Gap years are becoming an increasingly popular choice among high school graduates, especially during COVID-19. Discover the pros and cons of taking a gap year.

Should You Take a Gap Year?


  • Gap years can involve doing paid work, completing an internship, volunteering, or traveling.
  • You can take your gap year independently or as part of a gap-year program.
  • A gap year can help you recover from academic burnout and explore your passion.
  • Even with the pandemic, you can take advantage of remote and at-home opportunities.

Taking a gap year after high school is becoming an increasingly popular decision among graduates, and more universities are supporting students who choose to do so. Some proponents have even argued that gap years, or a year of national service, should be mandatory.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic — which has caused colleges around the country to temporarily shut down and convert to online classes, possibly extending into the fall term — means more students are considering taking time off from school.

Despite the possible advantages of taking a gap year, many remain unfamiliar with the concept of a gap year and may believe it involves traveling aimlessly or wasting time. So what is a gap year — and how might it look during a global pandemic?

What Is a Gap Year?

A gap year is a semester or full year of experiential learning typically taken between high school graduation and college enrollment. Gap years are intended to give students a break from academics to discover themselves and consider what kind of education and career they want to pursue.

Gap years take many forms and can involve doing paid work, completing an internship, volunteering, or traveling. These activities can also be done independently or as part of a structured gap-year program.

A COVID-19 gap year will likely look a little different from the traditional gap year, with more students turning to online internships, jobs, and resources, as well as creative work they can do at home, such as writing a book. Some volunteer programs, like AmeriCorps, will continue through the pandemic and are gaining popularity among recent high school graduates.

GAP YEAR MEANING

A gap year is a year of experiential learning typically taken after high school, prior to college enrollment. Gap years can take many forms, and may involve participating in an organized gap-year program, traveling independently, working as an intern or paid employee, or volunteering.


A young woman in a denim jacket, plaid skirt, and wire-rimmed glasses stands facing th camera in the middle of a small, cramped street in Japan.

Why Take a Gap Year?

Gap years haven't just grown in popularity with students and parents. Schools like Harvard University, New York University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology encourage students to take gap years and allow accepted applicants to defer their admission for a year to do so.

Some schools even offer university-sponsored gap-year programs. For example, Princeton University provides incoming undergraduates the option to enroll in a nine-month, tuition-free service program. The institutional support of gap years is due in part to the growing evidence that gap years can be beneficial to students.

One survey found that the two most common reasons for taking a gap year were students experiencing burnout from the competitive pressure of high school and wanting to learn more about themselves. Gap years can help students with both of these issues by giving them time to recharge, refocus, and learn about themselves on their own terms.

[Y]ou should enter your gap year with a strong sense of what you want to explore and learn. An unfocused and aimless gap year is unlikely to provide any positive takeaways.

Currently, more high school graduates and college students are considering taking a gap year due to the coronavirus. Some simply want to wait until on-campus classes have resumed, while others may need the extra time to work on saving and making money.

That being said, gap years are not for everyone. Gap-year programs and international travel can be expensive, so it's worth considering how a gap year could affect your finances and whether it makes sense for you.

To avoid wasting time or stalling your academic momentum, you should enter your gap year with a strong sense of what you want to explore and learn. An unfocused and aimless gap year is unlikely to provide any positive takeaways. Ultimately, it's up to you to determine whether postponing your entry into college is the best course of action.

Planning a Gap Year

While your gap year doesn't need to follow a rigid schedule or be planned to the last detail, you should be clear on the purpose of how you'll be spending your time. You may want to start the year off by participating in an internship or service program before transitioning into a less structured period of traveling or development of a personal skill or interest.

A COVID-19 gap year means you'll most likely stay at or close to home during this time, so consider opportunities you can take advantage of online, such as remote jobs and internships.

No matter how you structure it, you want to make sure you are learning and growing and not just sitting around idle. For more guidance on planning your gap year, consult the gap-year planning guide provided by the Gap Year Association (GYA).

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What to Do During a Gap Year

Gap years are intended to be highly personalized, and your ideal experience might look very different from someone else's. While you can segment your year to include different activities at different stages, every stage should emphasize growth and self-discovery.

Whether you choose to travel, gain experience in a field of study, or volunteer, you should ask what you are trying to learn from the experience.

The most common activities pursued during gap years include working (in either an internship or paid position), volunteering, traveling, or developing a skill. If you would prefer to work with a program, it's important to know the wide range of programs at your disposal. The content of gap-year programs can vary greatly, with some programs focusing on volunteering, adventure, skills-building, and/or language learning.

The GYA provides a list of more than 20 accredited programs on its website, which includes programs on wilderness education, community service, cultural immersion and language learning, and much more. Programs on this list can last between three months and a full academic year.

[A gap year] should emphasize growth and self-discovery. … [Y]ou should ask what you are trying to learn from the experience.

AmeriCorps — which is gaining traction among recent high school graduates — also offers students service-oriented programs that involve traveling to communities across the United States and completing team-based projects to tackle problems like poverty and unemployment.

Additionally, there are many dynamic gap-year programs not listed above that might be better suited to your interests. Popular programs include Seamester, in which participants travel by boat for three months and learn to scuba dive and sail while also stopping in multiple countries along their route.

Projects Abroad offers numerous service and educational opportunities in countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Winterline Global Education provides a nine-month, 10-country gap-year program that features developmental education in more than 100 skills.

Some COVID-19 gap-year ideas include taking free online courses, participating in virtual field trips, and studying a foreign language.

Gap Year Pros and Cons

Pros

Enter College Refreshed and Refocused

The clarity earned by taking a gap year can have measurable effects on a student's performance in college. Students who have done gap years are more likely to graduate in four years or less compared to the national average of six years.

The time spent reflecting and learning about potential interests can help students make a more informed decision when picking their major and connect better with their selected field. One study reports that 60% of students felt their gap year influenced their major.


Build Important Skills

A gap year can be used to develop any number of important life skills. This could mean learning a language while living in another country, acquiring communication and leadership skills while working on a service project, or gaining hands-on experience through an internship or job.

Your gap year can be a great opportunity to develop a skill, while free from other obligations, so pick something you feel a connection with.


Broaden Your Horizons

Traveling and living abroad for your gap year can be a transformative experience. Immersing yourself in a new culture, learning a foreign language, and seeing the world from a different perspective can lead to important discoveries about your passions and purpose.


It Can Look Good on Your Resume or CV

A productive gap year is a great time to engage in resume-building activities. Learning a skill, gaining work experience in your intended field, studying a second language, or spending months immersed learning about a specific topic or country can all help your resume stand out.

A year spent volunteering or interning can also build skills that will impress potential employers.


Cons

Potential to Waste Time

An unstructured gap year can open the door to wasting time and losing academic momentum. While gap-year programs can provide structure and motivation, if you plan on exploring on your own for some or all of your gap year, you need to make sure you've clearly laid out goals you can accomplish.

If necessary, inform trusted people of your plans so they can hold you accountable. The worst-case scenario for a gap year is that you stall your academic momentum to play video games, watch TV, and lounge around the house.


Gap Years Can Be Expensive

College can be incredibly expensive, and a gap year can seem alluring for students who fear their time will be poorly spent in college until they've figured out a clear direction for themselves.

On the other hand, gap-year programs and traveling abroad are also potentially expensive endeavors. Make sure you understand the potential cost of your trip or program, as well as any sneaky expenses that might not be presented up front, so your gap year doesn't set you back financially.


Feeling Isolated or Like You're Falling Behind

Watching your close friends go off to college and go through similar experiences at the same time may leave you feeling as though you're missing out. Likewise, knowing that you'll be going through these experiences a year after peers you progressed through high school with might make you feel like you're falling behind.

While these feelings are understandable, remember that when looking at the big picture, entering college one year late won't harm your professional trajectory and you'll get to experience college all the same when you return.


The Transition Back to School Could Be Difficult

A year spent idle or withdrawn from academic engagement could make the transition back to school a difficult one. The best way to avoid this is to make sure that you keep yourself engaged and challenged by material you find interesting, and that no matter how you choose to spend your time, you are acquiring a skill or learning about yourself, an academic field, or a particular culture.


Should You Enroll in a Gap-Year Program?

One of the biggest decisions you can make when planning your gap year is whether you'll handle your adventures independently or as part of a formal program. When deciding, consider whether you want the structure and cohort experience that a program provides or the freedom and flexibility of individual exploration.

Traveling through a program can ease the burden of handling many of the logistics including travel, housing accommodations, and participation in local activities and with organizations.

Another important factor to consider when making this decision is cost. Some gap-year programs can cost more than $25,000, but more affordable options do exist. For example, AmeriCorps offers 18- to 24-year-olds an all-expenses-paid gap year — including room, board, and transportation — in exchange for a 10-month commitment to national and community service.

If a gap-year program is affordable and aligns with your interests, the structure, camaraderie, and access they offer can make it a worthwhile investment.