Not excited about the idea of starting another year of school in the fall? What if you could instead take a break from school and spend a year backpacking around Europe, volunteering for a cause you care about, or getting paid to work on a cruise ship? With a gap year all those things possible!
Have you heard of gap years but aren't sure what they are? Do you know other people taking gap years but aren't sure if they're a good idea for you? What are the benefits of taking a gap year anyway? In this guide, I use my own gap year experience to explain the major benefits of gap year programs and why they're such a great choice for many students. I end with some tips to ensure you get the most out of your own gap year.
My Gap Year Experience
By the time I finished my Master's degree, I was 24 years old and burnt out from years of non-stop studying, writing papers, and taking tests. I was applying to all sorts of jobs, but I wasn't excited about any of them. After years of spending all my time and energy on school, my life had become boring, and I felt like I was just going through the motions without actually enjoying myself or doing the things I cared about or was interested in. I kept going because I felt like I didn't have any other choice than to jump straight from school to a career.
One day, while scrolling through Facebook, I saw pictures posted by a friend currently traveling through Europe. She was on an around-the-world trip, and, while I'd scoffed when she'd told me she was quitting her job to travel, I had to admit that she looked happier than I did at the moment. Looking through her photos, I realized that that was what I wanted to be doing with my life: seeing new places, learning new things, meeting new people.
Why couldn't I do what my friend was doing? Maybe not quite as extreme as traveling around the world (I had students loans to pay off after all), but why couldn't I change up my life and do something exciting? Why did I have to go straight from high school to college to grad school to a corporate job?
I weighed the options for a few weeks, but in the end, choosing between taking a job I wasn't interested in or spending a year having experiences I'd dreamed of having wasn't a hard decision to make.
I did some research and found that gap years are actually a fairly common experience in certain parts of the world. People who do a gap year can travel, get work experience, take a class they've always been interested in, learn a foreign language, do volunteer work, and more. Really anything you think is interesting or exciting could be the basis of your gap year.
After looking at numerous options, I decided to spend my gap year teaching English at a high school in northeast France. I also had enough time on the side to volunteer at an environmental organization I was interested in. My parents and friends were largely supportive, but when I told my school advisor what I'd be doing, she was horrified. She told me I was making a terrible decision and warned me that not taking a job in the field I'd studied in would have a serious negative impact on my career. "Not to mention employers will think you look lazy," she added. Those comments made me nervous, but I still felt like I was making the right decision.
As a matter of fact, not only did I not torpedo my career, I came away with a host of new skills and a better idea of the kind of job I wanted, both of which made it fairly easy for me to find a job I was happy with once my gap year ended. More important though, was the fact that I finally felt like I was doing what I wanted with my life. I look back on my gap year now as one of the best decisions I've made, and many others who've taken gap years would agree.
6 Reasons To Take a Gap Year
It's easy to get caught up in the idea of taking a gap year, but you may also still have a lot of doubts about actually doing it. Your parents or teachers may also need some more convincing before they get on board with the idea of you taking a gap year. Whatever the case, here are six of the biggest gap year benefits. Read through them and you'll see that a gap year can have all sorts of benefits for you academically, professionally, and personally.
#1: It Can Boost Your GPA
If you're worried that taking a year off from school will cause your grades to suffer once you go back, don't be! Studies of gap year students have shown that people who take a gap year actually get higher grades in college compared to their peers who don't take a gap year.
Why is this? There are several potential reasons. Many students, especially at those at risk of academic burn-out, benefit from taking a year off studying so they can return with more energy and motivation. Taking a gap year that relates to your future career can also help you get more excited about your studies so you're more interested in your classes and motivated to do well. Planning and carrying out a gap year also often increases your organization skills, maturity, and confidence, all of which can help you do better in school once you return.
If I could change one thing about my gap year, I would have done it earlier, either before I went to college or immediately after. By the time I took my gap year, I had been in school for nearly 20 years straight, and I spent the last year of my Master's program just trying to get my work done as quickly as possible because I was so sick of school. Taking a gap year earlier would likely have helped me reset and go through grad school with more motivation and energy.
#2: You Can Get Serious Work Experience
A gap year is often a great way to get experience specifically related to the career you want. Many companies and organizations offer half-year or full-year internships or volunteer positions, but most people can't do them because they are busy with school or work.
This means these positions are actually often easier to get than many summer jobs, and since they're longer you'll have the benefit of gaining more experience and making stronger connections with the people you're working with. This can mean better letters of recommendation and useful contacts when you're trying to get a job later on down the line.
If you spend your entire gap year working in the field you want to go into you'll have experience that few other college students do. That can help set you apart in the future when you're applying to jobs or grad school. By the end of my gap year, I had a full year of teaching experience, a year of volunteering experience at an NGO, and I had significantly improved my French skills. Any one of those could make me more qualified for potential jobs.
#3: You'll Gain New Skills
You may not want to spend your gap year working in the field you plan on majoring in and getting a career in, and that's also fine. Plenty of people choose to spend their gap year doing something they'd never have a chance to do otherwise, and the good thing is, you'll still gain useful skills and knowledge, even if they're not directly related to your future career. So if you've always wanted to learn how to survive in the wilderness, explore South America, work at a ski lodge, etc., this is the time to do those things.
Also, you may end up using some of those skills in your future jobs, even if you didn't think you would at the time. During my gap year, I learned all about the ins-and-outs of the French education system, which I thought was interesting at the time, but not something I'd ever need to know again. As it turns out, I later got jobs with a focus on international education, and many of the things I learned in France were still applicable for those jobs. So that information has been useful after all!
#4: You Can Make Money
This isn't the case for all gap years, obviously, but if you decide to take a job or an internship during your gap year that pays, you could make a significant chunk of change during that year. Even if your job only pays minimum wage, you can still make about $15,000 in a year if you work full time, and you can put that money towards paying for school or another expense.
If you choose to use your gap year salary to help pay for school, not only will you be able to take out fewer loans initially, but because your loans are smaller, they'll accrue less interest than larger loans would. Student loan interest alone can easily total several thousand dollars by the time you graduate, so if you use your gap year job to pay for more of your school costs upfront, you'll be saving money in two ways: by taking out fewer loans and by having less interest on those smaller loans.
#5: You'll Meet Tons of New People
No matter what you decide to do during your gap year, you're practically guaranteed to meet new people. Even if you already have great friends, a gap year is an excellent way to meet different kinds of people you wouldn't normally come across.
And in addition to expanding your social circle, you can even use these new friends as networking contacts if they work in a field you want a job in or know someone who can get you a job. Networking and finding useful career contacts is something colleges regularly encourage students to do, and you'll be ahead of the pack if you start doing this during your gap year program.
#6: You'll Get a Better Idea of What You Want to Do
Many students are reluctant to take a gap year because they worry it'll put them "behind" their friends and peers, but that's hardly the case. Taking a gap year can help you get a much better sense of what kind of career you actually want. This can save you years of time and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money compared to graduating with a certain degree, taking a job in that field, and then realizing it's not what you want to do with your life.
When I was in college, I had lots of friends who wanted to be doctors. Only a fraction of them ended up graduating from med school; the rest realized medicine wasn't actually the field for them. Many of them only came to this conclusion after graduating college with degrees in human biology, and a few even started med school before changing their career goals and dropping out.
It's not a guarantee, but these students may have had a much better idea of whether medicine was right for them if they'd spent a gap year working in a hospital or shadowing a doctor. Even if this put them "behind" for a year, it's much less time and money lost compared to people who don't discover until after college that they don't like the career they got their major in and now need to find a different job or go back to school and get a new degree.
Taking a gap year early on can actually put you ahead of a lot of your peers because you'll have a better idea of what you want. Even though I spent most of my time during my gap year teaching English to French students, the part that I thought would be most useful for my future career was the volunteering I did at an environmental NGO since that's the kind of career I thought I wanted. As it turned out, during my gap year I discovered I didn't like that kind of work at all, and although it was somewhat alarming to realize I suddenly had to rethink my future, it was much better to figure that out earlier than after returning from the gap year, applying to a bunch of NGO jobs, getting one, probably moving somewhere new, and realizing I hated it.
You could also go do a gap year in something you never considered a career in, love it, and end up deciding to get future jobs in that field. I have a friend who was majoring in engineering, but she spent a gap year working as a concierge in a hotel and ended up deciding to pursue a career in hotel management. You really only know if a certain career is a good fit for you after you try it out, and a gap year is a great, low-risk way to get that experience.
3 Tips For Planning a Great Gap Year
In order to get all or many of the gap year benefits we just discussed above, you have to put some thought and planning into your gap year. Waiting until the last minute to figure how you're spending the year could still lead to a positive experience, but in order to get the most out of your gap year, start your planning at least several months ahead of time (many of the most competitive jobs and internships have application deadlines around this time), and follow the three tips below.
Figure Out What You Want to Accomplish During Your Gap Year
The most important part of planning your gap year is to decide what your goals for it are. Do you want to travel? Earn some money? Volunteer for an organization you love? Gain experience in the field you want to go into?
Start with your broad goal(s) for your gap year and gradually narrow them. If you want to travel where do you want to travel to? What do you hope to gain from traveling? Will you need to work to help cover your expenses? If you want work experience, what kind of places would you like to work at? Does it have to be paid, or can you do unpaid or volunteer work? What are you hoping to gain from the work experience? Something to put on your resume, professional connections, both? Keep asking yourself questions about what you want from your gap year until you have a solid idea of exactly what you're hoping to get from it.
Here's the list I came up with for my gap year goals:
- Travel to new places
- Learn foreign language skills
- Get experience working for non-profits
- Make enough money to support myself
After doing a lot of research, I decided that teaching English in France, while volunteering at a nearby non-profit, was the perfect way to meet each of those goals.
Decide on Your Timeline and Budget Early On
Figuring out what you want to do during your gap year isn't the only important decision you'll make. You also need to figure out early on how much time and money you can put towards your gap year.
Most people spend an entire year on their gap year, but you may only be able to spend part of a year due to classes or work. Figure that out early on so you don't end up applying to jobs or programs you can't complete. Setting a timeline also ensures your gap year won't stretch on indefinitely, a fear some parents have for their children.
If you're worried about your gap year going longer than you originally planned, having a firm end date set upfront can help you stick to your schedule, as can choosing gap year programs with their own end dates, such as visas that expire or classes that end after a certain number of months. When I got my job in France, my work visa was only valid for a year, which gave me a nonnegotiable deadline for when I had to leave.
Budget is also important. If you're going to be living with your parents during your gap year, you may have few or no expenses, but if your gap year includes travel and/or a program with admission fees, those costs could quickly add up. Again, figuring out how much you can spend on your gap year early on will reduce the chances of you finding a program or activity you love only to later realize it's not in your budget. I had a bit of money budgeted for my gap year, but I also knew I'd need to get a job that paid me so I could cover my living expenses and begin paying off my student loans.
Keep Yourself Busy
If you spend your gap year working, say, ten hours a week at a job or volunteer position, that isn't the best use of your time. You'll have so much downtime that the experience will detract from your future college and work applications rather than enhance them. You want to make sure you're spending your time productively during your gap year, which may mean taking more than one job or doing a combination of classes and work.
You don't need to exhaust yourself, but aiming for about 30-40 hours of work/classes a week is a good benchmark to set. This ensures you're getting the most out of your gap year benefits and shows schools and employers that you're a hard worker and who your time productively.
My job as an English teacher only took up about 25-30 hours a week, so I used my extra time to take French classes, volunteer at an environmental organization, and travel around Europe on the weekends. Teaching English was the main purpose of my gap year, but filling my time with other activities helped me get the most out of my experience and gave me more to talk about when asked how I spent the year.
Conclusion: Should I Take a Gap Year?
Is a gap year a good idea? Gap years aren't for everyone; some people are happy to stick to the path they're on or can't take a year away from work or school, and that's fine. However, for many people, a gap year is a great way to do something you've only dreamed of doing, whether that's traveling to a new part of the world, hiking the Appalachian Trail, working on a cruise ship, or whatever else you're interested in.
Some people dislike gap year programs because they feel students are too young to do them, or they think it's more important for students to finish their education first and get some work experience before taking a year off.
However, there will never be an easier time in your life to take a gap year. As you get older, things like student loans, mortgages, families, and jobs you don't want to leave begin to pile up, making it harder and harder to achieve your goal of a gap year the longer you wait.
Postponing your gap year can often mean it won't happen at all, so take advantage of one of the few times when you can uproot your life and try something new without lots of things holding you back. Before I decided to take a gap year, I was worried I was going to mess up my life by not following the "plan" I was told was the way to success, but not only was my gap year a great experience, it put me in a better spot financially and professionally than I had been at before.
Have you decided to do a gap year? Get more information on how to find gap year ideas and start planning with our complete guide to gap years.
Do you have the opportunity to study abroad in high school? This comprehensive guide discusses what it means to study abroad as a high schooler.
Thinking about doing a volunteer abroad program? Read our guide to learn if volunteering abroad is really a good idea and what you should look for when selecting a program.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.