Gap Year

What is a Gap Year & How Do You Take One?

Photo of Rebecca Alwine
Rebecca Alwine

Rebecca is a freelance writer, army wife and mother of three who thoroughly enjoyed her undergraduate study abroad program in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Have you been considering taking a break from your studies to explore the world? If you’ve been bitten by the travel bug and are feeling less-than-excited to go to class, you may want to consider taking a gap year.

If you've considered taking a gap year – or have at least heard of the concept – you might want a bit more info to decide if it's truly right for you. Read on to learn what a gap year is (and what it isn't!), the advantages and disadvantages of gap years, how to plan your gap year – and more.

What Is a Gap Year?

Simply put, a gap year is when you take a year off. It’s similar to a sabbatical, in that it’s time away from work or studies, but it’s not necessarily used to further studies or write a book. A gap year can also be any time frame, it doesn’t need to be a full year. It can be a semester or a few months.

Most of the time, those who are taking a gap year do so between two significant events. High school graduates, recent college graduates, and professionals who finish a big project or account are among those who utilize a gap year. Gap years are a “time off” from studies or work where you travel the world.

Taking a break can mean several different things. In the context of taking a gap year, the break is an intentional one, with clear guidelines and timelines. It’s time to allow your brain to work in different ways, to rest after a stressful time, and to explore other interests. It’s not just an opportunity to skip school or work and backpack through Europe.

Pros & Cons to a Gap Year

Gap Year - Pros and Cons

As with any major life decision, there are pros and cons to a gap year. Each individual is different, as is each situation, so be sure to spend some time thinking about your intentions, your goals, and your specific situation before opting for – or against – a gap year.

Pros to a Gap Year

Among the pros of a gap year is the opportunity to rest, recharge, and rejuvenate yourself. Studying, whether in high school, college, or graduate school, is hard work. And many students are also working part-time or participating in sports or clubs. You have a lot of demands on your schedule and a gap year can give you some time away from those stressors.

During a gap year, a student can take control of their year, eliminating educational pressure, while leaving their home and exploring the world before settling into the next stage of their life. Many people take their gap year as a time to learn new life skills and personal responsibility.

Colleges and employers often view gap years positively, as students return with a renewed purpose and a better sense of themselves. They also have an increased interest in other people and cultures, which is a great addition to any workplace or school community.

On a personal note, taking a gap year can allow access to financial aid, grants, and scholarships and it can also set you ahead of peers in college or grad school applications and on your resume.

Cons to a Gap Year

The most talked-about reason people hesitate when deciding on a gap year is money. Traveling can be expensive initially, and there may be some drawbacks financially later on. By taking a gap year you will be “behind” classmates in school or colleagues in the professional space. This may mean it takes a bit longer to catch-up to the income your peers are earning. It may also make you the oldest in your class, though this isn’t as noticeable in college and grad school.

While taking a gap year can give you some great mental breaks and allow you to return to your job or studies with renewed vigor, you may also lose some momentum. You’ll need to allow yourself time to get back into the routine of studying and working. About 10% of those who take a gap year during their college years decide not to return to their studies after their time away.

Finally, taking a gap year requires planning, as well as the financial stability to pay for it. And, believe it or not, traveling the world can get lonely. These are the things to take into consideration when taking a gap year.

When to Take Your Gap Year

Gap Year - When to Take

There is no hard and fast rule about when you are allowed to take a gap year. But there are some natural breaks in education and career timelines that make the most sense.

Gap Years After High School

Gap Year - After High School

Not everyone is ready for college right after high school, which makes this a great time for a gap year. You’ll be able to get out on your own, without the pressures of college classes, explore, and perhaps discover what you’re truly passionate about—before spending a ton of money on your first two semesters. And while it may put you a year behind your peers when you return, it will set you ahead of them in many ways.

Gap Years During College

After a year or two of college, taking a gap year can help you reevaluate and recommit to your education. By this point, you have life experience that makes traveling alone less daunting and you will be ready to make new friends and explore new places. You may find that when you return, your priorities have shifted a bit, which is expected and completely normal. A gap year puts a new perspective on life, especially on college life.

Gap Years After College

Gap Year - After College

Those who take their gap year after college have similar reasons as those who take it after high school. They need a break! Post-college, you may have more pressure to hit the workplace than you did after high school. Student loans payments may be due, the pressure to start your career is building, and you don’t have that dorm room to come back to when the year is over.

But, you have experienced quite a bit of life and are ready for some more. A gap year is a good resume builder and gives you some unique things to talk about when you return and begin interviewing for jobs. You’ll learn to adapt to many situations and interact with all kinds of people, which are all valuable job skills.

Gap Years as an Adult

While not as commonly discussed, taking a gap year mid-career as an adult is still an option. In fact, it’s a great option. A gap year can help you gain perspective on a potential career change or promotion. It can help you to adjust to a new phase in life, like becoming an empty nester or moving away from a job you held for years. And while taking a gap year as an adult presents more challenges, it can also give you so much more freedom.

How to Plan Your Gap Year

Gap Year - How to Plan

Now that you’ve decided you’re taking a gap year, it’s time to start planning! Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? How are you going to pay for it? These are all the questions you are going to have. And they are good questions.

Where to Go

Gap Year - As Adult

Traveling outside of the country is very popular for those taking gap years. Countries that understand the English language usually top the list, as well as those where traveling can be done on a budget. Among the most popular countries to visit during a gap year are Japan, Australia, South Africa, India, and most of the Western European countries.

What to Do During Your Gap Year

Gap years have many purposes. Travel is the main one, but even that can take on many forms. You can put your foreign language skills to the test—or learn a new one through an immersion program. You can volunteer overseas for part or all of the time. Or you can combine them with some adventure travel and try a little bit of everything. There’s no wrong way for you to spend your time.

How to Pay for Your Gap Year

Just like your education, there are many options for funding a gap year. You can pay out of pocket, of course, but there are also scholarships and grants available. Check with your school on the scholarship or financial aid transfer they may offer if your gap year offers some academic credit. You can also apply for scholarships through a gap year program, like this one.

What to Do After a Gap Year

Gap Year - What to Do

Coming home after a gap year can be just as challenging as leaving for one. You’ll need some transition time, both for things like getting over jet lag and finding a place to live, as well as adjusting to the culture shock. Depending on where you traveled, you’ll find coming “home” to the United States requires some adjusting.

Give yourself time and manage expectations appropriately. You’ll want to see family and friends, you’ll want to eat food you haven’t had in a while, and you’ll want to share tales of your adventures. But you’ll also have to adjust to being around people again. Talking about your return with friends and family and making a clear plan on reintegrating into your life will help everyone with the transition.

Hopefully, you took pictures and jotted down some notes while taking your gap year. Reflecting on them while refocusing on your education or career can help you to remember how valuable this time was. You are a new person after your gap year, and your life will be a bit different because of it.