It's an increasingly common move for high school seniors, and not just those, like Malia, graduating from elite Washington prep schools.
Joe Palekas worked in a coffee shop in his South Carolina hometown to help pay for a gap year in Morocco, where he studied Arabic before enrolling at American University.
"I figured out generally what I wanted to do, and it just gave me a whole new perspective."
Last year, 33,000 high school seniors took a gap year -- nearly double the number from 2011.
Most students focus on special projects or travel, or enroll in structured programs like one overseen by Carola Weil at American University.
"You don't take a gap year program because you're not qualified for college," Weil said. "This is not a remedial program, it is tough, it is demanding."
The Obamas haven't disclosed how Malia will spend her year. In an interview Monday afternoon with CBS affiliate WKRC, the president sounded like any other dad-- reflecting on how hard it is to say goodbye.
"I'm going to miss her terribly. But she is well-prepared, she is going to do great things, and as Michelle reminds us, our job is to make sure they don't need us anymore."
There could be a simple reason Malia is taking a gap year. Starting college after her family leaves the White House could help her avoid some of the media spectacle that greeted Chelsea Clinton in 1997, when she enrolled at Stanford University while her father was still in office.
But in 2017 President Obama will have been out of office for a year. And the family presumably less in the spotlight.