Have you considered taking some time off of work or school to pack a bag and set off for some far-flung destination? Do you feel like you've spent years or decades of your life in the same routine and fear you'll soon burn out? These aren't unique feelings, and many of us can relate to the desire to experience a new adventure.
Previously popularized in the UK, Australia, and throughout Europe, gap years are now becoming more common in the US and much of the world. Additionally, employers are opening their eyes to the benefits of a gap year as the stigma fades.
If you've considered taking a gap year or have at least had your curiosity peaked by the concept, you likely have questions regarding if it'd be the right decision for you. We're here to answer your questions, share the advantages and disadvantages, and teach you how to plan a successful gap year abroad.
What is a gap year?
Simply put, a gap year is a dedicated break from traditional work or academia in pursuit of personal growth through experiential learning, which often includes travel. It’s similar to a sabbatical in that it’s time away from work or studies, but it’s not necessarily used to study or write a book.
Taking a break can mean several different things. In the context of taking a gap year, the break is an intentional one, with clear goals and timelines. It’s not just an opportunity to skip school or work and backpack through Europe. It’s time to allow your brain to work in different ways, rest after a stressful period, and explore other interests.
How long is a gap year?
The phrase gap year can be a bit misleading as there is no rule that it has to actually be a year. For some, a gap year is a few weeks away, while other gappers might choose to take a semester off from university. Likewise, some take more than a year or split their time up over a couple of years, working intermittently.
A gap year is more about what you do with your time and not about how long you do it.
Gap Year Crash Course: Explore the Gap Year
What are the pros & cons of a gap year?
As with any significant life decision, a gap year has pros and cons. 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.
Variables to consider before signing up for gap year:
- What is your budget?
- Do you have dependents?
- Can you defer your admission, scholarships, and financial aid if you're in college?
- If you're employed, will your company allow you to take significant time off, or will you need to quit your job?
- What are your goals and aspirations for taking time off?
Gap year benefits
Among the pros of a gap year is the opportunity to rest, recharge, and rejuvenate yourself. Whether you're working full-time or enrolled in high school, college, or graduate school, you've probably been immersed in hard work for years, with little relief. From a young age, you've had have many demands on your schedule, and a gap year can give you some time away from those stressors.
During a gap year, you can take control of your schedule, eliminating pressure from your course load or boss. You have the freedom to experience the world around you on your terms. You can expand your perspective and self-reflect before settling into the next stage of life. Many people will also utilize this time to learn new life skills and personal responsibility.
The perception from colleges and employers on gap years has trended positively over the last few years, as students and prospective employees return with a renewed purpose and improved soft skills. According to data accumulated by the Gap Year Association, 96% of gap year alum reported improved self-confidence, and 93% said they developed better communication skills. Beyond the personal benefits, 84% of respondents stated they acquired skills to be more successful in their careers, and 75% claimed their gap year helped them get a job. This same data dispelled the myth that students who take a gap year will drop out. 90% of students returned to college within a year of their gap experience.
The skills, connections, and experiences acquired during a gap year can differentiate your resume from your peers, which will help set you apart in job interviews and even expand access to financial aid, grants, and scholarships.
Gap year disadvantages
The financial commitment of taking a year off is the most common cause for hesitation. Traveling can be expensive, and there may be drawbacks financially later on. There is an opportunity cost for every decision, and time off may put you “behind” classmates in school or colleagues in the professional space. This may mean it takes longer to graduate or catch up to your peers' income. 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, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Finally, taking a gap year requires planning and the financial stability to pay for it. Additionally, believe it or not, traveling the world (especially solo travel) can get lonely. Many of the same aspects of a gap year that push growth are also extremely challenging. It's important to consider your mental health and wellbeing when making the drastic lifestyle changes that international travel entails. The CDC has a guide on mental health and travel. Please read and understand the possible risks and stresses before setting off on a long-term international trip.
Keep reading: The Pros & Cons of Taking a Gap Year
When can I take a gap year?
There is no hard and fast rule about when you are allowed to take a gap year. There are, however, some natural breaks in education and career timelines that make for great opportunities. The most popular time to take a gap year is after graduating high school or college. That said, more professionals are pursuing a gap year between employment. As you're learning, gap year is a very flexible term, and you're never too old to take a break and invest in yourself!
Gap year after high school
Not everyone is ready for college right after high school, making for an opportunistic time for a gap year. You’ll be able to get out on your own without the pressures of college classes, explore your own humanity, and perhaps discover what you’re genuinely passionate about before investing a ton of money in your first two semesters. While it may put you a year behind your peers when you return in terms of your degree pursuit, it will set you far ahead of them in your experiences and global network.
Gap year 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 experiences that make traveling alone less daunting, and you will be ready to make new friends in distant places. You may find that when you return, your priorities have shifted, which is expected and completely normal. A gap year puts a new perspective on life, and that's a good thing!
Gap year after college
Following similar logic to taking a gap year after high school, a gap year after graduating from college is a chance for a much-needed break! No doubt, the pressures to start working begin mounting up. However, many see this time period as their last chance for a grand adventure before investing years in building a career.
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 people from different walks of life, which are all valuable job skills. Additionally, you will see the world of opportunity out there, and you may just make connections or find a job that entirely alters your life's trajectory.
Gap year as an adult
While not as commonly discussed, taking a gap year mid-career (also referred to as a professional gap year) is always 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 adjust to a new phase in life, like becoming an empty nester or moving away from a job you held for years.
While taking a gap year as an adult presents more challenges, it can also give you much more freedom. As an adult, you will likely have a bigger budget and a better idea of what you want to get out of your gap experience.
How do you plan a gap year?
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.
How to choose where to go
Traveling abroad is a popular (but not essential) aspect of most gap years. If you do desire to go overseas, there are a few essential factors to consider:
- What languages do you speak, and do you want to be immersed in a foreign language?
- What countries can you get a visa to visit, and how long will that visa permit you to stay?
- What are the current health restrictions for international travel?
- What activities do you want to participate in while abroad?
- What is your budget, and what country can you afford to live in throughout the gap experience?
- What is your risk tolerance?
Here at Go Overseas, we pay close attention to the interests of our community members. Throughout 2021, these were the most popular countries for gap year programs, according to user wish lists (a tool allowing you to save programs and quickly find them again later.
What to do during your gap year
Gap years have many purposes. Travel is often 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.
If you're looking for inspiration, check our selection of the best gap year programs for 2022.
How to Pay for 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. Gap year program providers also commonly have need-based scholarships to make their programs accessible to more people.
Be sure to check out our article on how to budget for your gap year for a comprehensive budgeting guide.
What do you do when the gap year is over?
Coming home after a gap year can be 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 reverse or re-entry culture shock. Depending on where you traveled, you’ll find coming “home” requires some adapting.
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. Being around so many people again may also be an adjustment. Talking about your return with friends and family and making a clear plan on reintegrating into your life will help everyone with the transition.
You will also want to start decompressing and reflecting on your journey. Journaling is a great way to process your thoughts and everything you just went through. Additionally, this is the time to start noting the experiences and how you will put them on your resume to articulate all the growth and development you just underwent.
Will you take on the challenges and possibilities of a gap year?
Taking a gap year can be a monumental decision, and for good reason! From personal experience, a gap year is a life-changing adventure. There were countless nights alone with my own thoughts and days spent on the trail turning strangers into lifelong friends. I experienced scenes that took my breath away, the joys of deep connection, the pain of loss, the fear of the unknown, and the pride of accomplishment. My gap year pushed me to be a better human, a more empathetic friend, and a more inspired artist. Words will never truly describe what my dedicated time off meant to me, but it led me here, sharing this with you.
While a gap year isn't for everyone, if you feel the drive to take on the challenge of self-growth through experiential learning, start planning your gap year today! Don't feel like you have to do it alone. Our gap year counselors page will answer frequently asked questions, allow you to register for upcoming gap year planning events, and connect you with experts eager to help.