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CAVEAT: From 1981 through 2000, I only worked with the LSAT and law school admissions. In 2001, I added medical school and allied health professions; and when I joined Quora in 2015, I began learning about other programs from associates. Don't be surprised if you see three times as many answers about law schools as for any other program.

Fifty years ago, when I was finishing high school, the phrase "gap year" didn't exist, because there was no general expectation that high school graduates would attend college. In 1970 marriage at age 18 for girls and 21 for boys (after their two years of military service) was pretty much the norm. Of course, there were certain socioeconomic strata in which it was the norm to be Harvard-bound, and others in which most students left school to start working at age sixteen.  But when college wasn't expected, a phrase like "gap year' was meaningless. 

One can point to changes. The G.I. Bill provided college benefits for military veterans, who were almost exclusively male; and much larger changes in education arrived when being in college provided a young man a draft deferral, keeping him safe from Viet Nam. More women started  attending colleges for three reasons:

  • With men being drafted, women were forced to postpone weddings.
  • With men attending college women could "get a better class of husband" by attending college.  A joking way of saying this is that she was attending college to get her "MRS. degree (and if she couldn't find a husband, at least she could be a teacher).
  • With the rise of the women's liberation movement, the notion that a women might postpone marriage and get an education of her own, for herself, began to take root.

As more people of both sexes expected to attend college, and as Federal Financial Aid made it possible for people to begin college without having to work a few years first, or to attend school at night, in order to afford tuition, there was no necessary reason to postpone college.

As sixteen years of education became the expectation, there began to be segments of the high school community for whom "now, college" wasn't the best answer.

  • Some students wanted to explore -- Europe, or a career as an athlete or musician, or the chance to earn money to buy that car
  • Some students were willing to make their parents happy by going to college, but, lacking the burning desire to read 10,000 more pages in the next four years, wanted a break first
  • Some students with grades too weak to achieve their desired programs wanted an extra year to have a few more A's to offer to the admissions committees.

And thus was the "gap year" born. And that would have been fine; but in the "get ahead" society starting around 1990, the gap year warped from being an alternative to becoming an abnormality to being perceived as a shortcoming.

Most colleges really don't care if you wait a year to enroll, unless there's a reason – academic, medical, disciplinary or criminal – that requires you to defer admissions. And even in those circumstances, a forthright explanation that convinces them that the problem is resolved is sufficient. But there has become such a stigma attached to the concept of "gap year" that there are many more questions than the topic is worth.

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