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Americans, Do You Really Know What a Gap Year Is?

What is a gap year?

If you've been looking for a less than typical next-life-step, you may have come across the term “gap year” being thrown around. Though gap years are particularly popular in Australia, the UK, and several other European countries like Denmark and Turkey -- where as many as 50% of students take a year off before entering college -- if you're an American, this idea of a gap year might be a relatively new term to you... which begs the question: do you really know what a gap year is?

To help you learn about what a gap year is, read on for the full scoop on what people do on gap years, when they take them, who takes them, and next steps for taking a gap year. This is, gap years defined.

Quick Snapshot of What Gap Years Are

Don't have time to read this whole article? Here's an overview of what'll be discussed:

  • It's a break from school or work, either before, during, or after college, or as a career break.
  • It's not a vacation, but a time to grow and develop professionally and personally.
  • Gap years can take place both abroad or at home.
  • Common activities include volunteering, interning, working, studying, or traveling.
  • People take gap years to explore career options, different lifestyles, learn about new cultures, or develop / grow professionally.
  • Gappers are reportedly more successful than their not-gap taking counterparts, and tend to have more direction in their career or academic path afterwards.
  • Gap years are also a common way to refresh and reboot after a lifetime of demanding academics or career.

What is a Gap Year?

Lets start with the basics: how would you define a gap year exactly?

Based on the official definition from the American Gap Association, a gap year is a structured period of time when students and mid-career professionals take a break from formal education or their career to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible next steps -- usually through a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, studying, or working either abroad or at home. Most importantly, a gap year isn't a year off but a year "on".

Although the word “year” is in the term, a gap year may or may not actually last the full length of a year. In fact, the notion of a gap year originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970’s as a way to fill the 7-8 month gap between finishing exams and starting university, and didn't start out as a full year thing. As the benefits of such an experience (ad) became better known, students worldwide opted to participate in similar experiences for different lengths of time.

Today, a gap year experience can be as short as a few weeks or a single semester, and as long as two years. Gappers can choose to do a structured gap year through a program provider or create their own independent experience.

Does a Gap Year Have to Be Abroad?

I want to take a quick moment to clarify one thing: though I've largely focused on international gap years in this article, a gap year doesn't necessarily have to take place abroad.

In fact, many students may opt to take a gap year at home to spend time at a full time internship, working full time before college to earn money, or going somewhere within their own country to travel or develop a particular skill (like being certified as a Wilderness First Responder).

Gap years don't have to be abroad, and technically they only have to be a break from the "normal" school/work thing to qualify as a gap year.

What are Common Reasons for Taking a Gap Year?

According to the American Gap Association the two most common reasons to take a gap year are because people feel burnt out from the competitive pressure of high school, college, or the workforce and have a desire to “find out more about themselves.”

What is a gap year?

Additional motivators include a desire to travel, acquire new skills, or experience a change of pace from the academic setting they've spent their whole lives in.

In the end, there are many appropriate reasons to choose a gap year that will vary for each individual gapper. Just remember the point of doing so is to continue to grow as an individual and experience new adventures, not to take a break from learning and growth all together.

What Are the Benefits of Taking a Gap Year?

Building off my previous point about reasons for taking a gap year, those reasons help define some of the benefits of taking a gap year. Such experiences can help younger gappers grow in maturity and become more self-reliant and independent. Gap years can also help people learn more about themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Many gappers report that the experience helped give them more direction for their college experiences and future career.

With so many international experiences available, more than 80% of gap year students say their experiences make them more globally aware. In an ever diversifying business world, increased cultural awareness, competency and even language skills will help future members of the workforce be more successful in their careers.

By having an extra year to step outside the classroom and mature, students are also bound to be more successful. The American Gap Association reports that students who take a gap year are more likely to graduate from university with a higher GPA than those who go straight to college. This is true for students across the board of academic achievement and even includes those students who had lower levels of academic achievement in high school.

A common fear -- especially from parents -- is that a gap year will throw students off their path to go to college. That couldn't be further from the reality. Nearly 90% of students who take a gap year abroad return to college within one year, and often with a better idea of how they want to spend their college years.

When Do You Take a Gap Year?

The most common time for people to take a gap year is between graduating high school and starting college, however it's not the only time.

Who takes a gap year

Doing a gap year at this time gives students the opportunity to take a breather from academics and acquire new skills and confidence before beginning a degree seeking program -- though, it's by no means a vacation and studies have shown that students taking a gap year at this point in their life are ultimately more successful in college and beyond.

However, there are no set rules about when you can take a gap year, and it's becoming even more and more common that people take a gap year during a non-traditional time. Other popular times during which people take a gap year includes before graduating high school, during their college years, or after completing a college degree but before entering the workforce.

Adults in the workforce are even taking grown up gap years to travel and pursue interests outside of their career, learn new skills that are applicable to their jobs, or use it to change careers entirely.

Who Takes a Gap Year?

Although the notion of taking a gap year started in the United Kingdom, the idea has since spread to many corners of the globe. An estimated 50% of students from Denmark, Norway, and Turkey are taking a year off before starting classes. Today 11% of college freshman in the United Kingdom take a gap year. Gap years are also an extremely popular option for students from Australia.

With the rest of the world seemingly clued in to the benefits, the U.S. really needs to catch up. In the U.S., there tends to be a stigma around taking a gap year. Most people don't quite understand what it is, assuming that it's a year long vacation or break from the real world, rather than an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally.

As such, the majority of people taking gap years come from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Happily though, gap years are slowly becoming a more popular choice for students from the United States as well. For example, Harvard University -- one of the few universities who encourage gap years -- has reported a 33% increase in the past 10 years for students choosing to delay their admittance for a gap year opportunity.

If a Gap Year Isn't a "Vacation", What Do You Spend Your Time Doing?

Although gappers won't be in a traditional classroom setting during a gap year, that doesn't mean a gap year is a time to sit around like a vegetable doing nothing. As I've brought up already, it's a huge misconception that a gap year is a "waste of time" or time off in the way that spring break is time off. On the contrary, a gap year is an opportunity to learn in new ways and have once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Many gappers choose to use a gap year to explore their interests outside of the typical confines of school or work. For younger student-gappers especially, it's a chance to break out of the decided-for-you routine of school-extracurriculars-sleep-repeat and truly live independently. For older gappers who may have already gotten that taste of independence, it's a way to reflect, challenge societal norms of what your "life path" should look like, and explore new or old passions.

To give you an idea of what this looks like exactly, common activities for gap year students include:

  • Volunteering
  • Interning
  • Traveling
  • Working
  • Language learning
  • Other professional or educational development

Yes, there may be a bit of beach-sitting involved, but thats not the point of a gap year. For example, when I took a gap year to teach English in Spain after several years in the workforce, it was a way to explore my options beyond the typical 9-5 lifestyle while learning about a culture I'd always been interested in. Ultimately, it ended up influencing my career path in a very positive way. Since I spent the year teaching, there was technically no gap on my resume either -- it's another misconception that taking a gap year will hurt your career, when in actuality it helps most people find direction.

With such a wide variety of options available, a gap year is an exciting time for gappers to choose a unique experience that matches their personality and interests, and help them acquire skills, both technical and soft, that will be applicable to their future both in and out of the classroom.

How Can You Afford to Take a Gap Year?

Besides a lack of awareness or full understanding of what a gap year is, one of the biggest reasons people choose not to take a gap year is because they believe it'll be too expensive.

What do you do on a gap year?

But again, a gap year is not a vacation and therefore does not have the same "well, we're on vacation, so why not?" mentality of spending frivolously. In fact, 70% of student gappers report that their gap year cost less than a year of college, and many gappers use this opportunity to learn about money management, financial independence, and budgeting.

Additionally, there are many resources available to help gappers fund their gap year -- in 2013, a whopping $2.5 million in needs based grants and scholarships were awarded by American Gap Association programs.

Some gap year programs allow you to earn money as work experience is a part of them. If financing is a big concern for you, consider a gap year that includes paid work experience -- like a working holiday -- or simply staying closer to home. Again, you don't have to go overseas to get the benefits of a gap year.

What Are Some Tips for a Successful Gap Year?

A gap year is an exciting opportunity for you to learn more about yourself, your interests and even gain new skills that will help you with your future academic career and journey in the workforce. To have the most successful gap year experience possible, follow these tips!

  • Define your goals ahead of time: there are many reasons to take a gap year. To have a focus and more beneficial experience, define your main goals from participating in a gap year program ahead of time so that you will be able to select a program that gets you there.
  • Find a program that matches these goals: With such a wide variety of gap year program providers out there, it is important that you do adequate research to choose the best fit for yourself. Read reviews from other students and ensure you have a thorough understanding on program aspects including lifestyle, amount of supervision, cost distribution and more before you embark on an adventure.
  • Listen to your heart: In the end, only you can choose the opportunity that is best for you. Stay true to your own motivations, interests and goals and follow your heart for an opportunity that will mean the most to you as an individual.
  • Have fun and be flexible: A gap year should be an experience that helps you prepare for your next step in life, but it should also be fun! Be serious about your goals and expectations, but don’t forget to let your hair down and enjoy the experience while it lasts.

So there you have it, a gap year defined! Still have questions? Something you're still not sure about? Ask us in the comments below!

What Next? Explore Gap Year Programs.

Photo Credits: Jessie Beck, Cooper, Ellie Taylor, and Jyoti Dewan.
Lauren Salisbury

A California native, Lauren Salisbury has found the best way to get to know a region of the world is to live there, and with that in mind has worked in four countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain and Costa Rica. Lauren earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and is now living in the Costa Rican rainforest, working as Social Media & Marketing Manager for Outward Bound. Lauren documents her travel adventures on her blog SomethingInHerRamblings.com.