Taking a gap year after high school is an option that more and more young adults are choosing each year. Whether you want to learn outside the classroom, uncover your passions, or just copy Malia Obama, you can pursue all three goals by deferring college enrollment for a year.
Gap years look different for everyone, but they all share an emphasis on experiential learning and personal development. This guide will explore what a gap year is, as well as discuss some of its pros and cons. If you’re thinking of taking a gap year or are simply interested in learning more about it, read on for a full investigation into this growing trend.
What Is a Gap Year?
According to the American Gap Year Association (AGA), a gap year is an “experiential semester of year ‘on,’ typically taken between high school and college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.”
AGA emphasizes that a gap year is a year on, rather a year off, to combat the notion that students are taking a year-long vacation from schooling. Rather, students who take time away between high school and college design their year with specific goals in mind. They use the time to gain professional skills, volunteer for an important cause, or travel the world, to name just a few popular gap year activities.
Because gap years often require some financial investment from the student, they are typically not an available option for everyone. While scholarships and stipends are increasingly available, the ability to take a gap year still implies a certain amount of privilege. Volunteer programs at home or abroad are especially out of reach to students who are unable to commit months of their time to working or traveling without pay.
If you are able to take a gap year, you can fill your year in a variety of ways, depending on your interests and goals. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular gap year activities.
Before diving headfirst into a gap year, you should set specific goals for your "year on."
What Can You Do During a Gap Year?
Gap year activities vary widely, but most people are looking to experience personal, professional, and educational growth. When planning a gap year, you might try to gain work experience, develop professional skills, explore a personal interest, volunteer for an important cause, or travel the world.
1. Gain Work Experience
While options for paid work aren’t as plentiful for high school graduates as they are for college graduates, you may be able to find paid employment. By spending the year working, you can save money for college, gain professional experience, and clarify what you want to study in college.
Given the high cost of private colleges, you may not want to attend until you clarify your career goals. Working for a year can help you explore and narrow down your professional interests.
You could work locally in a business or organization in your town. You can also explore jobs in other cities or countries at companies or nonprofit organizations. Another option for high school graduates is providing childcare locally or abroad as an au pair.
2. Develop Professional Skills
Beyond getting a job, you can explore programs centered on skills development and career exploration. Some organizations charge a sizeable fee, while others are geared toward low-income graduates.
Year Up, for instance, aims to provide low-income young adults with hands-on skills development and corporate internships for college credit. Job Corps offers training programs in over 100 technical areas.
For wilderness and leadership skills, Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School are popular options. Students with the means and interest to work internationally, furthermore, could develop skills working in a non-profit through an organization like AFS Intercultural Programs.
Not only do these programs offer skills training, but many give you college credits that transfer when you matriculate the next year.
Do you love camping? Some gap year programs help you develop wilderness and leadership skills.
3. Explore a Personal Interest
Another popular motivation for taking a gap year is to explore a personal passion. According to Harvard, some of its students who took a gap year engaged in
“drama, figure skating, health-care, archeological exploration, kibbutz life, language study, mineralogical research, missionary work, music, non-profit groups, child welfare programs, political campaigns, rebuilding schools...sports, steel drumming, storytelling, swing dance, university courses, and writing—to name some chosen at random.”
When planning a gap year, you should think about what you love to do. If you could spend a day doing whatever you wanted, what would you choose? Even if you're not sure, you should search around gap year organizations to find opportunities that would let you practice, explore, and discover personal passions.
4. Volunteer for a Cause
Another popular gap year activity that combines skills development with exploring a personal passion is volunteering. There are lots of opportunities to volunteer for social causes, like conservation, humanitarian relief, building infrastructure, girls’ empowerment, education, agriculture, or animal care.
There are a variety of volunteer programs available, many of which you can find through USA Gap Year Fair. City Year, for example, places young adults in schools throughout the U.S. to help out in the classroom. International programs, like Volunteers for Peace, Global Service Corps, and Restless Development, appoint young adults in locations across the world to volunteer with kids, teach English, work on environmental restoration, or assist with social projects like HIV/AIDS awareness.
Some of these volunteer programs are free, while others charge a considerable fee (not including airfare). By researching various opportunities, you can find an option that both aligns with your goals and is financially feasible.
Are you interested in animal care or environmental conservation? Some programs take you across the world to volunteer at animal sanctuaries.
5. Travel the World
Finally, some young adults have one main goal during their gap year: to see the world. They hit the open road, backpack across continents, and visit global landmarks. Budget travelers might take advantage of cheap or free lodging options through CouchSurfing or WWOOF, an organization where people exchange farm work for lodging.
Travelers use a gap year to learn more about the world, experience new cultures, and discover new interests. By experiencing new ways of being, they learn more about themselves and their role in the world.
Potential Benefits of a Gap Year
More and more students are taking gap years between high school and college, and an increasing number of colleges are explicitly encouraging the practice. Why are students attracted to this option, and what are some benefits of taking a gap year before entering college? Read on to learn about six major potential benefits of taking a gap year after high school.
1. Gain New Skills Through Experience
Gap years offer an opportunity for experiential learning. They allow you to step out of the classroom and learn new skills and ideas through doing. You might find yourself in entirely new situations that call for unique problem-solving skills and a change in perspective.
Whether you choose to work, volunteer, or travel, you’ll encounter new challenges and develop skills to overcome them. These new experiences, furthermore, might help shape your academic direction when you arrive on the college campus.
Are you feeling foggy about what you want to study at college? Spending a year developing new skills can part the clouds and clarify what you want to do for the next few years.
2. Save Money for College
Gap years don’t have to cost thousands of dollars. On the contrary, you might take this time to get a job, gain professional experience, and make money. Gainful employment can allow you to save money for college, get experience in a work environment, and clarify your professional goals. Job board websites like Idealist and Snagajob list opportunities that are available to high school graduates.
3. Learn About New Cultures
Many students go through eighteen years of schooling in the same place with the same group of people. By taking a gap year, you can step out of your comfort zone and into an entirely new culture. Even if you’re not traveling internationally, you may experience a new culture by joining a workplace or taking part in volunteer gap year programs.
You could learn new customs, try new foods, acquire a different language, or simply open your eyes to new ways of being in the world. Your gap year experience can broaden your horizons and transform your perspective on both yourself and the world around you.
4. Make New Friends
Just as you can gain new experiences on a gap year, you can also meet new people of all different ages and walks of life. By building meaningful relationships, you can experience a great deal of personal growth and establish a network of support as you navigate the next few years of your life.
Whether you meet coworkers, fellow volunteers, or a home-stay family in another country, you and the people around you will benefit from forging new connections and friendships.
During a gap year, you can make new friends and learn about people from all walks of life.
5. Refresh and Recharge Before College
A gap year can be a great way to recharge after many years of schooling. Rather than immediately jumping into the next four years of your education, you can take a break from the classroom and rejuvenate your personal interests and motivations.
Many selective schools, including Princeton and Harvard, encourage accepted students to take a gap year before enrolling. Harvard says, “Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a “time-off” is to postpone entrance to college for a year.” Harvard’s newspaper, The Crimson, reported that “students who had taken a year off found the experience “so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.” ...One student, noting that the majority of her friends will simply spend eight consecutive terms at Harvard, ‘wondered if they ever get the chance to catch their breath.’”
Some schools have even introduced “bridge programs” that offer a year of domestic or international service to accepted students before they matriculate on campus. Studies have shown that students who take a gap year before starting college have higher motivation and graduation rates on average than students who don’t. Taking this break from the classroom can help recharge your batteries and allow you to discover interests that motivate your studies once you arrive on campus.
6. Grow and Mature
Putting all of the above benefits together, you can conclude that a thoughtfully planned gap year can be a tremendous opportunity for personal growth and increased self-awareness. Whatever you choose to do during your gap year, you’ll probably find yourself in new surroundings, like a workplace, school in a different city, or an entirely new culture.
Simply planning a gap year can be an empowering experience, as it’s an unconventional path that requires a lot of thought and reflection. After planning and carrying out your year, you may show up to college with a more solid sense of personal identity and clearer understanding of your personal, academic, and professional goals.
Keeping all of these benefits in mind, let’s also consider some potential drawbacks of taking a gap year. What are some possible downsides to this plan?
A gap year can be an opportunity for significant personal growth.
Potential Drawbacks of a Gap Year
Taking a gap year has both pros and cons, and you should consider both carefully if you’re deciding whether or not to take a gap year before entering college. Below are the main potential downsides of taking a gap year.
1. Financial Expenses
While there are lots of enticing gap year programs, they might be a lot more expensive than you realize. Many programs charge a sizeable fee for you to volunteer, and this fee doesn’t always include transportation. To volunteer in Cambodia for two weeks with Global Service Corps, for instance, you’d have to pay $2,000, and this fee doesn’t include airfare or insurance.
When considering a gap year program, you should be realistic about how you’re going to pay for it. You might do a cost-benefit analysis to see if the experience is worth it. If you find that it’s not, you may instead plan to study abroad, volunteer, or intern for a semester in college or during summer breaks from school.
2. Additional Planning and Uncertainty
Taking a gap year can be challenging because of all the planning it entails. When you go right into college, your path is clear and largely defined for you. When you choose a gap year, you open up a huge number of new possibilities. Within all this choice can lie a great deal of uncertainty, and uncertainty can cause anxiety and stress.
If you’re taking part in a gap year program, then you may also have to go through a lengthy application process. You may have to fill out paperwork, collect documents, and write essays around the same time as you’re applying to college, doing homework, and taking the SAT. All of this extra work could put a lot of pressure on an already busy and stressful year. When considering a gap year, keep in mind that all of the extra effort and decisions that planning one requires.
When you take a gap year, you have to get in the driver's seat and navigate the next year of your life. This total independence can cause a lot of uncertainty.
3. Graduate From College a Year Later
While gap years are increasingly popular, most people still go to college in the fall following high school graduation. If you take a gap year, you could feel a year behind your peers, many of whom may be sophomores when you become a freshman.
You may also graduate a year later from them, unless you come up with a plan to graduate in three years. Taking a gap year is a personal choice, but you should consider whether it could make you feel like you’re behind and have to race to catch up.
4. Culture Shock
If you’re planning to travel, work, or volunteer in a new city or country, you should think about the challenges of adapting to a new environment. Moving can be thrilling at first, but it also has its hardships. If you’ve never traveled away from home before, then you might experience culture shock and homesickness.
Being nervous about starting a new venture is natural, but you should also be self-aware about how you’ll handle an adjustment. If your plan feels too overwhelming, then you may want to scale back and start with smaller steps.
Before you fly away from home, consider the emotional ups and downs of adjusting to a new culture.
5. Loss of Academic Momentum
For the most part, studies show that students who take a gap year have high motivation when they arrive at college. However, you might find it difficult to return to an academic environment after taking a year away from the classroom.
Consider whether your gap year idea could disrupt your plans for higher education and cause you to lose momentum. Would it be refreshing, or would you find it hard to return to the school environment? While you can’t predict the future, it’s important to consider all of these potential drawbacks as you decide whether or not to take a gap year.
Given these benefits and potential challenges, how can you decide about a gap year? If you have the opportunity, should you take one?
Should You Take a Gap Year? Questions to Ask Yourself
Once you’ve done your research and considered your options, how can you figure out whether taking a gap year is the right choice for you? Before making the leap, you should ask yourself the following three questions.
Before you take a gap year, take some time to reflect on your reasons for doing so.
1. Why Do I Want to Take a Gap Year?
First and foremost, you should clarify your reasons for wanting to take a gap year. What are your goals? What do you hope to gain from this experience? Where do you hope to be at the end of the year?
A gap year is an opportunity to engage in activities that you care about, develop skills, contribute to society, or save money. To make the most of the year, you should develop clear goals going into it. That way you can make sure that your gap year is, as American Gap Year Association defines it, a year “on” rather than a year “off.”
2. Are My Plans Feasible?
Once you’ve reflected on your goals and motivations, it’s time for a reality check. While some gap year ideas, like volunteering with orangutans in Borneo, sound like a dream come true, are they actually feasible? What will the financial costs of your plans be? What kind of application process is required?
While it’s easy to get excited about a new adventure, you also need to consider logistics, like planning and costs. Without a clear idea of what you’re getting yourself into, a plan that started out exciting could become burdensome.
3. How Will My Gap Year Affect My College Plans?
Finally, you need to do some research into how taking a gap year would affect your college plans. On the logistical level, does your college allow you to defer for a year? If not, would you have to re-apply? How would this timeline affect financial aid?
On a more personal level, you should think about how taking a “year on” would affect your educational momentum, as discussed above. Would you get re-motivated about your learning? Or would you find it difficult to return to the classroom?
Ideally, your gap year will be full of valuable experiences that help you learn about yourself and illuminate your academic goals. You can’t tell exactly what the future will bring, of course, but you should still take time to self-reflect on your plans and how they fit into your long-term plans for college and career.
As you do some soul-searching about why you want to take a gap year and what it would mean for you, you should consult resources for planning a gap year. Read on for the best gap year resources for high school graduates.
Remember that taking a gap year after high school means that you'll start college a year later than most of your peers.
Resources to Help You Plan a Gap Year
People design their gap years in a huge variety of ways. Below are some resources to help you get started, whether you’re looking for a job or a volunteer program.
Idealist.org - Idealist lists a variety of job, internship, and volunteer opportunities at organizations concerned with social issues, like environmental conservation and education. When you search on the site, you can filter for results that don’t require an education level beyond high school.
Snagajob.com - Snagajob offers job listings for high school students and graduates. You can find openings in industries like food and restaurant, customer service, automotive, office support, and healthcare.
USA Gap Year Fairs - This website has a comprehensive list of gap year organizations, along with descriptions and links to their websites. USA Gap Year Fairs holds fairs, exhibits, and speakers in the US and Canada throughout the year. Check out the site for the full schedule and locations of gap year fairs.
Gapwork.com - Gapwork is another comprehensive organization with lots of gap year ideas, volunteer positions, and job opportunities for students looking to take a gap year. Check out the site to learn more about gap year activities, along with useful suggestions for ways to fund your gap year.
Go Overseas - Go Overseas focuses on gap year programs in various countries around the world. You can find all kinds of volunteer programs, internships, and jobs in far-flung destinations.
American Gap Year Association (AGA) - AGA is a nonprofit that is committed to increasing participation in gap year education. They have a variety of gap year resources for students, parents, and educators, as well as a list of AGA-accredited gap year organizations.
Finally, some colleges now explicitly encourage applicants to pursue a gap year before matriculating on campus. Tufts University, for instance, offers the “1 + 4 Bridge Year Service Learning Project” for accepted students, and Princeton University offers a similar “Bridge Year Program.” As you research and apply to colleges, you should talk to the admissions office about gap year opportunities and how the school support students who choose this route.
In closing, let’s go over some final thoughts about what it means to take a gap year after high school.
The American Gap Year Association is a big advocate for gap years. AGA is committed to increasing participation in gap years among young adults.
Taking a Gap Year: Final Thoughts
Gap years are becoming more and more popular among U.S. students. Several organizations, like the American Gap Year Association, are strong advocates for the personal, professional, and academic benefits of taking a gap year. According to studies, students who take a gap year return to college more motivated and more likely to graduate than their peers who go directly from high school into college.
Gap years can take a number of forms, and they require a good deal of intention and planning. If you’re interested in a gap year, you should carefully consider your goals and what actions you can take to reach them. You also need to consider the financial costs of your gap year plans.
If you have a well-thought out plan for taking a gap year, then you should feel confident in your decision. There is no set timeline for your education, and going straight from high school into college definitely isn’t for everyone. Designing a meaningful gap year between high school and college could be one of the best life decisions you ever make!
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.