During the spring of my sophomore year of college, I came across an opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream of working at a Disney theme park with the Disney College Program. This program, offered both at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Disneyland in California, places college students in front-line roles such as attractions, food & beverage, and entertainment for a semester or full year.
In addition to learning the basics of guest service from one of the top entertainment companies in the world, participants can also take classes from Disney University to further their field of study. Unfortunately, my university wouldn’t count these courses or my experience in general towards my degree in journalism, so participating meant taking a gap semester.
Taking a gap year was a daunting thought for many reasons, but in the end, I believe my choice was well worth it.
Taking a gap semester in the middle of earning my degree was a daunting thought for many reasons. I was worried that when I returned to school I would feel as if I had fallen behind my peers academically and that people would view me differently for graduating a semester late. I was worried it would be difficult to jump back into studying after a semester of no exams, and so I thought long and hard about whether or not to go. Looking back, some of these concerns were definitely reasonable -- others, not so much. In the end, I decided to go.
I spent the fall semester of my junior year operating attractions in Fantasyland of the Magic Kingdom, improving on my guest service skills, and working with university students from around the world all while having the time of my life. In the end, I believe my choice was well worth it.
My gap semester taught me new skills and even led to another professional opportunity with Walt Disney World after graduating. Looking back, I would have regretted it if I had not taken advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to follow a dream. But what about you? Should you take a gap year in the middle of college?
Who Takes A Gap Year in the Middle of College?
The concept of a gap year started in the 1960s in the United Kingdom as a way for young people to travel, expand their horizons, and gain real world experience. The concept is becoming more and more popular with students around the world, and, according to data collected by the American Gap Association, interest in gap years from students in the United States is at an all-time high.
Traditionally, students would take a gap year before entering university. However, in recent years as the concept has evolved, more and more students are deciding to take a break in the middle of school instead.
Take Kevin, who went on a program to New Zealand with Pacific Discovery.
“I was hesitant at first because I really wanted a great trip to broaden my perspectives,” he said. “I was also in a stressful part of my life, nearing graduation from college and having no idea where to go from there, and I wanted this trip to not only help me relax but also inspire me in some way.”
My gap year was a source of inspiration at a stressful point in my life.
While in New Zealand, Kevin discovered national parks and marine reserves while camping, hiking, and canoeing. He also volunteered with indigenous communities and learned about the country’s history and biodiversity. The experience shaped the direction of his future by inspiring him to apply for the United States Peace Corps.
“I was encouraged to do by one of the PD directors that I was lucky enough to have met in Nelson, New Zealand,” he added. “I don't think she knows how much her kindness and strength has inspired me to make such a big decision.”
Or, take Matt, who took time off of college to embark on a leadership training course around the world from Wales to Costa Rica with Gapforce.
“I had recently left school in May 2015 and was looking for a worthwhile gap year, which would give me some sort of qualification,” he said. “I could have never predicted the change this course would have to my life. I feel as though it made me a more productive, responsible, and well-balanced individual. It doesn't matter whether you think you're already all of those things, this course will change you for the better in every way possible.”
Taking a gap year in the middle of college may not be the traditional choice, but for many types of students, it can be the right one. With every decision, including the one about when to take a gap year, there are pros and cons. Let’s take a quick look at some of the reasons why taking a gap year in the middle of your degree program could be a good idea.
A gap year can lead to greater success in school
The fast track of back to back years in the classroom from elementary school straight through university isn’t for everyone. If you’ve gotten a few quarters, semesters, or years of university under your belt and have found yourself floundering academically, taking a gap year can give you a mental break to get back on the track of academic success.
Many students who take a gap year report returning to school with a reignited passion for learning and studying. According to data collected by the American Gap Association, students who take a gap year have higher GPAs than those who do not take a break at all in their studies. Worried taking time off will derail your desire to finish your degree? Well, 90% of gap year takers return to university within one year of their experience outside the classroom.
A gap year can help inform your next step
For many students who feel lost about what to do post-graduation, taking a gap year can help inform their next step. By delaying the graduation process, students will have more time to think about what they want to do career-wise, and a gap year can provide students with real-world experiences that form connections between classroom studies and the professional world.
Learning technical skills on a leadership course in Alaska can help kickstart a career as an outdoor instructor, volunteering with elephants in Thailand can show the practical implications of a degree in biology, and traveling around Europe can encourage a career in travel writing.
Many gap year programs provide structured experiences that serve to form these links, and many students also return to school inspired by instructors or other successful adults they have met throughout their time away from the classroom.
A gap year can strengthen your resume
Most college students are concerned about strengthening their resume to prepare to enter the “real world.” Gap year programs not only inform career decisions but also strengthen resumes, making students stronger candidates for graduate schools or in the competitive job market.
Many graduate schools, like UC Berkeley, encourage applicants to gain experience in their desired field of study. “If you are applying to a professional school program and haven't had much exposure to the field, the year may be well spent working in a law firm, human services agency, or clinic setting, depending upon your desired field,” their website states.
Additionally, gap year experience can be placed strategically on a resume to reflect new skills learned, whether it be project management skills from volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia, language skills from doing homestays in Argentina, or even work experience from a work exchange in Australia. In an ever diversifying global market, the more international experience applicants show, the stronger fit they will be for potential roles.
The best time to travel is now
If there are certain experiences you want to have, whether it be traveling through Southeast Asia, building bridges in Africa, or interning at Walt Disney World like myself, the middle of college can be a great time to travel meaningfully. After all, when you enter the “real world” and start a full-time job, you may only get two weeks of vacation time!
If there is something you want to do on a gap year and you feel that now is the best time to do it, just go. Chances are you won’t regret it, and even if your gap year doesn’t go exactly as planned, your journey will be filled with valuable lessons along the way.
It’s time to take a look at the cons. After all, taking a gap year, no matter what time in your academic career, is a big decision and not one that should be taken lightly.
You could lose focus with your education
This is a concern for many parents out there, and one that stops students from taking a gap year or even studying abroad. While 90% of gap year students do resume their studies, you can’t completely ignore that taking a gap year could make you lose momentum with your education.
Make sure your gap year program or chosen activity is a strategic choice that will encourage your desire to learn, focus on your course of studies, and not take away from your broader goals. Be prepared for the possibility of experiencing a readjustment period after your gap year as you re-assimilate to the challenges of university life, balancing a course load, writing papers, and taking exams.
You will take extra time to graduate
Unless you have accumulated extra credits from AP courses or summer classes, chances are that taking a gap year will mean you will be taking extra time to graduate. This is not necessarily a negative attribute -- employers and graduate schools often understand a graduation delay due to a gap year and are impressed by the benefits.
However, it is a fact you will have to come to terms with. If completing your degree in four years is important to you, taking a gap year in the middle of college may not be a good fit for your personal life plan.
You may have financial burdens
Taking a gap year doesn’t have to be costly, but it won’t come without a price. A luxury gap year could run you upwards of $20,000, which may be more than the price of your tuition. (But it's also totally possible to take an awesome gap year around the world with $5,000.) Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of such an experience heavily, especially if you will need to take a loan out to do so. As a student, you may not have a large budget, but there are definitely ways to travel the world while avoiding the student debt crisis.
For students who are concerned about the financial burden of a gap year, consider doing a working holiday, Au Pairing, or participating in a gap year where you can earn money to pay for your living expensive and perhaps even accumulate some savings. South Korea, for example, has a teaching program called TaLK that's specifically designed for students who are still in college.
If you are receiving a scholarship or financial aid, you will want to check with your university’s finance office to ensure that taking a gap year won’t affect either form of assistance.
Taking a gap year requires extra effort
Taking a gap year, as with any step off the beaten path, requires extra effort. You will need to invest time and energy into researching the appropriate option, navigating the waters of your college’s bureaucracy to get permission to leave for a certain amount of time, and navigating those waters again to re-enroll in classes once your gap year is up.
If you are considering taking a gap year in the middle of college, know that extra challenges will come your way, but hopefully the amazing benefits you reap from the experience will make the extra effort more than worth it.
Taking a Gap Year in the Middle of College
If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and have decided that taking a gap year in the middle of college is the right step for you, congratulations! A world of experiences, lessons, and excitement is waiting for you. Here are some things to think about before you go to have a smooth transition upon your return.
- Have a re-entry strategy: Make sure you think about exactly how and when you will be returning to university and have a plan for the end of your gap year. Check that the classes you need to take will be offered when you return, so that you don't further delay your graduation by having to wait even longer to get the classes you need.
- Square up with your university: Before you go, check in with your academic advisor and financial office to ensure that you have taken all the necessary steps to take time off the right way. You wouldn’t want to lose your spot as a registered student or be billed for unnecessary fees while you are gone. If you have been living on campus, check in with your school’s housing office to see if you will need to sub-lease or find a new renter for your room.
- Be prepared to explain: In future interviews for jobs or graduate school, you may need to explain why you chose to delay your graduation to take a gap year. Before you go, do some deep thinking about the strategy behind your gap year decision, and be prepared with answers about why this was the best step for you and how it positioned you for future success. Your friends and fellow classmates may ask you about your decision as well, so be prepared with an answer that reflects the pride in your decision.
- Have fun: Of course, don’t forget to have fun along the way! Taking a gap year truly is a unique experience. Enjoy it and make lots of memories to look back on in your future.