What Is A Gap Year? (Should You Take One, Plus 3 Key Facts)

A Gap Year. What is it? If you’re a fan of Modern Family, you may remember a storyline where Haley is having trouble getting into college and decides she may take a gap year.

What does she do? She gets a job at the GAP. Haley says, “My guidance counselor suggested I take a gap year. You know, a year between high school and college where you take some courses, have some life experiences, and get inspired. And obviously, work at the GAP.”

Working at the GAP is not exactly what a gap year is all about! Having life experiences and getting inspired, that’s more like it.

The traditional path for many high school students used to be this: graduate high school in early June and move into your dorm as a college freshman in late August.

While that is still the path most college bound students take, it has become increasingly common for high school graduates to take a gap year before entering college. While this may have been frowned upon or even discouraged years ago, many colleges look at gap years favorably. 

Taking a gap year may not be the right choice for you but before deciding, read on to learn more about the whys and why nots of this decision and get some ideas for what you can be doing during a gap year.

What is a gap year?

A gap year is the year between when a high school student graduates and then heads to college. During that year, the student can focus on other options such as working, volunteering, traveling, or exploring an interest that the student might not have time for when in college.

A gap year can take many forms depending on the student. 

What should I do during my gap year?

Gap Year Article Photo
It might take some time to figure out what you want to do during a gap year.

Deciding to take a gap year is a big decision in itself! If you’re going the gap year route, hopefully you already have some good ideas about what you want to do with your time. There are countless options, seriously! Here are some of the most popular gap year plans:

1. Travel

You can travel with an organization or on your own! Should you decide to travel with an organized group, you will likely have to fill out an application to enroll in the program.

If money isn’t a problem, then there are lots of opportunities out there for you. The world awaits! Here are a few gap year companies that may help you figure it out:

  • EF Gap Year programs offer 4 week programs, gap semester programs, and gap year programs. Check out the proposed itinerary for a 2023-2024 gap year: EF Gap Year Itinerary. Sounds super exciting!
  • ARCC Gap offers lots of gap year opportunities including 70-day gap semesters in Hawaii, South America, and Southeast Asia.
  • GapForce has many opportunities that combine travel with adventure experiences. Spend 4-7 weeks in Australia and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef! Do a 4 or 8 week marine conservation trip in Thailand! 

2. Volunteer

There are many options for volunteering and this can be a great way to contribute in a meaningful way. Volunteering can build character and give you a rewarding experience in the process.

Volunteering looks great on your college applications as well! You can also combine volunteering with travel.

Want to stay closer to home? Habitat for Humanity may have great options! Or you could volunteer and serve the country at the same time with AmeriCorps!

GVI has volunteer opportunities focusing on community or conservation. They have programs specifically geared toward gap year students.

3. Work

Working can help you in several ways. First, you will earn money you can use toward tuition!

Ideally, if you work, it would be great to find a job that interests you in an area you’re considering studying! A few of my students were interested in pursuing biology so they found paid internships working as research assistants.

Before committing to a major in college, it would be great to know if you actually like the work. A job in your field of interest is an excellent way to help shape your future plans!

4. Learn A New Language Or Skill!

This could be the time to pursue an area of interest. Immerse yourself in a new culture and learn the language. Take courses in woodworking or pottery!

Considering film or theater as a career? Take a few classes to get an idea if this is something you’d like to study in college.

Interested in journalism or a career in news? The School of The New York Times has 6 or 12 week programs from which:

“Gap year students emerge with an expanded worldview, an appreciation of other cultures, a sharp sense of perspective on a wide range of topics and strong critical thinking and communication skills that will prepare them for college, career and lifelong success.”

Sounds like a good option!

5. Combine More Than One Option

  • Work for a semester at a job related to your planned college major and travel in South America for a semester. Teach English abroad for a semester and volunteer at a hospital for a semester. Take a few online classes and work to save money for college. 

What are the pros and cons of a gap year? Are there any downsides? Can I still get into college after a gap year? (Short answer, yes!) Let’s consider:

Pros of a Gap Year

  1. It gives you a break from the rigors of academia. Sometimes students aren’t ready to jump into another academic program after being in school for the previous 12 years. A gap year can help you recharge and reset.
  2. Depending on what you do in a gap year, it can enhance your college application. Colleges like to see a variety of life experiences so this can be the perfect time to explore opportunities that you couldn’t before. In fact, some colleges even offer gap year programs!
  3. A gap year can allow you to work in a particular area of interest. This can help narrow your focus in your field of study. Maybe you’ll find a job working at a marketing agency, thinking you may want to major in marketing. Your job will give you valuable experience so if you choose to go that route, a college will be impressed that you already have experience in your intended major. Bonus: you can save more money for college! 
  4. Combining travel with an immersion language program can also be an impressive addition to your college applications. If you want to learn a new language, this could be the time to do it.
  5. You will gain valuable life skills and become a more well-rounded individual! Your gap year activities will likely help you become more independent. You will learn a lot about yourself and you will likely have more focus heading into college.

Cons of a Gap Year

  1. It can be expensive, depending on what you choose to do with your time. How much will a gap year cost? Should you opt to travel, the price tag can be very steep! To give you an idea of costs: EF Gap Year, a company based in Cambridge, MA, offers many program options for students. EF offers short 4 week travel programs which range in cost about $7,000- $8,000. Gap semester programs cost $16,000 – $20,000 and gap year programs cost $39,000. As you can see, the prices can be high! The School of The New York Times 6-week program costs about $10,000, not including room and board! The 12-week program costs about $18,000. Financial aid and scholarships are offered so it could still be worth pursuing! (There are alternatives to student loans to pay for college – you can learn more here).
  2. You may lose momentum with your academic pursuits. If you don’t use your gap year wisely, you run the risk of falling into a relaxing lifestyle that you may not want to leave! It may be difficult to get back into the structure and discipline of school life.
  3. Think of your friends – if they are all heading off to college right away, you may feel a bit behind if you put it off for a year. Because gap years are becoming more common, this might not be the case but it’s worth considering. Once you enter school, you’ll also be one year older than many of your freshman classmates. That may not bother you at all but it’s something to think about!
  4. Your study skills may decline. I worked with a student who had taken a gap year and he had some difficulty with his required freshman year college calculus course because it had been so long since he had actually studied math in a school setting. 
  5. You run the risk of getting off the college path. Parents often worry, “if my child takes a gap year, will he/she ever want to return to school?” A good question! If you’re very serious about going to college and you choose to take a gap year, then put together a plan so your college plans don’t fall by the wayside.

When do I apply to college?

This is an important consideration. Seems like it should be easy enough – apply during the fall of your gap year.

But, what if you’re in another country and don’t have the time to devote to writing college essays and submitting applications? The importance of planning can not be emphasized enough! You will need to carve out time in your gap year to get those applications in!

As another option, you could apply to college during senior year of high school. Then all of your resources will be in place.

(You can get ready for the SAT Math section with some key topics for review here).

You’ll be on the same application timeline as your peers. High school guidance counselors will be there to help you. It will likely be easier to obtain letters of recommendation at that point.

Once you have been accepted, you can request a deferral. With this plan, you won’t have to worry about applying to college during your gap year. It will be a done deal.

Downside? The college of your choice may not accept your request for deferral. Do your research to determine the likelihood of obtaining a deferral and have a plan in place if they don’t grant the deferral.

A great resource for helping gap year students navigate the college application process is The Gap Year Association, a national nonprofit organization with a mission “to maximize the potential of young adults, through accessible and meaningful gap year opportunities.”

Final words

As you have seen, there are countless opportunities awaiting should you decide to go for the gap year! The main thing – do your research and have organized plans! 

You can learn about the factors to consider when choosing a college here.

You can learn more about what to know for the SAT Math section here.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

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About the author:
Jean-Marie Gard is an independent math teacher and tutor based in Massachusetts. You can get in touch with Jean-Marie at https://testpreptoday.com/.

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