Taking a gap year—a break from academia to pursue experiential learning—can offer more than just time off to relax. With careful planning, it can be an intentional time dedicated to self-development and self-discovery. But with so many possibilities for how to spend your gap year, how can you decide what’s right for you?
If you don’t know whether a gap year is right for you, or if you’ve decided to take the plunge but don’t know what to do in a gap year, you’ve come to the right place. This guide can help you weigh your options.
Pros and Cons of a Gap Year
Gap years have long been common among students in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Today, the practice is growing in North America, with even high-profile institutions like Harvard University encouraging newly admitted students to take a year off before starting classes.
A gap year may not suit everyone, though. Before giving notice at work or sending your future university a request to defer admission, take some time to consider the benefits and drawbacks so you can make the best choice for your needs and goals.
- Personal growth. Many gap year participants return to their studies or jobs feeling more inspired, engaged and focused. Some time to step away from the relentless forward march of school and career can help people clarify what matters to them.
- Improved academic performance. A gap year can nurture independence and a sense of purpose, which may in turn help you become a better student. A study by Colorado College’s Gap Year Research Consortium reported that gap year participants exceeded their predicted GPAs by about 0.15 points, with positive effects often lasting throughout college.
- New perspectives. Many gap year pursuits, like travel and service work, encourage you to see the world in different ways. This expanded perspective can build maturity, empathy and cross-cultural awareness while improving communication and interpersonal skills.
- Resume boost. Having a gap year experience on your resume can help you stand out in the job or internship market. Make sure to document everything during your gap year so you can draw on those memories to craft winning cover letters and interview stories.
- Expense. A gap year can be a spendy proposition. Even with the break from paying for school, expenses like airfare, food and housing can add up quickly. Choosing a working holiday or applying for scholarships may help you stay on budget.
- Achievement gap. Being one year behind your peers can feel like a big deal, especially during college, when each year represents a major step forward. A gap year may put you behind your graduating class, but for many, the benefits outweigh this drawback.
- Lost momentum. In 2013, researchers Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson found that 90% of the gap year participants they surveyed returned to their studies within one year. While these are great odds, that still means that one in 10 students did not go back.
- Stress. Like any major undertaking, a gap year can be stressful. You may experience homesickness, loneliness, uncertainty or culture shock. And yes, things can go wrong. A medical emergency or travel complication may be harder to handle when you’re on your own, away from your familiar support system.
When Should You Consider Taking a Gap Year?
According to the Gap Year Association, about 40,000 U.S. and Canadian citizens make this leap each year. Many people take their gap years between high school and college. However, current college students, graduates and even working professionals can also benefit from some time to recharge, refocus and reinvest themselves in their passions.
There’s no wrong time to take a gap year. Older participants may have more responsibilities to consider—like dependents and mortgages—but with determination and planning, a gap year can fit into nearly any stage of life.
Getting through high school can seem like a frantic race to the finish line, jumping through ever-higher hoops each step of the way. A gap year allows you to pause and regroup before diving into college life, all while building the self-reliance, confidence and maturity to succeed in your academic pursuits.
Many schools allow accepted students to defer admission for a year, though they may request a proposal for how you plan to spend your gap year. However, financial aid, including scholarships, may not carry over, so make sure to find out how deferring college entry might affect your funding.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 30% of undergraduate learners change their major at least once. For students who are questioning their educational direction, a gap year can provide some time to step back and reassess. It can also offer relief from academic burnout.
If you are considering a gap year during college, bear in mind that most federal student loans allow only a six- to nine-month grace period after a person graduates, pauses their studies or drops below half-time enrollment. This means that you may need to make student loan payments during part of your gap year.
The need for reflection, growth and rest does not end after college graduation. A gap year after your undergraduate studies can help you meet these needs as you prepare for graduate study or your first post-college job. A sabbatical can also help working professionals who are feeling burned out or questioning their career choices.
A gap year can give college graduates and young professionals a much-needed break after the rigors of study or the intensity of early career development. While you may have more commitments and obligations at this stage of life, you may also have more options for financing your gap year, such as remote work.
Top Ways to Spend a Gap Year
Gap years traditionally focus on international travel, but domestic and virtual gap years can also offer valuable experiences. The most important thing is to choose a goal that means something to you.
There’s no rule that your gap “year” must last exactly 12 months, either. Many experiential learning programs offer single-semester or even shorter options for individuals who don’t need a full year away from school or work. Of course, if you’re organizing your own plans outside of a formal program, you can take as much or as little time as you wish.
Read on to learn more about popular options for what to do in a gap year.
World travel is the most common goal among gap year participants. The Gap Year Association’s 2020 alumni survey found that 89% percent of respondents traveled outside of the U.S. or Canada. Traveling also goes hand in hand with another important focus for many gap year participants: language study.
There are many options for how to spend a gap year abroad. You can follow your own itinerary or go with a structured program. Gap year travel programs can cost between $5,000 and $12,000, but thrifty globe-trotters can often save money by winning scholarships, working while abroad or finding a volunteer program that covers room and board.
Volunteerism also ranked high in the Gap Year Association survey, with 79% of gap year alumni engaging in some kind of service work. Diverse volunteer opportunities abound both abroad and at home in areas like conservation, education and health.
Some organizations, like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, provide food and lodging for volunteers. Others, like AmeriCorps, even pay a stipend. However, volunteering may work best for people with some savings to support travel and/or living expenses.
Teaching English to children or adults and working as an au pair—a live-in nanny—are two popular ways to earn a living while traveling the world. The hospitality industry also employs many working holiday-makers.
This option may best suit slightly older participants with more job skills. Securing employment overseas typically requires a work visa. If you find your job through a placement service, they may arrange your visa for you.
Learn a New Language
Foreign language proficiency can be a big plus on your resume, and what better way to improve your skills than by practicing all day, every day with native speakers? Whether you’re working, volunteering or relaxing, spending your gap year abroad can improve your fluency.
If a domestic or virtual gap year fits your budget or comfort zone better, you can still learn a new language. Try talking with an online language tutor through services like italki. You can also combine language study with civic engagement by volunteering with local communities that speak your target language.
Focus on Sports
A gap year can be a great time to combine a passion for athletics with opportunities for travel and personal growth. Consider building your leadership skills while making a difference in young people’s lives by volunteering to coach a sports team abroad. Many coaching programs include living with a host family for full immersion in the local culture and language.
Pursuing certification as a ski or scuba instructor can lead to paid work, but training can cost from about $1,500 to over $12,000. Depending on the program, participants may need to be over 18, but some sports coaching programs accept younger teens.
Explore a Future Career Path
If you are between high school and college, you may want to gain experience in your chosen field before committing to years of expensive classes. Or maybe you’ve already started on your educational path, and you’re wondering whether you made the right choice. A gap year can help you discover what it’s really like to work in your target industry.
Internships, either at home or abroad, can offer a taste of professional life, but remember that many internships are unpaid. In fact, placement programs—especially for overseas internships—can be costly, so make sure to prioritize paid opportunities if you don’t have substantial savings to invest.
Rest and Recharge
Thirty-five percent of respondents to the Gap Year Association survey cited burnout as a prime motivator in choosing to take a year off. These students are not alone—83% of the nearly 33,000 students who took part in a 2021 Boston University study reported that mental health had negatively affected their academic performance.
No matter how you spend your gap year—whether you focus on world travel, career exploration, community service or a combination of goals—make sure to fit in some time for self-care. Focusing on your mental and physical well-being can support your readiness to return to school or work with renewed energy and inspiration.
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