Gap Year After Dismissal Parent Guide: Expert

Many parents’ first reaction is to want their child to take time off when they have not done well in college. I routinely receive questions about taking a gap year, and in many cases it is because their student was placed on academic suspension or dismissal. In my work to help students reach graduation, I’ve seen good and bad uses of the “gap year” option. Since I am both an academic intervention and higher education professional, I can see there are pros and cons to time away. The bottom line is that a gap year, or any “gap time” even less than a year, must be relevant in some way to finishing college. If the ultimate goal is for the student to return graduate, this time away will be critical to their later success. A gap year should never be a knee-jerk reaction to a student being suspended or dismissed, since what they do during that time may determine whether can ultimately graduate.

Definition Of A Gap Year

Students and parents use the term “gap year” quite freely, but this is not a formal college term. The higher education system in the US has no formal designation that a student is on a gap year – they refer to time off in other ways. For example, a student may defer enrollment for a year as a freshman, or they may take a leave of absencebut there is no official “gap year” status. For higher education a student is either enrolled in classes or they are not, and they are part of a student body or not. If they want to spend time away from their school they may need to file for a special status to explain why they are not taking classes. Academic suspension and dismissal are status types that colleges use, which usually result from poor grades. But by definition neither is a gap year, even if students or parents portray it that way. But both hold a number of implications if the student wants to return to their college pathway.

Some of the key considerations for a gap year, or even a semester away from the four-year college system include:

Skills Atrophy Outside Of The Classroom

Each fall after summer vacation, K-12 teachers and college Professors both see the same thing: Skills weaken and good habits fall away when students have been out of the classroom. Just like any other type of skill, college-level academic ability can weaken due to a lack of practice. For a gap year or semester away from college this is especially true. The levels of challenge and engagement brought by the college environment are not easily replicated. Some parents I’ve spoken with enrolled their student in semester off gap programs that said they were “just like college.” But too often they are not, as “Amy” describes.

“Hi Jeff,

Our daughter fits the profile of many of your students: straight As in high school, entered a highly competitive college this past September and became overwhelmed – she confessed to us over break that she was failing. This took a lot of courage on her part. We underestimated the effects the first year shift to college. She has been approved for medical leave from her school and now my husband and I want to make sure she is taking the next best steps: we applied to gap semester programs, specifically language immersion. But after she tried one she said: “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to work hard.” Our daughter truly wants to succeed.


Many parents have told me over the years about “semester off” programs that purport to offer college-level experiences, but in reality they do not. It is impossible to replicate all of the factors needed to sufficiently mimic the challenging college environment. I’ve written many times that college success is a multi-factorial process, it’s never just one thing to master. Being self-directed, complete tasks without supervision, and dealing with large volumes of work are equally important to academic ability. No semester off program could replicate a college setting to a sufficient degree for students to learn all of the skills needed. Intervention must take place while the student is actually taking college courses to be effective, since this is when the problems will emerge. The bottom line is that special gap programs are not an intervention that will bring success after academic suspension or dismissal.

A Gap Year Doesn’t Necessarily “Increase Maturity”

Another idea I’ve encountered when a student is placed on academic suspension or dismissal is that time off will “increase maturity.” Maturity suggests responsibility, reliability, and a sufficient level of initiative for a person to achieve their goals. However, taking a gap year after suspension or dismissal is no guarantee of increasing maturity. In fact, in many cases I’ve seen the situation just become worse without intervention. Being forced to take time off can hurt a student’s confidence, motivation for college, and even the relationship with their parents. “Marlene” describes her concerns about this, and some issues that a gap year won’t solve.

“Ours is like many of the situations you’ve probably heard before- My son comes from a high achieving family and did excellent in HS but has failed out of a large college in Texas and has been suspended. He has not told me or his father. He told his sister he is embarrassed and she told us. My family tells me we have to bring him home and put him to work. I don’t know if I should intervene at the risk of having him push me away–but I fear for his mental health. It’s hard-especially because he is male and he has a lot of nephews and nieces who look up to him. Lots of pressure, but the college was not there to support him. He was immature, he should have taken a GAP year, but it’s 4 years later and now I don’t know what to do.


Marlene mentions she felt that a gap year might have increased her son’s maturity, and therefore performance in college. But, it’s never that simple. College success is a multi-factorial process, there is never one single issue that causes problems. Choice of college is a one factor, and data shows that young men at large public colleges tend to struggle the most. Too often students do well in high school with little effort, only to realize they must now work hard. They find themselves at a big school with a tough major, falling behind because of skills they never learned. Once their grades fall it hurts their confidence and self-esteem, and formerly high achievers in high school can take it especially hard.

She also mentions that she’s now worried about her son’s mental health. Many students will seek therapy from their school due to the impact of being placed on academic suspension or dismissal. But keep in mind that colleges are not treatment institutions, and counseling they offer may be limited to a handful of meetings per term. The underlying factors, including choice of college and major, skills, and other issues must be addressed for such a situation to improve. A gap year off or efforts at “increasing maturity” will not magically cause a student to succeed. Only comprehensive higher education intervention will bring sustainable results.

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Students Can Make Mistakes Without Proper Support

When a student takes gap time, whether for suspension or other reasons, they don’t have the benefit of having a four-year college Advisor. Many of the questions I receive from students are because of this – they typically don’t know the rules of higher education. If a student must take time off due to academic suspension or dismissal, this should be a warning for parents that it’s time to seek professional help. Having supported gap time can not only be critical for a student’s ultimate success, it can prevent problems as well. Letting the student take the lead by themselves can make their situation worse. Too often they can act on partial or erroneous information in the absence of proper guidance.

“Erik” describes his self-led gap year thinking, which illustrates why students should not be left without support.

“Hi Jeff,

I’ve just read your article on applying to college as either as a transfer student or a freshman. My situation is somewhat of an anomaly, I graduated high school in three years. I decided with my family that I would take a “gap year” with some community college courses to help me decide what I’d like to study. Taking classes this upcoming year at my community college is by no means a way to obtain credits for me, rather a way to gain experience in different areas of study I might be interested in.

I therefore decided that I’d apply as a freshman student to four-year schools for this upcoming year, as my course load at the community college wouldn’t satisfy the transfer requirements at most colleges. This brings me to my question. Would I be fine applying as a freshman student? I’m in no way looking for a “fresh” start, rather an initial start. Again, this upcoming year for me is more of a gap year of exploration. It will be wonderful to talk with you!

-Erik M.”

Erik, as a young student inexperienced with how colleges work, had been left by his parents to chart his own way. He planned his own gap year and concluded on his own that time at a community college would somehow not count. But from the perspective of four-year colleges, Erik was taking fully valid college courses, which by no means is a “gap year.” Courses taken at a community college not only count for credits at a four-year college, but his grades will now be considered for admission. Because he was left on his own to make decisions, Erik inadvertently made himself a transfer student not a freshman applicant, which has other implications. Many colleges accept far fewer transfer applicants, and scholarships can be hard to find beyond freshman year. Erik has now made admissions and securing funding harder for himself because he was left without proper guidance.

He also mentions that he wanted to just “disregard” that he attended the two-year school and apply as a freshman to four-year college. But that isn’t how college works in the US, you can’t just re-start whenever you want. Four-year applications make exceedingly clear that the student must submit a transcript from any post-secondary institution where they were enrolled. Concealing prior attendance is widely consider by colleges to be academic dishonesty, which they take very seriously. The same is true for a student who was placed on academic suspension or dismissal – they cannot simply “reset” by just applying as a freshman. If a student conceals prior attendance at another college, they later risk being dismissed if they are caught. And if they receive institutional or other funds based on a false application, they can even be accused of financial aid fraud. Erik’s mistakes are just one example of why a student should not be left without professional guidance during gap time if they want to later continue.

Gap Time Must Address The Problems

If a student was placed on academic suspension or dismissal, any gap time that they spend away from college must be productive if they want to return. Many times I’ve seen students say they want to work for a semester to take a break, only to drift away from college and never return. Most colleges will also want to know what the student has done during time away to improve their chances of success if allowed to return. Working a low paying job or traveling will not be convincing in a return petition that must show a student can now succeed. Too often parents are unsure of what to do when there is a crisis with their student, so taking gap time becomes an easy way to defer the problem until later. However, this is exactly when intervention should begin since it will take time to address the problems. Time away due to suspension or dismissal is when parents must intervene effectively, rather than arbitrarily try things and hope that they hope will work.

“Veronica’s” situation with her son illustrates the need for parents to not become paralyzed and seek the right kind of help.

“Hi Jeff, I’m glad I found your web site! I thought I would reach out to your regarding our son “Gavin” who is (was) a sophomore at a university in Pittsburgh. He actually has just withdrawn from the school and is coming home tomorrow. Our hearts are broken for him and we are struggling to come up with a plan on what to do next. Judging from what I have read on your site, our story seems like a common refrain, with a few twists. Gavin is a highly “gifted” individual – an IQ in the top 1-2% of the population. But he also has ADHD, sensory issues, anxiety and some depression. He has been on antidepressants for a couple of years, has tried several ADHD meds. He also has been working with therapists for what seems like forever.

But this semester he panicked – stopped going to class, stopped doing his schoolwork, and was failing everything. So as of last week, all we could do was have him withdraw from the school to save his GPA (2.7). So here we are. What next? We have no idea. A job? Volunteering? Gap year travel? We have a middle-range university 20 minutes from our house.

We need to formulate a plan. I just wanted to get it all out there to see if you had any thoughts on what you could do to help. Thanks, Veronica”

I scheduled a phone call with Veronica and her husband, who added further details. She was right in believing a plan is needed to address the issues that led her son to the point where he was failing all of his classes. Veronica’s swift action to withdraw Gavin prevented a certain academic suspension or even dismissal if his GPA would have fallen too low. An outsider might believe that the emotional issues and ADHD were the causes, but I know from working directly with such students that it usually isn’t the case. At his current school, Gavin was feeling socially isolated, which is counterintuitive to many people since there are so many students on a large campus. Big campus environments can be highly alienating if a student isn’t very outgoing, making social integration difficult. Also, research shows that urban environments tend to be more taxing on attention resources, which make it harder to focus even for those without challenges.

During our phone call Veronica added that Gavin had social anxiety, which indicated that a large school might a poor choice for him. Gavin’s anxiety peaked due the academic strains placed on him, so he began to distract himself with things like video games. While he did well in high school it was basically with little effort, and Veronica felt that he really didn’t have the college-level skills to keep up. Gavin would procrastinate, get anxious, then panic which then caused him to avoid his work all together. To make matters worse, Gavin wasn’t the type to ask for help, which would only hurt him in large classes with difficult to access Professors. There were a composite of problems that her son was facing, all of which indicated that comprehensive intervention covering college choice, skills, and more was needed. A gap year, volunteering, or otherwise putting off the the problems would certainly not help him to eventually graduate.

When Gap Time Can Be Valuable

Parents must keep in mind that college problems tend to repeat themselves, and taking gap time by itself is not an intervention. I’ve seen students fail classes at one school then again at a new one, even after a full year off. The reason is that the problems were never fully addressed, they don’t magically disappear with time away or efforts at increasing maturity. A gap semester or year can be invaluable time to get intervention started for students, and to have it in place for their critical return. Students can’t run from the problems, and parents can’t ignore them, since if left unaddressed they usually happen again. Any gap should be productive in the sense of addressing problems and establishing supports for the student’s return to college.

Parent considerations to maximize the benefit of a gap year or term include:

Receiving Psychotherapy Or Treatment

  • Time away from college – whether by suspension, dismissal, or parental decision – is when the underlying problems should start to be addressed. For example, if a student needs treatment for emotional issues, this is when it can begin. Too often when a student is away from home they don’t seek help, stop psychotherapy, or even fall away from taking their medication. Being stable at the personal and emotional level is needed to support any academic efforts.

Addressing Academic Problems

  • If parents want their student to reach graduation, higher education intervention must also begin. College problems are usually multi-factorial in nature, there is never one single issue. It can be a combination of skills, college choice, disorganization, and many other factors that converge to lead a student to do poorly. Supported re-entry in to higher education must also happen, might even include the community college system. However, since classes there are valid college courses, students will need support to find success. Two-year schools can hold strategic value for earning grades and showing readiness to return. But students can often drift when away from the four-year system, so if they must attend a two-year school it’s important to have a lifeline back. This is where professional intervention for college problems can often serve a key role, offering academic and transitional support back to the four-year college system.

Fulfilling Conditions Of Return Or Re-Admission

  • Understanding the admissions and advising aspects is also critical for helping students who’ve been suspended or dismissed. Besides keeping skills sharp, progressing even part-time in higher education demonstrates what admission departments call “continuity of attendance.” This means that there are no gaps in a students transcript when they were away from a four-year college. Being enrolled in higher education classes during gap time shows not only a commitment to earning a degree, it reflects a student’s ability to overcome obstacles and to make improvements. Many colleges strongly consider this forward progress in re-admission petitions, so being away from formal classes too long can hurt a student’s chances of returning.

Staying Connected To The Four-Year System

  • If a full gap year is taken after suspension or dismissal, students can become out of “sync” with college. They see their friends progressing and graduating, while they are not moving forward at all. Many colleges want students to demonstrate a “readiness to return” after suspension or dismissal, yet many students do nothing to show this. Without support students can get lost and forget how college works. They forget about advising appointments, miss petition deadlines, and forget that course registration opens many months in advance. Students that merely travel during a gap year won’t have access to the critical return supports, which can lead to mistakes and never reaching graduation. In this light, the cadre of enrichment-based semester off programs out there hold little value for students on suspension or dismissal.

In Summary

The need to take a gap year due to academic suspension, dismissal, or by family choice should be a red flag for parents. It signals the need for professional intervention to address the problems that lead to the situation. Taking gap time on its own is not an intervention for college problems, and can even increase the odds of a student not ever graduating. Many parents believe a gap year will increase a student’s maturity, but this not is known solution for bringing academic success. During time away students can feel disconnected from their four-year path and make mistakes without guidance. When students do return, bad grades typically repeat because the core issues were left without intervention. But gap time can be invaluable when it is used for the student to receive treatment, work on rebuilding academic skills, or otherwise find professional help. If it is not, gap time can simply increase the odds of the student drifting away from their path toward graduation.

Questions for Jeff? Use the contact form to send a him message.

Related Articles:

Academic Suspension In College, A Parent Guide

College Problems And The Transfer Trap

Turning A College Failure In To Success

While the reader situations mentioned are real, all names have been changed to protect privacy.