The first notion to get out of the way is that taking a gap year means leisurely frittering away 365 days napping, watching television and generally being a couch potato. Nope, not even close. It means taking a break — but a purposeful one, with articulated goals and a predetermined beginning and end.
“The real deciding factor of whether it’s a gap year or just floating through the atmosphere without purpose is that a gap year is defined as a deliberate period of time,” says Julia Rogers, founder of EnRoute Consulting, a firm providing gap-year support, who herself participated in two post-college gap years.
"It should be a time of identifying personal goals and opportunities to meet those goals,” Rogers says. “Even if the goal is relaxing and decompressing, it should be a deliberate period of time.”
By the time students graduate from college, they may have been going to school for some 20 years. The idea of charging right into another two to seven (or more) years of academia, depending on a student’s post-graduate goals, can be daunting. Educational burnout is a real possibility for some.
A gap year allows students to take a breather — to rest, recharge, refresh, reinvigorate and reflect on the next step in life.
“It’s a very American mindset to keep going and going and going,” Rogers says. “I call it the ‘conveyor belt mindset’ of kindergarten through high school, into college, into grad school, then you get a career, and then you die … We are obsessed, as a culture, with productivity. People need to be more deliberate in their choices, and a gap year offers that time for deliberate reflection, and also for deliberate action to inform their grad school choices.”
No longer are the only postbaccalaureate options grad school or a job. The gap year offers a third, just-as-productive option, which can include travel, volunteering, internships, experiential learning opportunities or working professionally to gain experience in one's chosen field. The possibilities are endless.
“The magic of a gap year is in trying different things and awakening interests or skills that may have stayed dormant in your college years,” Rogers says.
While little official data has been kept in the U.S. on gap years, especially pre-grad school, the Gap Year Association says gap years “are increasing in popularity in the U.S as evidenced by a booming industry of gap year programs, the prolific publication of resource guides” and burgeoning interest in its own programs.
In 2014-15, the GYA conducted the first-ever nationwide study on the effects of a gap year experience. While the survey was of students who had participated in a gap year before starting college, some of the data can be applied to pre-grad-school “gappers,” especially regarding the motivation for taking a gap year.
Of the gappers surveyed, 92 percent cited a desire to gain life experiences and personal growth; 85 percent wanted to travel, see the world, and experience other cultures; and 81 percent wanted a break from the traditional academic track.
“Put it in this perspective: You’re 22 years old. What is a year in the grand scheme of your life, and for the purpose of discovery and maybe a little adventure or education?” Rogers says. “When you survey people who have done it, they say they wouldn’t give it back for the world.”
To get the most out of a gap year, planning ahead is key. Students should figure out what they want to do, where they want to go, what goals they hope to achieve and how much they are able to spend, then establish a timeline with a firm end date.
Whether the year will include travel, volunteering, a job or time for quiet self-improvement, students can opt to participate in structured programs or fashion their own self-directed year.
While there is no right or wrong way to take a gap year, it is important that students remain engaged and spend that time doing something that will further their personal, academic or professional development.
Financing is a crucial component of the gap year, and GYA recommends a combination of working, fundraising and seeking scholarships. Look here for a host of fundraising ideas and gap-year scholarship opportunities.
A gap year is not for everyone. It’s essential that the student make the decision about taking one. Input from parents, friends, teachers, counselors or gap-year professionals certainly can be helpful, but the student taking the gap year has to have full buy-in to the concept and be clear and passionate about the goals and expectations for that year.
“There are very few actual drawbacks to taking a gap year, just some things that you need to consider, based on your life situation, to make it happen,” Rogers says.
Dr. Craig Westman, vice chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University-Camden, says the right decision is a personal one, but he does advise students to consider the ramifications of delaying grad school.
“A bachelor’s degree has become the high school degree of 50 years ago,” Westman says. “Sometimes, with delaying it, life gets in the way quickly, and it becomes harder to return for that master’s. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.”
But, he adds, “I think all possibilities are great. It is truly an individual choice.”
As an aside, an argument for taking a gap year (or longer) to work full time is that there’s the potential for someone else to pay for that advanced degree.
“The time varies, but after six months or a year or more, some employers, as a benefit of working for their companies, will pay for workers to get their master’s degrees,” Westman says.
The main benefit a gap year offers students is time for the following:
Experience everyday life without the demands of school. Instead, they can focus on simpler tasks such as getting their personal lives in order, realigning their work-life balance, diving back into cherished hobbies or working on health or spiritual goals.
Ensure grad school is the right path and their chosen fields are the correct ones for them. Using the gap year to talk with teachers and career counselors can help determine whether a master’s degree will truly help a student reach his/her goals.
Improve less-than-stellar graduate school entrance exam scores (GRE, MCAT, PCAT, LSAT, GMAT) and strengthen grad school applications without the distraction of classes and coursework.
Work to earn money (to save for grad school or start paying undergrad loans), learn new skills and gain valuable experience, especially if the job is in their intended field. Some grad programs, such as an MBA, favor applicants with work experience.
Volunteer for a cause dear to them or that will offer experiences in their chosen fields.
Participate in internships, which can offer professional experience as well as the opportunity to try out certain fields without committing to them permanently.
Travel to learn self-reliance and flexibility and experience new cultures.
Without a plan, goals and a firm end date, potential gap-year drawbacks include:
Financial issues, whether from paying for the gap year, looming student loan deadlines or the potential loss of graduate assistant stipends or school health insurance.
Loss of motivation or momentum, particularly among less-driven students. Some may find it difficult returning to the study grind after a year off.
The need for extensive planning to put together a productive gap year, which can be a formidable obstacle for the detail- or organization-averse.
Working full time with the aim of being more financially set for grad school can backfire, as a regular paycheck can lead to an increased standard of living (new apartment, furnishings, car, etc.). A student could end up with more financial obligations and less financial flexibility than he or she had as a student.
Undergrad accomplishments not seeming as impressive on a grad school application a year later (unless, of course, they’re augmented by even more impressive gap-year experiences).
Ramifications of postponing a future career another year, such as delayed position, salary and personal advancement.
A gap year offers the luxury of time and can be whatever a student makes of it.
“Do you want to travel, do you want to learn a new language, do you want to try something you’ve never tried before?” Rogers says. “There are many other reasons beyond just taking a break that someone would want this time.”
Following are some of the possibilities students interested in taking a gap year can explore:
Volunteer/service-learning opportunities are among the most popular options for gap years, whether they are in the U.S. or abroad.
Formalized programs help students develop professional skills, including communication, independent thinking, self-reliance and leadership, while also having a positive impact on the lives of others. Volunteering also can introduce students to cultures and walks of life different from their own, helping them gain perspectives on the world.
“Trying out things in an experiential way has direct application to your future career,” Rogers says. “There’s also value in the soft skills that you gain through traveling or volunteer work.”
Every formalized service-year program is unique and has its own benefits, possibly including housing, a living stipend, loan forbearance and/or a financial award for education.
Internships are a great way to gain work experience and learn or hone skills before heading back to school, or even to try out a career different from what you studied in undergrad. Students can amass experiences in the fields they intend to study in grad school — or, perhaps even more valuable, get tipped off that the paths they’re on might not be right for them — while there’s still time to correct course.
Travel is another highly favored way for students to spend a gap year, whether it be on their own or through structured programs. A pre-grad-school gap year is the perfect time to see the world before traditional adult commitments like jobs, mortgages and family obligations make it more challenging to fulfill wanderlust dreams.
Professional experience offers students a finite foray into the everyday working world. Students gain career experience for their resumes and learn new skills — both major boosts to grad school apps, especially if the jobs are in their chosen fields. In fact, some graduate programs, especially MBAs, prefer students with work experience. Advanced degree aside, having prior work experience can give a student an edge over other applicants when applying for jobs later on.
Additionally, working a full-time job for a year can help a student sock away some cash for grad school or to start paying down undergraduate student loans.
Prepare for grad school, whether by working to improve entrance exam scores, putting final touches on applications or taking care of any distractions that could impede smooth sailing in grad school. That might include resolving a living situation, transportation issues or daily budget and student loan issues.
Work at purposeful relaxation to slow down and uncomplicated your life without the stress of classes, books and research papers. Maybe incorporate yoga into your daily routine, learn to meditate, hit the gym regularly, revamp your diet, reconnect with friends, cozy up your living space or get outdoors and enjoy nature.
Rogers is currently working with a young woman who is taking a mindfulness gap year in the middle of her theology degree.
“She’s getting her yoga certification in Bali and then will work with monks in Laos,” Rogers says. “She wants to understand Eastern teachings, so it’s tying in with her education, but it’s also really important to her at this moment in time to just have that mindfulness experience.”
The answer is yes, absolutely, as long as the experience results in tangible positive outcomes, such as documentable personal development and new skills. A year spent waiting tables, hanging out with friends and passively awaiting life’s answers to manifest? That won’t.
“The most important thing to know about taking a gap year is that when you do it well and when you can articulate your experiences and why you did them, it separates you from the pack, and that is incredibly valuable when it comes to applying to schools or jobs,” Rogers says.
Westman agrees, saying that while at the undergrad level schools primarily look at applicants’ GPA and SAT scores, “at the grad level, they do a more holistic review, depending on the major, so they would love to see that you did something like volunteer for AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. That makes a difference.”
A service year especially can enhance a grad school application and almost assuredly will be looked upon favorably by future potential employers.
Rogers: It really depends on the people you are running with as to whether they think poorly or highly, or are neutral about it. If you tell people at a cocktail party, they’ll say, “That’s the best decision you could have made,” or “I wish I had done that,” or “Do it while you’re young.” Your parents might say, “Hey, why aren’t you jumping into your career at grad school now? It’s time for you to launch.” Friends will probably want to join you.
Rogers: It is important that once you decide to take a gap year, you start budgeting right away. With my post-collegiate gap year, I had six months between graduation and starting the volunteer program, so I fundraised the entire fee it cost to enter the program. I wrote letters of support, had a donation can at my dad’s business and started a GoFundMe page. I thought of the people who donated as my stakeholders to whom I was beholden to do really good work. I kept a blog the entire time I was away to let them know what I was doing. Fundraising can be a really good way of making it work financially but also a great way to build your skill set.
Westman: We do tell students considering a break, “You’re already in the school mode; if you can go for your master’s right away, it’s easier to just get it done.” Often students want us to make that choice for them, but we defer from that. We give them information about both sides of the coin and let them choose. Some students know they need to get it done right away, and others are driven enough to know that taking a break will not prevent them from returning to school. Not everything is for everyone. It’s really a personal, self-reflective choice.
Rogers: Most young people, especially if they’ve gone straight from high school into college, have probably spent 20-plus years in formal education. That’s a long time of being told how to learn and how to do things. Graduating college may be the first time when they get to start making some major life decisions beyond just having chosen to go to college. So it is a really special time to say, “OK, I have this education, now how do I want to use it?” Sometimes people graduate college not knowing what they want to do in the real world. So taking a gap year after college to slow down, figure that out and have some productive adventures can be very beneficial. Sometimes people just need a break, especially if they are on the track to grad school. That’s a lot of work and a lot of education to go straight through. People deserve to take some time out to pursue other interests tangential to their career path that are also just good for their mental health.
Learn how to participate in a multitude of national service program opportunities that address critical community needs such as increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks, preparing for disasters and more. Volunteers get living allowances and education awards.
This organization partners with public schools in 28 urban, high-need communities across the U.S to provide diverse, talented and trained young adult tutors, mentors and role models who work alongside teachers to support student success. Participants earn living stipenda and are eligible for financial education awards and scholarships.
This organization is a large, student-focused internship marketplace, bringing students, employers and higher-education institutions together. Search for internships by city, college major, job category or company.
One of the largest volunteer abroad organizations in the world, offering service projects and internships in Africa, Asia, Europe or Latin America, Projects Abroad provides positions in teaching, conservation and environment, law and human rights, international development, business and more.
This organization mobilizes volunteers in the U.N’.s humanitarian, peace-building and post-conflict recovery efforts, as well as its sustainable development and poverty eradication work. Assignments can include living allowances and medical insurance.
Join in this organization’s mission to promote world peace and friendship. Volunteers are provided with housing, living stipends, medical and dental benefits and $8,000 after completion of service to help with the transition to life back home. Most opportunities last two years.
This site provides an online directory of programs abroad (complete with user reviews) to study, volunteer and teach in more than 120 countries.
This web marketplace and resource hub matches young people interested in a service-year with opportunities in the U.S. Areas of work include education, environment, disaster relief and more. Search for opportunities or create an account to get matches based on preferences and experience.
This travel advice website provides everything a student needs to know about taking a gap year, including destinations around the world, volunteer and internship opportunities and even flight and European railroad information.
Based in the United Kingdom, this gap year and adventure travel specialist site offers more than 150 trips, including volunteer programs, working holiday packages and adventure tours.
Also based in the U.K., Gapwork specializes in all kinds of information about taking a gap year, including job opportunities, volunteer programs, destinations and travel advice.
While primarily aimed at students taking gap years between high school and college, the website is chock full of advice and resources applicable to post-college gap years.
This organization hosts an annual circuit of some 40 fairs that brings together gap-year organizations, students and gap-year experts. While its primary audience is post-high-school gappers, both the fairs and the abundance of information on its website are just as applicable to pre-grad-school gap years.
The first and longest-running gap-year counseling organization in the U.S., the Center for Interim Programs focuses on the post-high-school gap year, but most of the information contained in its database of 6,500 travel programs, volunteer opportunities, internship placements, apprenticeships, language schools, wilderness courses, research trips and more worldwide is just as useful for pre-grad gap years.
This organization helps customize a gap year with unique programs, budgeting tips and firsthand travel advice for post-high school and post-undergraduate gap years. There’s also information for adult gap years for everyone from empty-nesters to professionals in need of midcareer breaks.