In 2020, 40% of incoming first-year students considered taking a college gap year. Students choosing between college or a gap year benefit from many options: volunteering, working, traveling, or studying abroad.
While most students plan a gap year before college, a growing number choose to take a gap year during or after college. A gap year before college helps high schoolers grow before entering postsecondary school. Taking time off during a degree lets undergrads focus their career goals and take a break from school. A gap year after college provides the opportunity to gain professional experience before graduate school or pursue a once-in-a-lifetime travel goal.
This guide walks through taking a college gap year and offers options, benefits, and tips for making the most of a gap year.
Senior year often feels like a blur for high school students. Making important decisions about where to attend college and what to study can be overwhelming. Gap years allow students valuable time to focus their interests and skills before committing.
2. Better Grades
Many institutions report that students who took a gap year have better GPAs and are more involved. Their time off allowed them to enjoy life before getting down to business at school.
3. Attention-Grabbing Resumes
While an abundance of high school extracurriculars impresses universities, it’s also becoming the norm as admissions become more competitive. Students with gap year experiences are still in the minority, making them stand out to recruiters.
4. More Confidence
Students gain confidence through a gap year. Particularly for untraveled high schoolers, a gap year before college broadens horizons, introduces new cultures, and builds lasting relationships and memories. After a gap year, students return to school more confident in themselves and their interests.
5. New Culture Experience
Studying abroad allows learners to experience unfamiliar places, but it often only lasts a few weeks or months. A gap year allows students to truly immerse themselves in their surroundings.
6. Lasting Memories
Those who complete a gap year rarely regret taking time off to explore, build confidence, learn skills, or make friends. Gap years tend to provide lasting memories and further equip students with skills for success.
Spend Time Traveling
Many students who take a college gap year choose to travel, whether internationally or domestically. Some choose a program or tour to organize their travels, while others design their own itinerary.
Traveling as a student can pose some challenges. While most countries offer tourist visas, they typically expire after a relatively short period. Visitors to Europe can spend up to 90 days on a tourist visa, but they can not work while traveling. Tourists should take care picking up jobs to fund their trips in case those opportunities violate their visa’s terms.
Benefits of spending your gap year traveling
Travel enriches people and broadens their horizons. It offers a great opportunity to learn more about diverse cultures, connect with nature, and practice language skills. A gap year offers significant time to devote to traveling. Spending a college gap year traveling helps undergrads build confidence, make memories, and explore interests.
Gap Year Travel Ideas
Students arrange gap year travels around academic interests, or they visit countries in distant corners of the world. A gap year is perfect for once-in-a-lifetime trips, like climbing Machu Picchu or going on safari in Tanzania.
Tourists can connect with their cultural heritage, explore their religious faith, or learn more about their own country. Surprisingly, the U.S. remains one of the most popular countries to visit during a college gap year.
Top 10 Places to Visit During a Gap Year
According to the American Gap Year Association, Israel and the U.S. rank the highest for gap year travel. Scenic locations like Switzerland, Ecuador, and India follow after that. Other top-ten destinations include Peru, New Zealand, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. Nearly every continent sees representation on the list.
In these diverse locations, tourists experience natural beauty, historic sites, and rich cultural traditions.
Note: This list was compiled from 2020 data and does not reflect current trends. Check for travel advisories and news related to the countries on this list before traveling to them.
2. United States
7. New Zealand
9. Costa Rica
American Gap Year Association
The American Gap Year Association aims to provide a semester of gap year time to every high school graduate. The program connects young adults with gap year opportunities.
Carpe Diem Education
Carpe Diem Education offers experiential education and intercultural exchange in its semester- and year-long programs. The organization emphasizes self-discovery and personal growth.
Dance Gap Year
Dancers build their skills through Dance Gap Year. The program takes participants to New York City, Los Angeles, or international destinations to dance.
Gap Work offers information about gap years and backpacking, including travel destinations, volunteering opportunities, and gap year jobs.
An international travel organization, Oyster Worldwide sends volunteers and paid workers abroad for gap year experiences.
Pacific Discovery takes travelers on experiential journeys. The organization offers gap year programs combining cultural immersion with experiential education.
The Leap connects people with volunteer projects that protect the planet from climate change. These projects combine adventure and social responsibility.
Food pantries, social justice organizations, and low-income housing agencies all rely on volunteers to provide invaluable services to communities. Spending a gap year volunteering lets students give back to their community and make a difference.
Volunteers can contribute locally or travel to international destinations. Some programs sponsor volunteer work, including religious-based programs and independent sponsors like Plan My Gap Year. Students with various skills can find a volunteer opportunity fitting their abilities. Whether building wells or entering data, volunteers make a major difference in countries worldwide.
Volunteers generally do not receive monetary compensation for their work, posing a problem for students saving money for school. Still, some volunteer organizations offer scholarships or grants for college students.
Benefits of spending your gap year volunteering
Volunteers give back to their community and gain valuable experience. Students can travel abroad with several different volunteering organizations. As a result, gap year volunteering offers unique experiences and a sense of fulfillment. Volunteering can also help students focus their career goals and choose a major.
Gap Year Volunteering Ideas
Today’s volunteers benefit from numerous opportunities, both locally and internationally. Volunteers can go abroad with the Peace Corps or join AmeriCorps to work on U.S. projects. Many organizations went virtual during the pandemic, so volunteers can also participate in remote volunteer opportunities. With so many organizations needing volunteers, students can choose where to contribute their time.
Resources for Volunteering Locally
The only federal agency dedicated to community service and volunteerism, AmeriCorps sends volunteers to communities nationwide.
A New York nonprofit, Idealist connects people with volunteer opportunities, including on-site and remote volunteering positions.
Peace Corps participants travel abroad as part of a service trip to improve conditions in underserved regions. Volunteers receive money at the end of their service.
The Federal Interagency Team on Volunteerism maintains Volunteer.gov, which lists opportunities for U.S. volunteers.
Volunteers of America
A nonprofit organization, Volunteers of America connects people with hundreds of volunteering opportunities in areas like housing and healthcare.
Gain Work Experience
Many people choose to work during a gap year before college or a gap year after college. Full-time, part-time, and freelance job opportunities provide students with income and professional experience. Internships also provide valuable experience and help interns build a professional network. Most students gain work experience locally, but some pursue teaching abroad opportunities, volunteer with international organizations, or take jobs in other states.
Students considering work opportunities should weigh their options carefully. A full-time position may garner more money, but a part-time job allows time for other interests. Take note, also, that over 60% of internships offer pay, according to 2019 Chegg data.
Working during a gap year comes with some tradeoffs. Students may feel pressured to keep working rather than continue their education. They might also feel that they missed out on other gap year opportunities like traveling or studying abroad.
Benefits of spending your gap year working
However, working during a gap year offers several benefits. Students can earn money, contribute to their savings, and help cover college costs. Work experience helps learners explore career options and choose a major. Professional experience prior to college or graduate school may even help with post-graduation job searches.
Gap Year Job Ideas
During a gap year, students can work locally or internationally. More remote working options allow people to take on temporary or freelance assignments from home. Freelancing platforms connect gig workers with clients. In addition to freelancing, food delivery services have seen growing demand in the past year. Students can pursue work opportunities as an au pair abroad or international internships.
Internship and Work Resources
Au Pair Jobs Abroad
Au pairs move abroad to care for children. As international nannies, au pairs travel to other countries and work while broadening their horizons.
Chegg lists internship opportunities on its site. In addition to searching for internships, Chegg offers resources and tools to secure positions.
FindSpark helps young professionals identify career opportunities and connect with employers. The site offers tools and resources to make the job hunt easier.
TEFL Paid Internships
i-to-i offers paid TEFL internships for teaching abroad experiences. After completing online training, students receive free accommodations and in-country support to teach English abroad.
A freelancing site, UpWork connects clients with specialists in graphic design, web content, web development, and other in-demand skills.
Students can spend their college gap year participating in study abroad programs. In addition to college-sponsored opportunities, many independent programs offer study abroad trips to countries worldwide.
Learners study abroad to explore ancient history, art, conservation, and environmental science while experiencing a new culture. Many programs offer immersive language study abroad options. Students do not need to stick with their major for a study abroad program. However, check whether program credits will transfer toward a degree.
Spending a full year studying abroad offers an amazing gap year experience. Unfortunately, it can come with a high price tag. Consider saving money to study abroad or researching programs with more affordable rates.
Benefits of spending your gap year studying abroad
A study abroad college gap year offers the best of both worlds: students earn college credits and benefit from international travel. In particular, study abroad programs often build strong language skills. Studying abroad can also help undergraduates focus their interests and choose a major.
Gap Year Study Abroad Ideas
Study abroad opportunities take students to countries worldwide. Whether through a school-sponsored or independent program, students pursue various experiences during a study abroad gap year.
Some programs incorporate language study, either by learning a foreign language or teaching English abroad. Study abroad participants also take courses in history, art, politics, and international relations. Specialized programs may include courses in science, environmental studies, or local area studies.
Top 10 Places to Study Abroad
An Open Doors Report shows that popular study abroad countries for U.S. students include the UK, Italy, and Spain. Outside of Europe, students travel to China, Australia, and Japan. See the full top-ten list below.
The most popular countries offer many experiences, including studying in historic cities and adventuring. Students gain an appreciation for art, culture, and history in these countries.
1. United Kingdom
10. Costa Rica
Study Abroad Resources
Art History Abroad
AHA introduces students to art by studying it internationally. In particular, programs bring students to Italy to learn about art.
Gap Year Language Courses Abroad
The site connects visitors with language programs offered abroad. The database includes nearly 1,500 options with hundreds of participant reviews.
Founded in 1997, GoAbroad provides information about verified international programs. The site includes travel guides, reviews, and scholarship opportunities.
Visitors search for programs offering intern abroad, volunteer abroad, and teach abroad opportunities. The site offers high school, undergraduate, and graduate opportunities.
Covid Pandemic Restrictions
The COVID-19 pandemic placed restrictions on some college gap year options. Traveling abroad became more difficult, as many countries limited entry options to prevent the virus’s spread. Even so, an increased number of students took a gap year starting in Fall 2020. In fact, 40% of incoming college students considered taking a gap year.
Instead of international travel or gap year programs, many students pursued local or remote options. Many organizations relied on volunteers to provide much-needed services during the pandemic. Some employers hired gap year students for diverse roles.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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