Long popular in places like the United Kingdom and Australia, gap years have gained traction in America in recent years, with the recent news of first-daughter Malia Obama taking one before starting at Harvard University only heightening interest. So what is a gap year? These experiential breaks allow students to take time off between high school and college to broaden their worldviews, learn new skills, build lifelong memories, and refocus on the next chapter of their academic career. This guide delves into the questions surrounding how, when, and why to take a gap year and provides expert advice for those considering this option.
Emilie Cushman is the co-founder of Kira Talent, an admissions assessment platform for colleges and universities. Cushman founded the company in 2012 at the age of 22 when she participated in The Next 36, a program that provides young entrepreneurs with venture capital and access to CEO mentors. Since launching Kira Talent, Cushman has been named the HSBC Woman Leader of Tomorrow and one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women.
Always looking for the next challenge or thinking in entrepreneurial or free-spirited ways, the independence seeker is constantly looking to squeeze the most out of life. While they know they want to go to college, they are confident it will happen in due course and are open to new experiences before hitting the books. “Life is short, and I want to experience everything I can. I’m young, and college will be there when I’m ready.”
Rather than going straight into college and incurring substantial amounts of debt, the fiscally responsible student would rather work hard for a year to offset the costs of tuition and housing. Whether living with their families or finding economical housing, these students use their gap years making smart financial decisions and saving money for their academic pursuits. “If I buckle down, work hard, and save well for a year, I’ll owe that much less for my education.”
All of their friends are going to college and their parents are keen for them to enroll, yet the academically questioning aren’t sure postsecondary education is the right path for them. Rather than wasting money on something they aren’t passionate about, the academically questioning use their gap year to explore options and figure out the best path for them. “I didn’t really feel passionate about many of the classes I took in high school, so I don’t want to sign up for the financial and academic responsibility of college when I’m not sure it’s the right choice for me.”
Attaining a college education is important, but for the good Samaritan, it’s also essential to take time and help those less fortunate. Individuals with a heart for charitable activities use their gap year to give back to their communities through volunteer opportunities. “I love learning, but I also want to contribute to the greater human good while I’m young and don’t have as many responsibilities to consider.”
After completing their undergraduate degree, students unsure of how to proceed are often torn between continuing into postgraduate studies or moving directly into the workforce. Gap years are beneficial exercises not only because they provide the space to gain clarity; they also allow students to gain real-world practice with newly acquired skills and knowledge. “There are so many options! I don’t want to fall behind while my classmates are climbing the employment ladder, but I also don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to do a higher degree while I’m still in the student mindset.”
The unhurried workers recognize that they’ll likely spend the next few decades working in some form or fashion, and they are in no rush to jump headlong into a career. Rather than racing into a position, these graduates use their gap year to relish their youth, travel, explore interests, and enjoy the world before signing a contract. “Never in my life will I have fewer responsibilities than I do right now. Work will wait, and I’m not in a hurry to commit to the professional world.”
With valuable skills and knowledge gained from their undergraduate career, the volunteer seeks to use their assets to give back to the world. Whether teaching children in developing countries, serving in the Peace Corps, or providing valuable nursing skills in underprivileged areas, these students not only become more compassionate humans, they are also adding notable lines to their resumes. “I know that I’ve gained marketable skills while in college and will be able to get a job, but first I want to use those skills to serve others rather than myself.”
Senior year often feels like a blur for high school students, and making important decisions about where to attend college and what to study can be overwhelming. Gap years allow students valuable time to focus on their interests and skills before committing.
Many institutions report that students who took a gap year have better GPAs and are more involved because their time out of school provided them time to enjoy life before getting down to business at school.
Harvard University has seen a 33 percent increase of accepted students who took a gap year in recent admissions cycles, underscoring the truth that universities – even the Ivy Leagues – don’t disparage students who take time off.
While tons of extracurricular activities at the high school level are impressive to universities, they are also becoming the norm as admissions become more competitive. Students with gap year experiences are still in the minority, making them stick out to recruiters.
Transitioning into postsecondary education directly after high school can induce anxiety in even the most poised students, but those who complete a gap year learn how to adjust to new and unfamiliar surroundings and feel much more confident when it comes time to embark on a college career.
Study abroad trips in college are a great way to experience an unfamiliar place, but often these opportunities last only a few weeks or months, whereas a gap year allows students to truly immerse themselves in their surroundings.
If you speak to others who completed a gap year, very rarely will you hear them say they regretted taking time off to explore, build confidence, learn skills, or make new friends. Gap years tend to provide lasting memories and further equip students with the skills they’ll need to succeed.
The most popular option for students considering time off between school is the travel gap year, and experiences range from a few months to a full year. The following section highlights some of the different options available and provides resources for students to learn more.
Although students in high school may have enjoyed traveling abroad with their families or school, these experiences likely only gave them a taste of a country’s culture rather than being fully immersed. Gap year travel allows a student to dig into a country’s history and customs, adventuring through the area, learning a new language and making friends along the way. Rather than starting college still burnt out from high school, gap year travelers begin refreshed, focused, and with many stories to tell throughout their lives.
Cost-conscious students are able to save money for their future educations while working as fruit pickers in Peru, camp guides in Australia or receptionists in a Brazilian hostel – to name but a few opportunities.
Adventure jobs abound for gap year travelers seeking a bit of excitement during their time abroad. Popular options include working as a skiing teacher, sky-diving instructor, or wilderness guide.
For those looking to give back during their gap year, tens of thousands of volunteer roles are available, ranging from working in a clinic in Cambodia to helping marine biologists preserve underwater species in Australia.
Whether a student aspires to be a teacher or not, teaching English abroad is a great experience for individuals looking to truly dig into their new communities. Opportunities are available in the majority of countries throughout the world.
Students from more than 1,500 colleges and universities have participated in Semester at Sea, an innovative program that allows students to see the world via sea while also gaining college credit.
As the gap year continues to gain traction in America, students considering this option may be wondering about top destinations. Whether you’re looking to teach English in Peru or ensure endangered animals in Thailand are protected, there’s a place for you. Check out the map below to see the 2015 top-20 gap year destinations and the percentage of students who traveled there. These gap year destinations offer countless opportunities to gain knowledge, build skills and have the experience of a lifetime.
Source: American Gap Association National Alumni Survey, 2014-2015
This nonprofit accredits gap year programs and creates standards of excellence for the field.
Whether a recent high school graduate or holding a master’s degree, CI has a range of programs focused on using vocational skills to serve others.
Gap year options range from three to 12 months via carpe diem, with options focused on cultural immersion and service learning.
CCS’s main goal is to provide international gap year opportunities for students looking to step outside their comfort zones.
This organization helps students plan gap years, be they looking for jobs, adventures, or volunteering opportunities.
Through a variety of wilderness excursions, NOLS gap year students learn about leadership, wilderness medicine, risk management, and outdoor skills.
Outward Bound focuses on building skills and developing leaders in a range of locations across the world.
Students can take advantage of opportunities ranging from animal welfare and medical work to childcare and sports coaching in 16 countries via Oyster.
Students seeking a full range of gap year options are drawn to PD, which offers trips related to service learning, wilderness exploring, personal development, and adventure.
Offering excursions to 12 different countries, students can choose from programs lasting several months to a full year.
After a summer or year-long program with TBB, students are equipped with essential skills that serve them well in future educational and professional endeavors.
According to United Way, 2012 saw more than 26 percent of the American population provide nearly eight billion hours of volunteer service, and students made up a significant portion of these figures. Volunteering in local communities is a worthwhile option for students who want to spend a year doing something significant but can’t afford the costs of international travel.
Aside from the obvious benefits of learning about different types of people and feeling good about doing something for others, volunteering opens many doors to success. Students gain new skills through real-world application, connect with professionals in the field, and hold work experience their peers aren’t likely to have.
Organizations such as Second Harvest Food Bank in Nashville, Tennessee offer numerous volunteering options, including reception support, gardening, food sorting, and distributing food. Your community likely has something similar.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is an excellent example of a youth mentoring and tutoring organization operating throughout the country.
The Humane Society of America provides a helpful map of locations for volunteering across America. Gap year volunteers may be tasked with cleaning crates, playing with animals or helping to socialize new arrivals.
Nursing homes tend to be more localized, so students should research these and other care facilities in their area to learn how they can be of service. Some opportunities they may have include playing games, visiting for coffee or tea, helping with transportation, or organizing events for residents.
CNCS provides information about volunteering opportunities in all 50 states.
More than 115,000 organizations post opportunities on idealist, including a large number of volunteer roles.
This government agency provides an exhaustive list of volunteer opportunities for students considering this type of gap year.
This portal is focused on opportunities related to natural and cultural resource preservation.
This 120-year-old nonprofit offers opportunities for students to serve those who cannot care for themselves.
Whether looking to intern in your town or across the world, these opportunities – ranging from a few weeks to a full year – are popular with forward-thinking students who are already considering ways they can stand out from the competition in their academic and professional pursuits.
Internships and work experience can in some ways provide the same clarity and rejuvenation as gap year travel, but the most obvious benefit is gaining work experience and learning new skills. Students are not only more attractive to college admissions panels, but they’ll also be a few steps ahead of other applicants for their first jobs.
Students who intern at nonprofits are often exposed to many different functions of the organization due to small budgets and the requirement of staff to wear many hats. This is a great option for students who aren’t exactly sure what type of work they may enjoy best.
The music industry is an example of a field that often requires individuals to pay their dues as interns before receiving formal offers of employment. By getting a foot in the door before college, they’ll already know important contacts and have some experience.
Students considering corporate or legal roles are often surprised by the high-stress atmospheres and the different formalities of these types of offices. Internships and work experience at a law office or other similar location can help students decide if they can see themselves in this type of environment long-term.
Students seeking internships within creative industries and fields can find opportunities via FS.
This website offers a list of thousands of internship opportunities throughout America.
GapYear provides a list of opportunities to intern abroad.
Students considering teaching English as a foreign language can do so via a paid internship with TEFL.
Whether engaging in an immersive language program in Chile, studying art history in Italy, or developing as a historian in the United Kingdom, programs allowing students to focus on building academic or performance skills – and potentially gaining college credits while doing so – are perennial favorites when it comes to gap years.
Students focused in areas of liberal or performing arts often face steep competition when it comes to both college admissions and finding work after college. By taking a gap year and focusing on further building their skills in these areas without the added pressure of other academic subjects, they are able to hone their knowledge while also standing out to admissions panels and hiring committees.
Options for these types of gap year range in length from a few weeks to a year and may include both group and private lessons. A popular option for students who also want to work is to find an au pair program and take lessons on days off.
The majority of art history gap years are based in Italy, though other options do exist. Whether opting for a six-week intensive, a summer vacation course, or a full year, students are exposed to the glory of art through the ages.
These types of gap years are available both locally and abroad, with some programs even offering the chance to travel to multiple cities and learn about different dance styles and the cultures from which they originated.
AHA specializes in providing tailored gap year experiences for students looking to study art history in a foreign location.
These gap year experiences are perfect for students looking to truly immerse themselves in the culture and everyday life of a new place.
This organization provides a four-city travel experience for students to learn various styles of dance and experience different international locations along the way.
Go Overseas offers a comprehensive list of language immersion programs in many different countries.
TW has programs allowing students to teach art, dance, drama, or music to children in overseas locations.
Instead of asking for the newest iPhone or a cool pair of shoes for graduation, let family and friends know that – if they were thinking about giving you a gift – you would be very grateful for money that can be used toward your gap year experience. Summer jobs are also a great option, especially if you’re able to continue living with your family while working.
The time leading up to high school graduation is often exciting as you may have recently passed your driving test or gotten your first job. New found independence often includes the urge to spend money out with friends, but being frugal now means you can enjoy an incredible experience down the road. Use a free online budgeting program or application to track your spending and set goals for saving money.
Whether you’re just making sure the houseplants are watered or are responsible for walking the family dog, housesitting is a great way to earn easy money and add a line to your resume while you’re at it.
Depending on where you live, rent can be an expensive monthly cost – especially in metropolitan areas. If it’s an option, try to buckle down and stay with your family or acquaintances while on your gap year. They may either charge you a small amount or swap rent for a few household chores.
Extroverted individuals who love spending their time in the company of others frequently gravitate to this popular option, as it allows them to meet people from all over the world while also paying their way and receiving room and board.
Although many gap year travel programs have a cost, others (mostly those focused on volunteerism or community service) provide scholarships or grants to students who successfully complete the program. While you’ll still need to cover living/travel expenses, you’ll be chipping away at the cost of your future degree.
Students who plan to incorporate college credits into their gap year experience are often able to find sources of financial aid, be it from the school or the government. If you’re considering this option, make sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Especially for students embarking on a volunteer or intern placement, using a crowdfunding platform to ask for donations from your friends, family, and community can be a worthwhile option. Much in the same way that people raise money for a specific cause or organization, students can highlight the work they’ll be doing overseas.
Students looking to work in environmental sustainability are eligible for scholarships offered via the BYA.
This free online program provides personalized financial management and budget planning for students looking to better manage their money.
Numbeo provides this helpful free tool that allows students to see how much money they should budget, both for their current city and wherever they hope to spend their gap year.
Ranked as the top website for personal fundraising, students can create an individualized profile and appeal to donors.
Use this website to find available positions at hostels across the world.
HostelWorld provides this helpful guide for individuals looking to see the world and fund their travels by working in hostels.
Sponsored by the Department of State, this program provides scholarships for students looking to learn less-commonly used languages.
Students who hope to spend their gap year doing something creative can use Patreon to raise funds from friends and family.
Looking to hang out with furry friends and make money for your gap year? Sign up for PSA.
After signing up and being verified, students can find opportunities to make money through housesitting in their area.
Approximately five percent of institutions providing baccalaureate degrees have formal deferred admissions procedures, but students should check with their prospective schools.
88 percent of students who took a gap year said their time away from school increased their chances of employment.
The number of students who completed gap years in 2015 rose by 22 percent compared to 2014 figures.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 American students decide to take a gap year during each year.
90 percent of students electing to complete a gap year returned to college after one year.
Sources: Detroit Free Press, Wall Street Journal
While no one can make the decision of whether or not to take a gap year except for the student, it may be helpful to consider a few questions before figuring out your next steps. Use this quiz to see where you land.
When you think of starting college, how do you feel?
Do you have a clear plan on how to pay for college?
What is your chosen school’s policy on gap years?
Do you have a clear idea of your academic and professional path?
Would you consider yourself a disciplined person?
When you think about taking a gap year, how do you feel?
Emilie Cushman co-founder of Kira Talent, an admissions assessment platform for colleges and universities, discusses the gap year.
While a gap year may be beneficial for regaining enthusiasm and appreciation for learning, it goes against the societal norm of our 24/7 “work culture,” which encourages people to work more and always be on. A gap year does not align with this mentality, but it’s causing havoc for students. Many high school graduates exhibit “academic fatigue”–they have been in school for at least twelve years straight. Many jump into postsecondary education because it’s an expectation of their parents, so they either have to get out of the house or risk disappointing their parents for “wasting time.” Students may also jump into college even if they’re not emotionally ready, because of fear of missing out on the new lifestyle their friends are living. With this in mind, it is hard to ignore that mental health issues on campus are on the rise.
A gap year can provide students with the time to identify what they want to do. Students who opt to take one should do whatever they need to discover a profession, pursuit, or field of study that’s right for them.
Any experience can be valuable, but when it comes to applying to college later, applicants will need to find ways to show how the experience developed their interest or knowledge of the subject matter, and characteristics like leadership, drive, and ambition. Schools will want to know what applicants accomplished during the time off, so students should consider using their gap year to acquire enriching experiences like working, volunteering, or traveling. Students coming up on the end of a gap year should prepare a good narrative to explain their time off from school or else it can seem lackluster to admissions officers.
The media often portrays the gap year as an expensive luxury to travel and relax, but it can just as easily be a year for working and saving. For students without financial support from their family, a gap year may be essential for saving for education and living expenses. The time off provides an excellent opportunity to seek out a job or paid internship that can help you cover your impending college expenses.
A gap year isn’t for everyone: it depends on the unique student. Many may not be emotionally ready for college at 18 years old; first-year dropout rates are high and undergraduate students take an average of six years, instead of four, to graduate. Instead of being rushed into choosing a college major too early, students who are unsure can use the extra year to discover a field of study that’s right for them—which will make them more mature and better emotionally prepared to handle the pressure and responsibility of college.
Some students may already know exactly what they want to do and be ready to go to college. In which case, a year off could stunt their momentum. Likewise, for students who are less motivated or interested in postsecondary education, a taste of working regularly and having “no homework” could completely derail their educational pursuits.
The American Gap Association reported students who take a year off before college are 75 percent more likely to be “happy” or “extremely satisfied" with their careers post-college, however, this does not account for students who fall off track on their education and either delay enrolling or never enroll at all. Just like choosing where to study, choosing not to study, even if just for a year, is a big decision for any student. My advice would be: Trust your gut, and do what’s right for you.