Time flew by, didn’t it? Four years and too many homework assignments and exams later… you’re off to college! The thing is, some high school graduates are debating whether to head straight to college or take a gap year to explore the world and find their passion. If you are one of the latter, don’t worry -- you aren’t alone.
It is perfectly normal to feel hesitant about this new part of your academic career. That’s why gap years exist: to help you figure out what you want to study, gain experiences that help boost your resume and communication skills, and take on “adulting” in quite frankly… the coolest way possible.
Gap years have been common overseas for decades, but are still relatively new in the United States. Initially perceived as something only affluent students have access to, the wealth of travel programs and financial aid availability has made it easier for people of all economic backgrounds to take advantage of global exposure.
If you are debating whether to take a gap year before college, take our word for it and go! If our word isn’t enough, here’s a list of the benefits of taking a gap year after high school.
Gap Years Help Motivate Students Who Don’t Feel Ready For College
Not everyone is “ready” for college fresh out of high school--and that’s okay. According to a survey conducted by YouthTruth, in fact, only 1 in 2 students feel academically prepared for college. While this stat can certainly be affected by school ranking and economic variables, it speaks to a widespread truth that gap years are a much needed transitional experience for many high school graduates.
During your gap year you’ll not only be able to reflect on any anxiety you might have about college, you’ll also be able to gain experiences that help give a clearer understanding about the journey you want to take over the next 2-4 years.
Whether it is a gap year dedicated to taking extra courses abroad, interning, or embarking on new adventures, it’ll be a transformative experience nonetheless.
You Are More Likely to Feel Confident With Your College Major After a Gap Year
The only way to know if you truly enjoy something is to experience it firsthand--that includes your college field of interest. Entering college with a sense of clarity invoked by travel will make your academic decisions more pointed and intentional.
If you’re less afraid of heading to a new school and more worried about whether you picked the right major, take a step back and consider a gap year that highlights both your academic focus and alternative options.
If you are a business major, for instance, doing an internship in entrepreneurship might help you realize that owning your own business isn’t your cup of tea. Having that same experience in a less developed region, however, could awaken a fresh passion for economic development and help narrow down your specialty.
Gap Years Can Make You a More Philanthropic Adult
It’s amazing how a year away can promote both self-awareness and philanthropy. As you mature, you realize how important cultural exposure is to your growth (personally, morally, and professionally). You might also realize that you know little to nothing about people who are different from you.
Gap years are essential for this reason; more than 90% of gap year alumni share that taking a year off helped them gain respect and understanding for cultures and customs other than their own. It also helps students learn how to interact with people from different backgrounds and instill an appreciation for the importance of human rights.
Whether or not you decide to dedicate your gap year to giving back to communities, cultural immersion will encourage a more empathetic view of the world, inspiring you to give back to others throughout your life.
If volunteering abroad is your dream, check out these volunteer programs abroad for your upcoming gap year.
Freshman Year Courses Can Be a Breeze After a Gap Year
If you plan your gap year wisely, you'll likely come out standing above most other students in your grade. You’ll find it easier to adapt to unfamiliar situations (like large classrooms without a recognizable face) and will be more likely to apply your worldly experience to assignments.
While other students are fulfilling their humanities and natural sciences requirements á la textbook memorization, for instance, you’ll be able to recall firsthand experiences visiting museums, historical landmarks, and UNESCO sites. Exams are a lot easier when you can recall course material from a life-changing year overseas.
A Gap Year Helps Prepare You For Independence
For most high school graduates, going to college might be your first time away from home (especially if you’re staying in a dorm or apartment). That means: no one to provide home-cooked meals, do your laundry, force you to clean your room, manage your daily schedule, or help you maintain a bank account.
During your year abroad before college, you’ll be either traveling alone or with a gap year program and learning how to manage life independently. This opportunity will help you not only learn more about your adulting strengths and weaknesses, it will also provide skills that can help you quickly adjust to college life.
If an autonomous gap year sounds like the experience for you, try a working holiday overseas. These working holiday programs help you prepare for a life working and living abroad like a local.
You Can Score A Program That Pays You To Take A Gap Year
Did you know that some students actually get paid to take a gap year? There are a number of programs that not only provide a stipend for taking a gap year, they also provide college aid to select eligible students. For many people, finances can make or break the possibility of a gap year, but volunteer and exchange programs can change that.
For instance: “City Year, a program run by AmeriCorps […] pays high school grads a living stipend and health insurance benefits. After the year, the program said students are eligible to receive scholarships to their college.” (Source: CBS News)
If you were on the fence about gap years because of their cost, check out similar programs or review our list of fundraising ideas for your trip abroad.
A Gap Year Offers An Opportunity To Learn A New Language
Many high school graduates choose to take their gap year in a region or country where English is not the primary or secondary language. This is a great path to follow if you are interested in learning a new language or perfecting a language you studied in high school.
There are a number of benefits to embracing a new language during your gap year:
- People are more likely to learn (and recall) a new language when fully immersed in daily experiences abroad.
- Students who learned a second language in high school can hone their language skills even more, and resultantly test out of or level up in collegiate language courses.
- Internships, special exchange programs, and jobs often value candidates that speak more than one language.
- Learning a new language helps improve concentration, memory, and auditory learning.
You Foster Global Relationships That’ll Last A Lifetime
Traveling and volunteering abroad is a terrific way to build a network that is both personally and professionally fulfilling. While there may be people you connect with who you never see again, the Internet and social media has been influential in building digital bridges that connect us beyond borders.
A gap year teaches you how to make new friends when you don’t know anyone else, how to honor your differences while recognizing similarities, and how to be confident when navigating unfamiliar territory. That’s what college is all about -- embarking on a new experience that leaves you with impactful lessons while preparing you for the next phase in your life.
Wondering Where To Go During A Gap Year?
Once you’ve decided whether you want to spend a full year overseas before college or just travel a few months at a time (both are amazing options), then you can review destinations to explore by category. Some gap year programs focus on volunteering, while others focus on internships and field experience. If your travel preference is more carefree and adventurous, that is an option too! Review these suggested programs for your gap year to get inspired:
As you can see, there are multiple benefits to taking a gap year abroad. Now, the question isn't whether you should take a gap year before college, it's where you should go first!
Exploring your gap year options? Don't miss USA Gap Year Fairs every winter! These free, public events are held in 40+ cities across the country to provide a broad exposure to gap year options and connect prospective gap year students, parents, gap year organizations, educators, experts, and alumni.
This post was originally published in September 2013, and was updated in July 2018 and June 2020.