How should students frame their gap year on the college application?
Implicit in this question is that you did not defer for a year to gap year *after* you were already accepted to college. Some students may imagine the college admissions staff rephrasing the question as this:
"Why didn't you apply to college during your senior year of high school?"
And it is a fair question.
Colleges and universities want to know what your experience has been since you left formal education (i.e., high school), be it one year ago or ten years ago. For those students taking time off before entering college, it is imperative that you are able to speak fluently and meaningfully about your post-high school life experiences.
The most important thing to hear is "meaningful." I disagree with another counselor who had written that you should not work during a gap year. But if your financial situation has dictated that you were not able to afford college--or more importantly the college that you wanted to attend--then work can be a meaningful and necessary experience. For those students fortunate enough to be able to participate in a structured gap year program (which sometimes carry a significant cost), it is important to create a meaningful narrative of the experiences you had on your journey. If you volunteered during your gap year, ask yourself how you can create the narrative of the time, energy, and heart you committed to the service of others.
Do not expect that the academic "credit" you may earn during your gap year experience will overshadow four years of crummy grades (which we hope you don't have) in the eyes of the admissions department. It will not. Instead, focus on how you became more connected to the people of your community (whether here or abroad), and how you grew from the experience of having a year away from formal education. If you needed a break from formal education, it is perfectly okay to say so--but be sure to frame it in a light that endows value upon your gap year experience, and how it has prepared you for the coming four years of higher education.