What is a Gap Year?

May 6, 2024

what is a gap year

What is a gap year, anyway? To answer that question, we’ll need to make a brief detour to the 1980s. Back then, parents’ worst nightmare was that their flaky Gen-X teens would defer entry into college, stating that they first needed to “find themselves.” After a year of goat herding in the Himalayas, being one with nature, and going on nightly vision quests, the best some parents could hope for is that their sons and daughters would eventually return, ready to hit the books, embrace Alex P. Keatonesque values, and eventually end up as Wall Street wolves.

While absurd, this introduction offers a kernel of truth. In the absence of proper nomenclature, a desire to step off the conveyor belt of formal education was not always encouraged in American culture. Rest assured, in modern times, the “gap year” is officially a real thing. Even though only about 3% of soon-to-be college students presently partake, the practice is greatly increasing in popularity.  No longer solely the domain of the wealthy, a growing number of middle-class students are also taking a year off to foray into the “real” world, often emerging with a new sense of perspective, purpose, and direction.

What is a gap year?

Taken either right after high school or at some point between years of college (often junior and senior), a gap year is a structured break from formal academics that affords young people a chance to travel, volunteer, intern, study abroad, or further explore a personal area of interest. Most importantly, it’s meant to refresh your outlook and deepen your perspective.

It’s essential that the time you take is well-planned, meaningful, and will benefit you in the long run as a person as well as a student. Common gap year activities include volunteering with nonprofit organizations, gaining professional or creative skills, teaching English in a foreign country, or engaging deeply with social and environmental issues, just to name a few.

According to the 2020 Gap Year Association alumni survey, there were over 500 unique combinations of experiences reported by survey participants. 89% traveled abroad; of those, 77% completed a structured program. 79% engaged in volunteer work, 76% in language learning, and 61% in academic coursework. In addition, 46% spent their gap year in three or more countries. Europe was the most popular destination (32%) followed by Asia (29%), the Middle East (25%), North America (24%), South America (22%), Africa (19%), Central America & the Caribbean (17%), and South Pacific/Australia (13%). Top individual destinations, in order of popularity, were Israel, the United States, Switzerland, Ecuador, India, and Peru.

How should you structure a gap year?

Although the options can seem endless, start by narrowing down your interests. Some programs may last for a full year while others finish after a few months. You’ll have to be intentional about your goals so that you can develop a feasible, creative plan of action. Start by answering these questions:

1) What do you hope to accomplish during your gap year?

Gain exposure to the education profession? Dynamy might be a great option. Travel to multiple countries? Look into Irish Gap Year’s European Expedition Program. Immerse yourself in impactful volunteerism? Check out the Peace Corps or Global Citizen Year. Participate in community living? Tideline Institute’s Glacier Bay Semester should be at the top of your list.

2) Is there an experience you’ve always wanted to have?

Do you love marine conservation? Consider the Sea Education Association’s programs. Or, combine academics with wilderness expedition during Kroka’s Semester School, build leadership skills with Outward Bound, or travel to Washington, DC, for an academic and internship experience through American University Gap.

What is a gap year after high school? (Continued)

3) Is there a certain country you’re interested in traveling to?

Consider programs that blend excursions with academics and language study, such as AMIGOS or Chinese Gap Year in Taipei.

4) Do you have a hobby or skill you would like to further develop?

Perhaps you’re an outdoor person who is interested in the medical field. Blend wilderness adventure with rescue and leadership skills as part of NOLS Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester. If you would love to explore a number of different skills, the Gap at Glen Brook will expose you to sustainable farming, blacksmithing, carpentry, and herbal medicine, among others.

I know what my goals are. Now what?

Evaluate multiple program options and do your research. The Gap Year Association provides a range of programs that meet specific standards and are accredited via a rigorous process, ensuring that you’ll have the safe, quality experience you’re looking for. Still overwhelmed? We’ve got you covered with over twenty of the best gap year programs across eight different categories.

Next, decide how your gap year will play out. If you haven’t chosen a structured 9-12 month program, you’ll likely have to combine several experiences. While it requires more planning, choosing this route can offer financial benefits as well as exposure to multiple countries (or multiple parts of one country). You can choose two semester-long experiences, or blend a one-semester experience with an independent internship, work, or volunteer placement in the spring. For example, in the summer/fall, combine Pacific Discovery’s semester-long experience in Peru, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands with several weeks of independent travel. Then, in the spring, complete a social impact internship with one of Omprakash‘s Peruvian partners.

Finally, when traveling for an extended period of time, whether domestically or internationally, you must be well-prepared. A crisis that occurs on a solo internship abroad is much different than a crisis at home. If traveling internationally, make sure passports, visas, and other paperwork are in order. Be sure you have up-to-date vaccinations and medications for the region you’re traveling to, that you’re protected by an appropriate insurance policy for health or medical emergencies, and that you check State Department travel advisories. Have a plan for how you will communicate with family members and friends, especially if you’re traveling to a developing nation.

What are the potential benefits of a gap year?

Gap year participants self-report that the top three reasons they indulged were to 1) gain life experience/grow personally 2) travel, see the world, and experience other cultures, and 3) academic burnout.

A gap year can provide an unparalleled opportunity for major/career exploration. Many students report an increased sense of purpose upon starting or returning to college following a year away. For example, your architecture major may take on new meaning after spending a year building homes with Habitat for Humanity. A soon-to-be pre-med major may be energized into a new career passion after seeing lacking hospital conditions overseas. A future social worker might discover a newfound fervor for working with disadvantaged adolescents. The possibilities for meaningful vocational discovery are endless.

Alternatively, you might also discover what you don’t want. Aspiring veterinarian? A month at Animal Experiences International could either reinforce that desire or open your eyes to the realities of what your day-to-day life could look like as an animal caretaker. Hoping to become a journalist? The School of the New York Times’ Gap Year Program will immerse you in the field as well as the city itself, enabling you to decide whether you’d like to continue your journalism studies in college or opt for something else entirely. As such, if you’re testing the waters in a few different fields of interest, it might be helpful to curate a series of shorter experiences.

What is the impact of a gap year?

For starters, recent gap year participants reported developing a range of skills as a result of their experience. These included cultural awareness (55%), communication (48%), self-direction (39%), problem-solving (30%), lifelong learning (28%), and flexibility (26%). Moreover, 81% reported a significant increase in maturity while 80% noted that their gap year made a significant difference in how they interacted with people from other backgrounds or cultures. 76% said that their confidence improved, and 48% increased their overall academic motivation.

Still having a hard time moving past the idea that your child’s “gap” could turn into the Great Rift Valley? Hopefully, the following nugget will assuage that fear—one study found that over 90% of participating students return to college within 12 months. When these young folks do return, they arrive more academically motivated than their peers. Research has also shown that gap year participants earn higher grades than those who matriculate immediately after high school. In fact, two studies, one at UNC and one at Middlebury College, both revealed a statistically significant GPA advantage in favor of ex-gappers.

A gap year can also have lasting positive effects beyond college. The first longitudinal study of individuals who took a gap year revealed that they ended up, on average, more satisfied in their early careers than those who did not.

Should I tell colleges that I want to take a gap year?

If you’re ready to apply to college but know you want to take a gap year, the best choice is to apply to college as usual during your senior year of high school. Once accepted and enrolled, submit a request to defer admission. Be sure that admission deferment is an option at the schools to which you are applying. Moreover, know that many colleges (even if deferral-friendly; see below) request admitted students to submit a substantive write-up of their proposed gap year experience for approval by a dean.

Once your deferment has been granted, it’s worth checking to see if it’s possible to gain college credit for your gap year experience. Additionally, be aware that financial aid packages may change if you choose to defer, so inquire with your school’s financial aid office about how deferment could impact your college budget.

Do colleges encourage gap years?

Some do! As more and more American students opt to take gap years, many elite colleges and universities are taking steps to accommodate.

Duke has taken gap year encouragement a step further by creating a formalized Gap Year Program that includes financial support from the university. Princeton has launched an even more formalized, tuition-free Novogratz Bridge Year Program. Other schools that offer gap year programs for admitted students include:

Moreover, universities with historically friendly gap year policies for admitted students include:

  • Tufts University
  • College of William and Mary
  • University of Oregon
  • MIT
  • Harvard University
  • Brown University
  • Middlebury College
  • Georgia Tech
  • Cornell University
  • UPenn
  • Dartmouth College
  • Stanford University

Finally, some colleges work directly with the Gap Year Assciation to promote gap experiences, and look very favorably upon students who have taken or plan to take a gap year. These include Warren Wilson College; Long Island University, Global College; and McDaniel College.

Are gap years expensive?

Although structured international experiences can run up a price tag in the private-college-tuition ballpark, you can absolutely choose something less exotic and more affordable. Many gap year programs are international, but domestic opportunities, while sounding less glamorous, can be every bit as valuable. Colleges aren’t interested in the fact that the Brazilian orphanage where you volunteered had a majestic view of the Amazon River basin. It’s about the work, the dedication, the experience, and the opportunity to grow as a human being. Volunteering at a group home in the Bronx will be every bit as enlightening and meaningful even if scenic Amazonian waterfalls are replaced by bridges and billboards.

That said, financial aid does exist for gap years. In addition to paid opportunities through organizations like Adventure EXP and YMCA of the Rockies, many popular and well-respected programs offer scholarships, including Carpe Diem, EF, Irish Gap Year, Kroka Expeditions, NOLS, and Pacific Discovery. Furthermore, several programs, like Iracambi and Omprakash, have program fees under $1,000.

When you shouldn’t take a gap year

We do not recommend taking a gap year solely for the purpose of trying to get into a “better” college. Academic performance is still your passport to an elite school. In fact, if this is your aim, consider completing your freshman year at a school that will accept you. Rack up a killer transcript and then apply as a transfer at Elite U. the following year.

We also don’t recommend taking an unstructured gap year. If you take a gap year, it should be very intentional with specific goals. It’s important to make the most of your time, and colleges want to see that you took the initiative to do just that.

Final Thoughts — What is a gap year?

A well-planned gap year teaches skills integral to a successful college experience, such as cultural awareness, work ethic, focus, and self-reliance, and can ultimately be applied to any career path. Having a set plan in place for how the time will unfold (and ultimately culminate) will help you make the most of your life-changing learning experience. Happy adventuring!

Ready to start planning? Use the resources below to begin: