No crisis. Ultimately, his impact on MIT and the students around him was great, and his mentorship, with the help of his gap year’s perspective, was invaluable to many students here.

The article also addresses the different kinds of gap years:

Gap years need not be a luxury for the rich. Some students use them to earn money for school. Many programs offer scholarships or compensation for labor; AmeriCorps offers a living allowance and education funding. Reardon says anyone would be hard-pressed during a gap year to spend the $30,000 or more many of them would be paying for college.

I’m not writing to say that all students should take some time off before starting college. But I do think that there is a bit of a stigma about such plans in many areas of the country, a stigma that should be eliminated. The AP writes:

In the United States, however, experts say the increasing stress of college admissions makes parents nervous about any kind of unusual path. “These are families that somehow see this as not part of the grand plan,” said Gail Reardon, who founded a Boston company, Taking Off, that helps students plan gap years. Adds Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania: “Not wanting to break stride is the American way.” […] “I don’t think there’s any rational explanation to just run to college,” [Gerrit Lansing, a student who took a gap year] said. “There’s no reason. It’s just what everyone does.”

Last summer, my friend Shaun over at the blog The International Counselor did a gap year entry, focusing on an extraordinary gap year tale about a future Stanford student:

Parents often worry about kids taking a year off between high school and college. My parents worried when I announced that I was moving to Australia for a year. They feared I would never go to university (I did) nor return home (I did, at least for a time before itchy feet got me moving). Taking a gap year is a wonderful opportunity to focus on something important to you. Take Samantha Larson. Stanford happily deferred her admission for a year. Her plan: Climb Chomolungma also known as Mt. Everest. And she did. Not only that. She became the youngest person to completed the seven summits challenge–summiting the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

From my years in admissions, the overwhelming sentiment from students who have taken a gap year has been:

No one ever regrets having taken a gap year, but plenty of people regret not having taken one.

The bottom line here is that it is okay to slow down. Life, college, career — it’s not a race. Feel free to write me if you need more information about taking a gap year, I’m happy to help.

32 responses to “On taking a ‘Gap Year’”

  1. Eirik says:

    That’s what I’m doing right now! Because of military service, I really don’t have a choice…

    But if I have taken two gap years PRIOR to applying to college, will this hurt me at MiT or somewhere else? Or do you still consider it “okay” as long as I can throw up a list of what I’ve been doing…?

  2. Edan says:

    I was thinking of doing it and traveling around the world, but i dont know if its right for me… hmm how to decide?!

  3. durgesh says:

    Gap year sounds good. But in reality education is a contineu process to achieve certain goals. Taking a break will make that process harder to achive. It is always work hard and then play.

  4. Vicky '12 says:

    That’s not necessarily true. I’m on a gap year right now actually; I deferred last year. You’re right, durgesh, education IS a continuous process, but it’s one that can continue and even benefit from being taken outside of a traditional classroom. I’ve spend my gap year traveling, volunteering, working, getting a pilot’s license, etc., and I have learned so many very valuable things that I would never have learned in a classroom.

  5. Sh1fty says:

    I was thinking about taking a gap year, since there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do and see before college. Thanks to the rejection I don’t even have to click “defer enrollment” :D I plan to travel around Europe by train (InterRail) during summer, go back to Boston in November for the interview and a couple more things and then spend the rest of the time working on all the projects I didn’t have the time to do and working on my father’s company’s computer systems. Does that sound like a good plan?

  6. Paul Hoops says:

    Oh, Snively! You’re off the front page. Great job, Matt McGann, you’ve completed moneyman’s plan.

  7. Laura says:

    *is one of those people who regret not taking a gap year*

    But I do plan to take some kind of gap something between college and the real world. =P

  8. dot dot dot says:

    I don’t believe that deffering is a good idea! To me, I can’t live without knowldge that even in summer vacations I end up preparing for the next year! I woinder how one can’t live without continuous learning! One becomes lazy, wakes up late, sleeps late, and does everything out of order! So no, I am not deffering

  9. Anonymous says:

    If an accepted student chooses a gap year before enrolling, does it open a seat for a waitlisted applicant?

  10. Anonymous says:

    How many students deferred enrollment until the fall of 2008?

  11. leah says:

    im already on kind of a ‘gap semester’ cuz i graduated in feb(i live overseas). im doing volunteer work/religious service, and im definately learning alot. i wouldnt want to take another gap year though cuz im already a year behind(due to transitioning between school systems), and im honestly looking forward to getting out of this country.

  12. Sceth says:

    @dot dot dot:
    That is certainly something to consider, but it uses a bunch of questionable premises.

    Although I was rejected by MIT [die-hard fan], I can certainly say my gap year was/is both hectic and educational. A primary “new thing” to me was learning how to teach on-the-job; I save the earnings and negotiated piano lessons with a contact. Pro bono here, pro bono there: it is a decent way to network.
    As for learning, just do spend about 30 hours looking and you can easily find vast expanses of on-line books on everything from Supersymmetry [Grisaru, Gates et al.] to a Cambridge textbook on Fractal Geometry [Kenneth Falconer]. Needless to say, it can take you weeks or months to master those high-level texts. When I started my gap I used a lot of the MIT OCW.
    Laziness depends on the person. A former associate, who received a prestigious scholarship, took a gap year on a couch. He ended up at a local university. I spent my gap year occupied with reports, curricula and other professional commitments and will be going to Stanford [I’ll see MIT for grad]. I admit my underlying motivation was, and remains, redeeming my soul at the coming math olympiad. So, in summary, if you already have a plan the year it works fine. And that last confession at least suggests that a driving zeal is important.

    So as said, it is not regretted. It was educational [in the conventional sense, too – local colleges didn’t mind having me on campus for a while], stimulating, of lasting effect, organizing and fine-tuning if you want it to be.

    [I think I have over-reacted to your post. (8k ..]

  13. Cat '12 says:

    It seems to me that this entry was intended for US citizens only… so, do you reckon International Students should take a gap year? What are the pros and the cons for them to do so?

    I seriously have been considering a gap year for really long, no matter where I would end up. But my don’t want me to, and one of their arguments is that gap year is only good for US citizens.

  14. madmatt says:

    A couple quick answers…

    @Cat: I’m sorry that some of this was more geared to an American audience. I think that Gap Years can be good for some portion of all of our students, foreign and domestic, though in my experience Americans need more convincing — hence, the entry was somewhat more targetted to the American audience.

    I think that largely, the pros and cons of a gap year are the same for American and international students. Much of this decision is based on the specific context of the student and the family, and it is a great option for some, and perhaps not as good for others. So, while I don’t know to what extent a gap year is your best option, I do reject the notion that “gap year is only good for US citizens.” If I can help, please let me know!

    @Eirik: I wouldn’t worry. For places where military service is required (and even where it isn’t), we admit students both prior to and at the tail end of that service. So, it’s more than okay — we totally understand, no worries.

  15. GREAT post Matt.
    My son may be taking a gap year. At first he was ok with it but after THINKING about it more, he now sees alot of positives that can come from this experience.

    @ class of 2012: As Matt has said, THINK about it.

  16. Thomas says:

    Question to my MIT’12 classmates:

    What are some/any “NON-SELF-SERVING” reasons to NOT take a gap year?

  17. sarah says:

    is it possible to take a gap year between years at MIT? (e.g. between sophomore and junior years)

  18. Vicky '12 says:

    @ Thomas: yes you get to start sooner, and that was a thought that I had when deciding whether or not to take a gap year, but if you take a year to travel and learn more about real life outside of school, you get a better sense of WHY it is that you’re doing what you’re doing in school, and a broader perspective of how you can “[contribute, support, represent, and strengthen] MIT’s mission to the world”.

  19. Well, certainly an interesting proposition… I don’t know if I would trust myself not to get complacent over a year without school! But still, to travel, to learn a language, to volunteer a little… Most interesting.

  20. madmatt says:

    @sarah: yes, some people do take time off between years at MIT. The two most common reasons that I’m aware of (in no order) are: 1) LDS students serving a mission, and 2) students pursuing an exciting startup company opportunity, or other very exciting employment.

    Let me know if I can tell you more…

  21. Piper '11 says:

    Matt – how do gap years work once your in college? I didn’t take one before coming here, but I hear it might not be the best idea to take a break within college…

  22. Thomas says:

    For all of you who don’t take a gap year then you get to start sooner….
    contributing, supporting, representing and strengthening MIT’s mission to the world.

    “nicht schlecht”

  23. Cat '12 says:

    Oops… above I meant “my parents don’t want me to”… sorry smile

    Thanks Matt for replying smile I’m absolutely sure that I want to take a gap year, but my reasons are mostly internal, and my parents don’t understand that. They care about me being in the right school year at the right age… and that’s not to say I’m already one year behind (according to Vietnam’s system). And they seem to stay unconvinced… so that’s my main problem right now… =(

    But I’m happy however it turns out. I have been really excited about MIT, so going there next year won’t make me less happy. But I just feel like I will end up being one of those “regret not having taken [a gap year]”.

  24. Alice says:

    I know why some girls might not want to take a gap year: If they want to have children AND pursue an education intensive career, like doctor or professor they will want to be done with their schooling and start working before they’re 35…

  25. ..... says:

    I got rejected.. i now wish to take a gap year without enrolling in any college and try again next year for MIT. Is dat allowed? Has anyone who has been rejected once admitted in the second instance?? i am an international student.

  26. sarah says:

    Matt – Thanks for the reply!

    I’m kind of considering a gap year (to study piano), but I really don’t like the number 2013. I would much rather graduate in 2012…such a pretty number…I’m so OCD…

    Is there by any chance a study abroad program for music?

  27. Piper '11 says:

    Haha Sarah, I’m like that too. Except I like the number 2013 – I thought reg school + vet school = 6yrs, making me the class of 2013. But alas, interests change, and I’m in until 2015. But I like 2015 too because it’s my birthday (2/15). BUT if I take a gap year to go abroad as I would like, that would mean graduating in 2016. Which I guess is pretty.

    Umm, I should go to bed.

  28. rusty says:

    I got rejected at MIT as well… I was nonetheless accepted at another fine LAC with an amazing FA package.. I really cant wait to go to college, but I’m starting to seriously consider taking a “gap year”. Well in my case it wouldn’t really be a gap year because I will still be going to school ( I’m a junior ). So the continues process will continue (lol) but at a much slower pace (without worrying about SAT, essays and interviews). Of course I will keep my grades up but I will have time for everything I always wanted to do.

    Opinions appreciated smile

  29. rusty says:

    *comments appreciated smile

  30. dot dot dot says:


    Yes you have over-reacted! I think it depends n the individual and the area. As for you, you could do all these thigns. To me and in my area, I don’t have the opportunity to do a research or such activities. That’s why I look at ait negatively

  31. theylee says:

    I got rejected from Berkeley and the 2 other schools I got into aren’t to my fancy. I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet- All I want to do is learn. Do you advise a gap year for me and then reapplying to Berkeley?

  32. Karl says:

    If you haven’t seen The Gap-Year Advantage yet, take a look: my wife, Rae Nelson and I, wrote it as a result of our youngest taking 2 gap years before college–he’s now at Evergreen State College in WA. We are currently working on our second book on the subject for Harvard University Press and have found great support for gap years among colleges (e.g., deferral policies in particular), students’ improving their perspective, skills, and becoming more serious about their studies, etc. Our first book contains some good pointers, gleaned from talking with gappers and their parents, so take a look, it should help answer some of the questions posed here.