A gap year is when a student takes a year off of school to pursue something that is generally not related to advancing their education through a degree. Students often choose to take a gap year after graduating from high school but before enrolling in a higher ed institution.
However, there are also other times in which students might take a gap year, such as while in college, or after graduating from college but before enrolling in a master’s program or starting a full-time job.
In this post, I will highlight everything you need to know about taking a gap year, from what goes down during it, to pros and cons, to common questions, and even a mini-interview with someone who is currently on a gap year!
Also, read until the end to hear a little bit about my own thoughts on taking a gap year, and to get more information on additional gap year-related reading.
There are lots of possibilities for things you can do to get the most out of taking a gap year. A few of the most common activities that students choose to take part in include independent or structured traveling, volunteering, adventure activities, and obtaining work experience.
There are several reasons why a student might choose to take a gap year at any given time.
One popular reason students cite for taking a gap year from their education is to be able to gain unique life experiences. This could be through backpacking across a continent, performing service or volunteer work with an organization, learning a new language, or a myriad of other experiences.
With these types of life experiences, of course, comes learning about new cultures, meeting new people, and gaining life skills that can be helpful for future success.
Another common reason for taking a gap year is that it can be a great opportunity for students to gain work experience in the field they are interested in pursuing. This could be through a local apprenticeship, an internship abroad, or anything in between.
Students may also choose to take a gap year for reasons other than personal and professional development; taking time off between high school and college to work a full-time job can be a viable option to earn some cash to help you out financially in terms of paying for your education.
Taking a gap year has proven to have positive effects on students’ development, academic performance and motivation, and maturity and independence.
In fact, according to the 2020 Gap Year Association survey of nearly 1,800 gap year participants, students indicated that the top three impacts of being in a program included:
A few additional pros to taking a gap year include:
Another major benefit of taking a gap year is that it can allow you to recover from academic burnout, open you up creatively, and leave you feeling more motivated to get on campus (or return to campus) and hit the ground running.
Federal data from 2017 shows that at least ⅓ of college students choose a major and then change it at least once within three years. If you’re someone who is perhaps indecisive about which major or career you want to pursue, then taking a gap year to get some work experience could be a great way to help reduce the likelihood of changing majors and running into problems with having to do extra semesters.
There are many pros to taking a gap year, as I have pointed out above. But, I’d be remiss to write a fully informative post on gap years without mentioning the cons.
I definitely think that, in order to be successful in taking a gap year and assimilating into an academic environment, you have to really have the motivation to do so. I know plenty of people who would take a gap year and never want to go back to school! You have to be the type of person who wouldn’t lose momentum after taking some time off.
A potential con of taking a gap year is that, if you don’t plan it out correctly, you could potentially end up wasting your time. The last thing you want is to take a gap year and end up not doing anything with it.
While this is certainly not always the case, taking a gap year has the potential to be an expensive endeavor. If you choose to go down the route of going with an organized program, or, if you don’t plan out your travels or endeavors in enough detail, you can easily end up spending more money than you originally planned. Watch out for this!
Q: If I want to take a gap year between high school and college, how does that impact the college admissions process?
A: Most schools will accept you and then give you the opportunity to defer your admission to the following year.
Because of this, and because it is much easier to go through the college admissions process as a senior in high school than having to do it during your gap year, most school counselors and higher ed admissions officers will encourage students who are planning on taking a gap year to apply for college before going on the gap year.
If you get accepted into a college or university and want to defer your admission, you usually have to send a letter to the admissions office discussing your request to defer admission and outlining what you plan to do during the gap year.
Q: Can I still be eligible for financial aid/scholarships if I take a gap year?
A: Yes! If you fill out the FAFSA and then decide to take a gap year, all you have to do is fill it out again the following year when you do get on campus. In terms of scholarships, some scholarships offered by the colleges and universities themselves can be deferred along with admission private scholarships, however, this definitely varies.
Many private scholarships have rules such as “student must be currently enrolled or planning to enroll within X months” - if this is the case, then if you do win a private scholarship, you can save it for when you go back to school and start paying off your tuition.
Q: What do college admissions committees think of gap years?
A: The phenomenon of taking productive gap years is becoming increasingly more popular nowadays. Because of this, you shouldn’t worry too much about a college admissions office frowning on your decision to take a gap year. In fact, lots of top schools encourage gap years, and some even have specific programs for students interested in taking them.
Let's be real. I can do all the research, write a whole post on everything you need to know about taking a gap year, and even give you my own thoughts and opinions on taking one.
However, I truly think that the most helpful perspective one can get when covering this topic is the perspective of someone who is actually currently on a gap year herself.
So, I briefly interviewed my friend Jess. She lives in England and graduated from high school last year. Here's what she had to say on the topic of:
When she decided she wanted to take a gap year...
"Probably when I was 14, but I definitively decided around 16. In the UK, you take your main exams at 16 and 18, so if you don’t want to go straight from high school to college, or if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, around 16 is the time that you would generally start to solidify the decision."
Why she decided to take one...
"You don’t want to end up with a degree that is something you don’t actually want to go into. Your education is a big investment of both time and money, so you want to make sure that it’s what you want to do.
For me, the area I wanted to study last year is not at all what I want to study now. A lot has changed, so I’m happy that I’ve had the opportunity to have a shift of perspective and take a step back and think about what I actually enjoy and want to do.
Also, sometimes you need to have time off to be able to take a step back and give yourself a break. I think it's important to have time to recharge because your last two years of high school can be really intense."
What she's been up to during her gap year...
"The pandemic has obviously made taking a gap year in 2020-2021 a lot different than what it would've been like if I had taken it during a "normal" year. However, I have still had the opportunity to travel, go on a service trip, and hopefully get some more fun stuff in over the summer before starting at university in September!"
What ideas she has for making a gap year productive...
"Traveling and backpacking-type trips are definitely popular. You can also do more volunteer/service work projects, for either a few months or a whole year.
Ski seasons and summer seasons are good options as well because they're really fun and you get paid, so you can make money instead of spending it.
Au pairing, which is like nannying, can also be a unique option and opportunity to get abroad experience while also getting paid."
Advice she has for students who are thinking about taking a gap year...
"I definitely recommend a gap year for anyone who is thinking about it. More than anything, it's a good opportunity to work on adjusting to being around new people in a new environment, which is something that you would experience when first getting to college anyways.
A gap year can also be a good prep stage for helping you develop socially. If you’re not sure what subject you want to study, this can be a good time to help you work it out before you’re in your degree.
Also, it's a great life experience in general. Having been able to get work experience, travel, and volunteer has definitely helped to create a less intense and stressful shift from high school to college."
Other things students should know about taking a gap year...
"Gap years can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. It can be inexpensive and accessible if you go about it the right way, travel to the right places, and get the right type of work experience. Don’t be put off by the fact that some programs out there can be expensive.
Also, lots of people say that they will do a gap year after graduating from college, but it doesn’t always work out. So, if you can do one between high school and college, I recommend it!
When I was in high school, the idea of taking a gap year had honestly not even crossed my mind. I didn’t know anyone who was doing anything similar, so I never considered it. It was only when I got to college that I met other students (not many, though) that had taken gap years in between high school and college.
Having friends in the UK, Australia, and other parts of the world, I have learned from them over the years that in countries other than the US, taking a gap year is quite common.
If I had the chance to rewind on my high school/college experience, I personally would definitely consider taking a gap year before starting college. As it has done for lots of students, I think it would have been a great way to help me build up life skills, confidence, and independence before going back and settling into academics.
In general, I do think that our society tends to put too much stress and emphasis on students going through the motions of graduating high school, moving on to the next step of education, and then graduating and going out into the world to get jobs.
From my own research, I know that the number of students taking gap years is on an upward trend, which I think is awesome. I hope that this post, along with some of the resources I have provided below, can help to illuminate more about gap years and help you decide if it's the right choice for you!
Ultimately, this question is one that only you can answer. I do personally think that the potential pros outweigh the potential cons.
But at the end of the day, taking a gap year is a big decision that will have a significant impact on your future, so you need to sit down, do some research and thinking, and decide if it is the right choice for you!