How Gap Years Work

A gap year is an excellent way to broaden your horizons before you head off to college.
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Being a high school senior can be a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's a great feeling to be one of the oldest, most experienced students on campus with graduation just around the corner. At the same time, however, there are a lot of unknowns. Are you going to go to college? If so, where? What are you going to major in? What are you going to do for the rest of your life? With all these big decisions, it's easy to feel overwhelmed — you're only 18 years old for crying out loud!

But what if we told you there was a way to take a year off and return to college with more direction, maturity and a broader worldview? That's the promise of the gap year, a break in formal education intended to promote personal growth through volunteering, working, traveling, studying, experiencing new cultures or enjoying some creative combination of those things. You may have also heard it referred to as a foundation year, bridge year or postgraduate year, but those terms pretty much all refer to the same thing.


The gap year is a British invention that emerged during the 1960s when organizations like Project Trust began to offer pre- and post-higher education students the opportunity to enroll in a year-long volunteer program [source: Rowe].

Over the decades the concept has taken hold across Europe and in Australia, though it has been somewhat slow to make it big in the United States. Gap years are very popular in Britain, where 11 percent of students deferred college admission to take one in 2010, compared to just 1.2 percent who did so in the United States in 2011 (these figures don't include the many students, particularly in Britain, who wait until they get back from their gap year before applying to college) [sources: Strauss, Crawford and Cribb].

Why the difference? Maybe it's because American students have more opportunities for extracurricular activities and therefore don't feel they need the gap experience. Or perhaps it's simply because Americans don't travel as much. The biggest reason, though, might be the belief ingrained in many Americans that you have to start a career as soon as possible; there's just not time for a year off, a fear compounded by the concern that you won't want to head to college after the gap year [source: Moy]. Still, more American students are taking a year off than ever before, and this trend is likely to accelerate with high-profile "gappers" like former U.S. President Barack Obama's daughter, Malia, who took a break before attending Harvard University.


Gap Year Types

Gap years aren't supposed to be about sitting around watching TV. You can make the most of your year by learning, traveling and volunteering.
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You can't blame parents for getting a little nervous when thinking about what their teenager might do with a year off. After all, some British kids (not all) have been known to treat their break as a year-long party. In the United States, however, students who take a gap year are largely expected to do something constructive with their time; otherwise, that lull in their resume might make it harder for them to get into the college of their choice or even interfere with landing their dream job.

There are a couple of main ways you can go about taking a gap year. One is to enroll in a structured program offered by an organization that specializes in the activity or geographic region you're interested in experiencing. The other is a more do-it-yourself approach: You can come up with your own path to self-discovery.


Whatever path you choose, potential gap-year experiences may fall into, or combine elements of, the following categories laid out in Kristin White's "The Complete Guide to the Gap Year":

  • Volunteer. Whether internationally or closer to home, getting to know another culture and the problems they face is a great way to help others while also helping to broaden your perspective.
  • Immerse yourself in a culture. To truly understand what it's like to live in other places, live with another family and learn the language.
  • Explore the outdoors. Try something like sailing, backpacking, or mountain climbing to connect with nature and challenge yourself in the process.
  • Help the environment. Many students get a great sense of purpose and fulfillment working to build trails or save a species.
  • Explore your artistic side. Whether you're honing your painting skills in Italy, writing a novel or composing music on your own, learning to be creative is a great way to spend a gap year.
  • Take the trip of a lifetime. You can join a program that organizes group trips or do your own thing with friends, but try move beyond the tourist experience by staying with locals and participating in volunteer activities when possible.


Gap Year Pros and Cons

College students who have taken a gap year often report feeling happier, more mature and better prepared for their school careers -- and even post-college careers!
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If you're a high school senior who's burned out from a year of all-day classes, standardized tests and extra-curricular activities, the prospect of a year off can be very appealing. Seriously, what's not to like about that? Before you take the dive, though, it's important to consider the pros and cons of taking a gap year.

There isn't a great deal of research examining the results of a gap year, but what has been done shows mostly positive results. Surveys indicate gappers enter college feeling more mature and independent, with greater motivation and a stronger interest in learning [sources: Shellenbarger and Birch and Miller]. In many cases it's even helped them to choose their major: Sixty percent said their gap year led to or confirmed their career path [source: Haigler].


Once they finally start college, there are benefits as well. One Australian study showed gappers outperformed their peers during the first semester of college, while another found they had better college grades overall, especially among students who entered with lower grades [sources: Bodkin, Birch and Miller]. A study conducted among students who took gap years before attending Middlebury College in Vermont and the University of North Carolina showed similar benefits [source: AGA, "Data and Benefits"]. It's even helping students after they graduate by giving them a higher rate of job satisfaction [source: Haigler].

And colleges? Most are on board with the idea, and some even encourage it with one-year admission deferments and scholarships for gap year graduates [source: Hoder].

Of course, it's not all good news. For one — and maybe this is just that pesky American mindset talking — taking a year off can really set you back. Your study skills could get a little rusty while you watch as your friends get a head start at the college experience. You'll also be a year behind in graduating, which can be a bit of a risk given the competitiveness of the job market [source: Holmes]. And while one survey found that 90 percent of students who take a structured gap year will complete their bachelor's degree, beware: Another study found that students who deferred school a year for any reason were 64 percent less likely to finish their undergrad degree than those who went straight through [sources: Shellenbarger, Gregory].

So should you take a gap year? It depends. If, after high school, you know what you want to do with your life and you're not burned out, maybe a year off is not for you. But if you feel new experiences might help you regain your focus and help you chart your path, by all means, go for it.


Gap Year Planning

Your gap year can be as structured or unstructured as you want. Fortunately, there are organizations out there that can help you plan.
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So you've decided to take a gap year. What's next? A whole lot of planning. Fortunately, there are some basic guidelines and questions you can ask yourself to narrow your focus and prepare for a life-changing year away from school.

Broadly speaking, experts suggest potential gappers keep three rules in mind when planning their year off. First, it's important to go ahead and apply to college so you have some direction after you get back. Many schools are willing to work with students to hold their place as long as they're taking a year off to do something constructive.


Which leads to the second point: Gap years should be structured; the last thing you want to do is spend your gap year sitting on the couch and watching TV at your parents' house. This is particularly important if you aren't enrolling in a program that schedules everything out for you. Finally, if your gap year plans cost money, you need to help pay those expenses. Sure, this is a bit of a downer, but students who are financially invested in their time off will probably take it a little more seriously [source: Hoder].

With these things in mind, you can get down to the specifics. How much time do you have? Will you go alone or with friends? Are you going to create your own gap year, or are you better off with some structure? Where do you want to go, and what do you want to do there? Can you get college credit, and how would you go about doing that? Of course, a lot of this depends on your budget, which we'll get into more in the next section [source: AGA, "Planning Your Gap Year"].

If you decide to go with a program, it's important to do a little research before you commit. Ask about their typical students and what a typical day is like. See if you can talk to some references, or, at the very least, look at what others have said in online reviews. You'll also want to make sure the program has some safety measures in place in case of emergency. Some organizations, like the American Gap Association, have already done some of this legwork for you through their accreditation program [source: AGA, "Planning Your Gap Year"].


Paying for a Gap Year

Getting a job -- even a part-time gig at a coffee shop -- can help offset the costs of a gap year.
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For students and parents already stressed about the cost of college, the prospect of spending more money for a gap year may make them feel a little queasy. After all, some programs can cost as much as $30,000 to $40,000 [source: Gillies]. But with some extra effort, aspiring gappers can find creative ways to offset these costs, or even locate programs that are low-cost or free to begin with.

One way to lower your gap-year costs is to apply for scholarships and financial aid. Travel, adventure, and study abroad programs frequently offer participants small scholarships, but don't expect this kind of help from volunteer programs, which mainly spend their money helping people. There are also some cases where you can use federal financial aid to help defray the cost of a gap year program, but it can be complicated. In order to be eligible for this assistance, students must enroll in a program that has an academic element and is hosted by the university in which they're enrolled; they typically can't transfer those hours to the school of their choice. If nothing else talk to an accountant, as many of the costs associated with volunteer programs can be considered tax-deductible [source: White].


Showing a little initiative and resourcefulness can help cut costs, too. Consider doing some fundraising with your friends, family, church or the broader community. If your gap year is for a good cause, write letters telling people about what you want to do. Ask them to sponsor a day of your trip and send them a postcard about what awesome things you did that day. Some students have even had success using radio stations, YouTube or even crowdunding sites to promote their cause [sources: Whiteand AGA, "Financial Aid"]. If raising money isn't your thing, think about working six months and saving for a gap half-year. It can be just as meaningful at half the cost [source: Hoder].

Maybe the best way to keep expenses down, though, is by taking a free or low-cost gap year. AmeriCorps is the best-known free option, but there are others like the Student Conservation Corps and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms that cover your room and board and might even offer a stipend. Other programs offer an experience similar to their higher-cost counterparts but at a fraction of the price. This could be an option if you are OK with fewer amenities and fewer opportunities to travel beyond your home base, but be sure to research them thoroughly to make sure they're legit [source: White].


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Gap Years Work

I've always thought asking 18-year-olds to pick a college major is a recipe for disaster. How can we expect anyone with such little life experience to know what they want to do for the next 40 years? After writing this article, though, I can definitely see how a well-planned gap year might just help some people make better decisions about their future. I think it's great to take a year after high school to learn more about yourself and your interests, and even have a little fun in the process. It certainly beats switching gears when you're a few years into college, or worse, saddled with the responsibility of a family, career and mortgage!

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • American Gap Association. "Financial Aid." 2014. (May 19, 2016)
  • American Gap Association. "Gap Year Data and Benefits." 2015. (May 19, 2016)
  • American Gap Association. "Planning Your Gap Year." 2014. (May 19, 2016)
  • Birch, Elisa Rose and Paul Miller. "The Characteristics of 'Gap-Year' Students and Their Tertiary Academic Outcomes." Economic Record. Vol. 83, Iss. 262. Pages 329-344. Sept. 14, 2007. (May 20, 2016)
  • Bodkin, Peter. "Sydney University Study Reveals Students Who Take Gap Year Enjoy Better Results." Herald Sun. Sept. 17, 2013. (May 21, 2016)
  • Clagett, Bob. "Bob Clagett on Taking a Gap Year." College Admission. March 20, 2013. (May 20, 2016)
  • Crawford, Claire and Jonathan Cribb. "Gap Year Takers: Uptake, Trends and Long Term Outcomes." Department for Education. November 2012. (June 3, 2016)
  • Gillies, Trent. "Filling in the Gap Year After High School: Making the Most of Time Off." CNBC. May 15, 2016. (May 22, 2016)
  • Gregory, Sean. "Time Out: Gauging the Value of a Gap Year Before College." Time. Sept. 21, 2010. (May 22, 2016),9171,2015783,00.html
  • Haigler, Karl. "The Gap Year Advantage." Teen Life. Feb. 24, 2014. (May 20, 2016)
  • Hoder, Randye. "Why Your High School Senior Should Take a Gap Year." Time. May 14, 2014. (May 23, 2016)
  • Holmes, Bradford. "Decide if a Gap Year Makes Sense for You." U.S. News & World Report. July 8, 2013. (May 21, 2016)
  • Moy, Jennifer. "Why Are Gap Years More Common in Europe Than the US?" Go Overseas. July 25, 2013. (June 1, 2016)
  • Rowe, Mark. "The Credibility Gap." Geographical. Vol. 80, Iss. 8. August 2008. (May 21, 2016)
  • Shellenbarger, Sue. "Delaying College to Fill in the Gaps." The Wall Street Journal. Dec. 29, 2010. (May 23, 2016)
  • Strauss, Valerie. "What 'Gap' Years Are All About." Washington Post. Sept. 21, 2012. (May 23, 2016)
  • White, Kristin M. "The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College." Jossey-Bass. 2009.