What is a Gap Year (and Why Should You Consider Learning Outside of the Classroom)?

Molly Steckler
12/18/2020
group of people hiking through mountains

The mundane thought of graduating high school, going to college, and starting a career may leave little room for you to really discover yourself. Maybe you feel you need a break from formal education. Time off could help you discover new things about yourself and feel more confident about your future.

Is time off even possible? It is. It’s called a gap year, and it can be very appealing to students who desperately need a break from the classroom.

What Is a Gap Year?

Some students may choose to take a semester or a year off school. This is often referred to as a gap year. Students typically take a gap year after graduating from high school and before starting a college education or career.

The idea of a gap year may appeal to you if you desire a break from academics and the classroom environment. This break will allow you to learn more about yourself and to gain a better sense of what kind of education and career you want.

The time off is meant to be a time to participate in alternative learning experiences like volunteering, traveling, interning, developing new skills, or doing paid work.


person taking photo of eiffel tower 

Why Take a Gap Year?

There are many reasons why students consider taking a gap year. The gap has several appeals of self-growth and gaining clarity of intentions for the future.

Growing Popularity

A gap year might be more common in Australia and some European countries like England, but it is gaining more popularity in the U.S. (more recently because of the coronavirus pandemic).

Some schools even encourage students to take a gap year and allow accepted applicants to defer their admissions for a year to do so.


For Example

 

Princeton University offers a program called the Novogratz Bridge Year Program. Offered to incoming undergraduates, this allows students to enroll in a nine-month, tuition-free service program before beginning their formal education at the university.


A Break from the Pressures of School

Many students face mounting pressure in high school to succeed in academics and extracurricular activities in order to have a chance at acceptance in desirable colleges. Some students may feel burnt out after years of pressure.

A much-needed break can allow you to relax and feel more motivated to tackle your college courses when you return. In fact, the Gap Year Association reports 90% of students who take a structured gap year are more likely to graduate on time and get better grades.

Learn More About You

In the Gap Year Association National Alumni Survey, 98% of participants said their gap year “allowed [them] more time for personal reflection.” Experiences like volunteering, traveling, and interning can teach individuals a lot about themselves.

Many participants in this survey reported finding clarity in their future goals and personal development in themselves during their time away from formal education.

A gap year could be a great opportunity if you want (or need) to focus more on yourself and be more confident when pursuing your college education or career.

Build Up Your Resume or College Application

A gap year can be an opportunity to beef up your college application or resume. If you didn’t get into the college programs you wanted, you can spend your gap year gaining valuable skills and experience that could improve your chances when re-applying.

Alternative educational experiences and internships can also look great on a resume. A year traveling and learning a new language, working as an intern, or volunteering for an organization could help you stand out when applying to future internships or jobs. In fact, a Gap Year Association survey found that 75% of participants believed taking a gap year helped them get a job.

Earn Money to Pay for School

Sometimes, a gap year isn’t your choice. A gap year might be the best option if you cannot afford to attend college right after graduating from high school.

Taking a year off from school to earn money can not only help to build valuable skills but also help you become more financially able to pursue a college education.


people riding on camels 

Will a Gap Year Affect My College Admissions?

You may be concerned that delaying college could affect your college admissions process. However, a gap year could actually boost your chances of getting into the program you want.

There are three ways to approach a gap year. You can:

  • Gain acceptance into a college or university and defer your admission for a semester or a year. Some schools allow students to defer their admissions for a gap year, but some may not. Speak to your school’s admissions office as soon as possible to gain a better understanding of your options.

  • Wait until the end of your gap year to apply to colleges. You may want to wait to apply to universities until the end of your gap year if your desired school doesn’t allow deferred admissions.

  • Re-apply to college programs that did not previously accept you. If you weren’t accepted into your desired program, you can re-apply in hopes that you might have a better chance of getting in after your gap year experience.

Why NOT Take a Gap Year?

A gap year can be an enjoyable learning experience for some people, but it isn’t for everyone. Committing to a gap year requires self-discipline during this time off. Those who are unfocused and aimless during their gap year could end up wasting their time that would have been better spent in their first year of college.

Gap year programs and international travel can also be expensive for those who wish to experience a gap year in this way.

Additionally, there can be some difficulty when transitioning back into school. Taking a year off from school can make some students feel out of practice and feel as though they’ve reverted into their old selves after months of freedom and exploration.

Consider the pros and cons of taking a gap year before deciding if it would be best for you.

An Independent Experience vs Gap Year Programs

There are two popular ways of structuring a gap year. You may choose to plan out your own independent gap year experience with a combination of internships, traveling, and skills development.

Or you may prefer the structure of a gap year program with a pre-set itinerary that does all the planning for you. 

Independent Experience

An independent experience is ideal for those who are more disciplined. This experience allows for more fluidity in how you spend your year.

You may choose to do two or three internships or apprenticeships to help build your skills in your desired career field and beef up your resume. You might also work or intern during part of the year and spend time traveling too.

This style of gap year allows you to craft your experience around your own needs. Though you don’t need to map out every single day, establishing a clear guide can help you stay focused and accountable during your time off from school.

Use a gap year planning guide to help you plan out your gap year experience.


Gap Year Ideas for Your Independent Experience

There are several popular ways for students to spend their gap year. You can choose to focus on one style or alternate between types throughout the year.

Travel

Traveling abroad is a popular way to spend a gap year or gap semester. The opportunity to travel the world and experience different cultures is a major part of the appeal for those needing a break from the classroom.

Many gap year programs feature opportunities to travel abroad, but you may prefer to create a plan on your own terms.  Make of a list of destinations you want to visit, but also consider outside-the-box locations. Discovering new places and cultures that are a bit more off the beaten path could mean more opportunities for growth and learning.

Traveling can be a more expensive way to spend your gap year. Consider working for a few months before traveling or working while abroad to help cover travel costs.


PRO TIP! Create a travel itinerary before traveling abroad. Decide where you want to go and how long you want to stay in each destination. You might have to adjust along the way, but a schedule will help you stay focused on your goals for your time abroad (and help you stay within budget).


Traveling internationally for the first time? Check out this 11-step guide to help you plan your trip.  


Intern

Some students struggle to manage an internship or apprenticeship while in school. Some students may choose to do an internship or apprenticeship during their gap year when they have more time to dedicate to the job.

Gain valuable real-world experience before starting college and get hands-on training before launching into a career. Internships can help boost your resume when applying for future internships during college and careers after college.

They can also help you decide if a particular career path is right for you. Whatever your gap year intentions may be, you can learn a lot about yourself and what you want your future to look like through internship experience.


PRO TIP! Start researching and applying for internships as soon as possible. Though the interview process usually starts 1-3 months before the job, some companies may start 6-8 months before.


Volunteer

You may decide to dedicate your gap year to volunteering. Those who like the idea of traveling abroad to volunteer and having a set schedule can consider a gap year volunteer program. Visit International Volunteer HQ to find a volunteer program that aligns with your interests.

You can also have a little more freedom and volunteer on your own terms. Seek out organizations you really care about to see if they are open to accepting volunteers. You can also create your own opportunities and come up with unique ways to serve your local community. 

Take inspiration from others who have created their own community service projects. Use the “Planning Your Community Service Project” guide developed by 4-H Community Service to help you get started.

Develop Skills

Consider your intentions for your gap year. How do you plan to learn and grow? You could achieve your goals by focusing on a particular skill you’ve always wanted to master during your gap year. 

Some of the common skills people will focus on are:

  • Language – Pour yourself into a language learning program or travel abroad to immerse yourself in a new language and culture.

Learn how to travel to a country without knowing the language to prepare yourself for your language and cultural immersion experience.


  • Outdoor and Equestrian Skills – Participate in an outdoor program that will teach you valuable survival and problem-solving skills or create your own program for learning and practicing outdoor skills and activities.

  • Personal Development and Leadership – Consider a gap year program that allows you to work on yourself or your leadership skills. These are often best done through programs, but you can create your own by reading, researching, and practicing these skills. You could even spend your time coaching a sports team or teaching to develop your leadership skills.

  • Entrepreneurial Skills – Those with a passion for creating their own business can spend their gap year putting their ideas into action. Talk to mentors in your desired field and take the leap of faith in starting a business.

PRO TIP! Consider following a program or seeking out guidance from a mentor to help you stay accountable if you decide to dedicate your time to learning a new skill.


man in hoodie holding black metal near white socket 

Paid Work

A gap year isn’t always a choice. You might need to take a gap year in order to save up to pursue a college education. Though the opportunity may not be a choice, you can find value in working hard now in order to get the education you really want.

Spend this time working to build up your finances and become more financially literate. Any work experience during your gap year could provide significant value in building important workplace skills and connections.


PRO TIP! Consider using this time to search for more scholarships or grants for college too. Many outside organizations are willing to support students seeking higher education only if they take the time to look for them.


Gap Year Programs

There are many programs dedicated to assisting students in planning their gap year experience. Some include volunteer opportunities or language immersion programs.

Most programs allow students to travel internationally and may be ideal for those who are nervous about traveling abroad for the first time.

However, there is a cost that comes with most of these programs, especially those that provide skills training and workshops for participants.


Top Gap Year Programs

There are many global organizations that provide gap year experiences. Consider these reputable organizations and their unique gap year programs when deciding what to do during your gap year.

Year On

Year On is a program that provides both year-long and semester long programs to students. Participants volunteer in Hawaii, Florida, or Montana followed by 10 weeks of skill building in San Francisco, and 12 weeks of an independent project or internship. They have the opportunity to learn new skills and habits (like public speaking, networking, and finance management) and to work on real-world projects for personal growth in order to be more prepared for college.

The program costs $24,000 for the eight-month program or $7,995 for the 15-week program. These costs cover accommodations and some meals during the trip.

High Mountain Institute

This program allows students to explore Patagonia and the American West while building outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental awareness.

The program cost is $33,150 for a semester and offers scholarships and financial aid to eligible participants.

Warriors Academy

Warriors Academy describes its program as an experiential education and personal development course. It is made up of four total quests that combine activities, supportive tasks, fitness, critical thinking, volunteering, and workshops.

Participants can explore South Africa, Mozambique, or Swaziland during their trip. This program is ideal for those wishing to pursue a career in adventure training, adventure tourism, or outdoor activities.

Amigos De las Americas

This program is a cultural immersion, language learning, volunteering, and community engagement program in Ecuador and Uruguay.

The program costs $13,475, and participants may seek need-based financial aid to help cover costs.

CIEE Gap Year Abroad

CIEE provides several short-term programs across 15 international destinations. The programs focus on language learning, service, or internships.

CIEE gap year programs typically cost less than $5,000 and scholarships are available.


person laying down cement

 

How Much Will It Cost?

Money is an important factor when considering your options for a gap year. Gap year programs tend to be more expensive, but they can provide valuable skills and opportunities while keeping you accountable.

Traveling can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want. Most high tourist locations tend to be pricier while lesser known locations might be more within your budget.

Create a budget before deciding on your gap year plans to help you stay within your means. You might consider working for several months before traveling or doing a gap year program.

Make sure to include these items when considering your gap year budget, and see how to make each one more affordable:

  • Housing & Utilities – Consider staying with family or friends during your gap year experience to help keep housing costs down. You can also look into more affordable accommodations like living with roommates or staying in hostels.

  • Transportation – Know the most affordable commuting options, like public transportation or carpooling. Consider other more affordable long-distance travel options like trains or busses.

  • Food and Necessities – These can be hard to calculate but estimate how much you currently spend and the average cost of food items in your desired destination. Consider frequent grocery stops to keep you from spending too much money at restaurants and cafes.

  • Program / Education Expenses – Those participating in a gap year program or building skills should factor in the costs of those programs in their budget. You might need to factor in costs for museums or attractions you may visit while traveling too. See if you can get a museum pass or other memberships to places you plan to visit frequently.

  • Travel Health Insurance – Make sure you consider purchasing a travel health insurance plan if you will be traveling abroad during your gap year. Your regular health insurance may not cover you outside of your home country. Travel health insurance can provide coverage for some travel-related expenses as well as unexpected injury or illness.

Some programs provide travel health insurance in the program package. However, you may want to purchase a plan like Atlas Travel if your program doesn’t provide coverage or you are traveling independently. 


How to Plan a Gap Year

It may seem like a big project to plan out an entire year. Take your planning seriously so you can leave your gap year proud of what you have accomplished. It may be easier to split your gap year into months or weeks and plan each one individually.

Step 1: Create a Clear Purpose

A purpose can make or break your gap year experience. The last thing you want to do is waste your time after putting off a college education for a year.

A purpose will guide you in planning your entire experience. The Gap Year Association recommends considering these four statements to help you find your purpose:

  • That which you love
  • That which the world needs
  • That which you can be paid for
  • That which you are good at

After choosing your purpose, you can begin to consider ways to achieve your goal.

Step 2: Consider Your Options and Do Research

Taking an entire semester or year off school to pursue a passion requires a significant amount of research and planning. This is a very important step in your gap year planning process.

Begin to research companies you would be interested in working for, programs you could participate in, places you wish to travel, or skills you want to build.

Consider talking to friends or family who have taken a gap year or had a similar experience. Meeting up with someone to talk about the highs and lows of their experience can give you needed insight to help you decide how to spend your time.

Create a complete list of ideas and details or steps for accomplishing each idea before making a final decision. 

Step 3: Create a Plan-of-Action

This step can vary based on your ideas for how to spend your gap year. Those participating in a gap year program have most of the work done for them through the program. You should still decide what you plan to do before or after the program ends.

Those creating independent programs will need to dedicate more time to this. Stay motivated by creating a plan specific to your desires and needs for your gap year.

Imagine creating your plan-of-action like a college professor would create a syllabus. Decide how each week is going to look, what your goals are, and what checkpoints you should be hitting during your gap year.

 

For Example

Let’s say your gap year goals are to do a paid internship for six months and then travel for the remaining months while learning French. You could start by setting weekly goals to apply for a certain number of internships and check in with people who work in the industries that interest you.

Once you’ve accepted an internship, continue to set goals for yourself to accomplish through your work. Maybe you want to learn a new software that you have access to while working for a company, or you want to read three educational blogs on relevant topics per week. Check in with these goals (and your boss) each week.

Toward the end of the internship, schedule a meeting with your boss and other co-workers you look up to for any last-minute advice and assurance that you are ending your internship on good terms.

You’ll also need to create an itinerary for your travel plans for the following months. Maybe you want to ensure you visit several countries where French is the most widely spoken language in order to practice your French. Determine which countries you’ll visit and when, how many days you’ll spend in each, how you’ll get from one place to another, where you’ll stay, what activities you’ll partake in, and how much money you’ll need to make it happen.

In your itinerary, you may also want to include time to work through an online French learning program or a French language textbook each week.

PRO TIP! Consider keeping a journal to keep track of places you’ve visited, interesting things you’ve learned, and new language skills you’ve gained. 

When your gap year comes to an end, you can look back at all the skills you built during your time. This meticulous tracking can help when writing college application essays, speaking with recruiters, and adding experience to your resume.

Use a gap year planning guide to help you plan out your goals and activities during your time off from school.

 

Step 4: Execute the Plan

Your last step is to just do it. It can be scary for some people to step away from formal education for a year, but it can also be a life-changing opportunity. Stick to your gap year plan, but also be willing to adapt to situations that may arise.

Most importantly, ensure that you are staying on track with your gap year purpose. Write it on a sticky note and put it on your mirror, keep it at the top of your travel journal, or do whatever you can to remind yourself of the purpose of your gap year.

This will help you stay focused and come out of your gap year with a greater understanding of yourself and what you want your future to look like.


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