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What Are the Benefits of a Gap Year?

How to make the most of your gap year abroad [ad]

Every year an estimated 250,000 young people from across the globe go on gap year. It’s a pit stop on life’s superhighway of education, work, marriage, and family that allows an individual, usually after high school, college, or between jobs, the opportunity to explore their purpose and interests and to experience the world instead of merely seeing it.

Contrary to what some may believe, a gap year is not a year “off” or a vacation from “real life”. Rather, when properly leveraged, gap years provide invaluable benefits that put these adventurers ahead of their peers in terms of maturity, self-awareness, understanding of the world, and even hireability and advancement of their careers.

Structured gap years give gappers a support network of peers and mentors with whom gappers can process and understand their experiences.

Gappers come home with an increased ability to solve problems, think independently and creatively, and build relationships with people from any culture and background. Basically, they become the kind of people we need more of in the world to combat our most important challenges, like global warming, disease, economic injustice, and violent extremism.

However, simply taking a gap year isn’t enough to receive its full benefits. Gappers still need to structure their gap years, learn actively, and go into them with intent in order to truly get the most out of their time abroad. In collaboration with the gap year experts and alumni at Thinking Beyond Borders, this article seeks to shed light on the benefits of a gap year, as well as the steps gappers need to take to receive them.

What Are the Concrete Benefits of Doing a Gap Year?

The benefits of doing a gap year can be both tangible and intangible. However, a structured and purposeful gap year can allow students to gain benefits such as:

  • Professional or academic experience
  • A clearer sense of direction regarding one's academic / career path
  • Greater awareness of one's values
  • Ownership of one's education -- in the past, present, and future
  • Sense of self-confidence and competence
  • Improved decision-making skills and sense of ownership over those decisions
  • Enriched understanding of the world
  • Ability to build cross-cultural relationships
  • Improved communication skills
  • Enhanced sense of humor and humility
  • Gratitude for one's own blessings
  • Tolerance of discomfort and uncertainty
  • Courage to explore uncharted pathways, both in travel and in life
  • New language skills, if traveling in non-English speaking countries
  • Enhanced creative problem-solving skills
  • Increased maturity
  • Understanding one's potential contribution to the world
  • Reducing feelings of stress and being burnt-out

I’m sure we could keep this list going, but you get the picture. Gap years can be hugely beneficial.

How Do Gappers Apply These Benefits?

What Are the Benefits of a Gap Year?

Let's take a very tangible benefit, one that unnecessarily worries many prospective gappers: increased attractiveness as a job or higher education candidate. Many corporations and universities recognize that candidates coming home from a gap year possess many of the traits listed above. They value the contribution that these individuals, who are undoubtedly more mature, confident, and self-aware than their peers, can make to the classroom or workplace as a result. Gappers have faced and overcome personal challenges, lived independently, interacted with a wide variety of cultures, and developed a global consciousness.

With a structured gap year, they’ve also had hands-on, field-based experiences that have done just as much — if not more — to prepare them for work or school as a year of professional or educational experience would have. Further, structured gap years give gappers a support network of peers and mentors with whom gappers can process and understand their experiences. Rather than simply noting a difference they observe in a different culture, they’ll get help understanding the reason behind such actions. The education, therefore, becomes deeper and creates the very tangible benefit of experience.

All of this plays into making gappers a more attractive addition to a workplace or academic program. When hiring, senior managers actually consider whether they’d like to be stuck in O’Hare for 5 hours with a straight-laced recent graduate who’s done everything by the books, or a spunky individual who’s not only capable but spent last year building a hospital in Nepal and backpacking alone across India -- something the management consulting industry calls "the airport test." The latter person is not only more interesting, but her experiences also translate into an aptitude for performing well with important clients, winning the trust of stakeholders, and adapting to change and handling stress.

TBB exemplifies the idea that purposeful time away enhances one's education, whether we're talking about a formal education in the classroom or life-long learning that takes place at any age.

Similarly, universities and graduate schools prefer applicants who can demonstrate exactly what they plan to study and why, in addition to concretely how that individual will improve and diversify their starting class. A student who has taken a purposeful gap year adds diversity to the experiences of their peers. They’ve tested out a potential academic tract or career through experiential learning, internships, or any number of field-based experiences. Ultimately, it leads to having a stronger focus in their studies.

Gap Years Aren't Inherently Beneficial -- They Need Structure

I can’t stress this enough: gap years are not inherently educational. They must be designed well to be meaningful. This isn’t just a break from studying or working so you can have a good time. Rather, it can, and should be, optimized to provide tangible personal and professional benefits. To do so, you’ll need:

  • Intent -- Before embarking on a gap year, you have to consider what you want to get out of the experience, what interests you want to explore, and how to match those interests with the offerings of the world. Imagine, you can go anywhere and study anything firsthand. What do you want to learn and why?
  • Mentorship — Is there someone to learn from on your time abroad? A trip leader, teacher, or manager who can help explain what you’re seeing?
  • Field based experiences — Are you seeking out experiences that will help you learn, like an internship or language course? Or are you wasting your time sitting around a beach hostel?
  • Someone to process your experience with — A solo gap year is a powerful experience, but make sure you’ll have a network of peers with whom to process this experience. You may not necessarily leave home knowing who these peers will be, and that’s OK, so long as the network is there.

To achieve this, you could volunteer, learn a language, conduct research, live with a local family in an immersion experience, or undergo an international internship. But to truly get the most out of a gap year, you might have to reach out to a structured gap year program provider.

Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), an educational organization focused on helping students develop social impact careers, offers semester and year-long programs where gappers live in local communities and examine issues related to public health, education, and the environment during their time abroad. TBB exemplifies the idea that purposeful time away enhances one's education, whether we're talking about a formal education in the classroom or life-long learning that takes place at any age. They focus on incorporating all of these elements into semester or year-long programs.

Whether you want to go overseas with a program or independently, take your goals, and match them with a program, international internship, or service-learning trip that leads you to better understanding your interests.

What Does a Structured Gap Year Look Like?

What Are the Benefits of a Gap Year?

Personally, I've done several gap year experiences (not always a year), varying from the type where I ran around several continents and checked off everything there was "to see," but came home without understanding the direct impact of that experience and how it translated back into the rest of my life, and then the type where I chose a place and a skill I wanted to gain and sunk my teeth in for a few months.

I went to China and studied Mandarin intensively. I did an internship with an NGO in Egypt. I went on work assignments to countries in Africa and learned to do business in a new region. I lived with a host family in Guatemala. I studied meditation and volunteered on a farm in south India. Guess which experiences were the most educational? The most beneficial? Those with intent, mentorship, experience, and peers.

For you, this may look a little different. If you're interested in education, work in an education center in India and discover how education can improve health and create equity and justice. If you're a writer, find an internship in a local media outlet. If you've always wanted to learn Russian, sign up for a class in Moscow. If you're studying international development, work in an NGO in your planned region of expertise. Select what you love and connect it to the ultimate home of where it's from and go there and study it and learn it.

As you can see, a gap year is about much more than just travel. It’s about knowing and growing who you are, making a plan, diving into a project, learning from the world, and sharing your unique talents. Before you depart, think carefully about what you want to achieve while you're away. Always remember, deliberate experiences have a deliberate impact. It's important to find ways to incorporate your interests and prior experience into your gap year because a mission-driven trip overseas is both more impressive and more rewarding.

The Impact of a Thoughtful Gap Year on Your Future

Your experiences and hands-on education in the real world abroad will result in a more well-informed idea of where you're going in life, what you want to learn going forward, and why. Your gap year provides a reservoir of skills and life experience that you'll draw on for the rest of your life.

Whether you want to go overseas with a program or independently, take your goals, and match them with a program, international internship, or service-learning trip that leads you to better understanding your interests.

Over the years, TBB has produced hundreds of alumni who have successfully re-entered the classroom and workforce and are creating a meaningful impact with the skills they learned during their time overseas. These alumni have gotten where they are as a direct result of TBB’s unique structure and focus on education.

Mary Bryan

Mary in China

Mary Bryan, a graduate of Tulane University who studied public health and social entrepreneurship, took a gap year between high school and college. She says of her experience:

"Living, learning, and working in communities that were — at first glance — very different from my own gave me new perspectives on the somewhat abstract global issues we were studying.

"For example, when living in Los Naranjos in Ecuador, I saw firsthand the impacts of deforestation and resource overuse, as well as the flattening of the world and globalization. My bond with my host family gave my analysis of environmental issues a human and empathetic perspective that I didn’t have in my environmental science courses in high school...

"I am now studying public health and social entrepreneurship in college, two fields I barely knew existed before I went on TBB."

Silvanio Valdez


Silvanio Valdez, who is working at Ernst & Young after completing a Master’s degree at Miami University in Financial Economics, started a social enterprise in Kenya after his gap year. If his description of starting Vuwa Enterprise isn't inspiration for your gap year, we don't know what is:

"Vuwa Enterprise is a social business that finances rainwater management technologies in dry parts of Kenya. Our customers cannot afford these products up front, so we install them and create long term payment plans...

"I wanted to challenge the idea that the marginalized are too risky to invest in. I started Vuwa at the end of my freshmen year in college and ran it until my senior year. During that time, Vuwa installed over 150 rainwater management systems and provided financing for each one of them. Currently, Vuwa is under local leadership and still continues to grow."

Charlotte Robertson

Charlotte in Thailand

Charlotte Robertson, now studying at Ithaca College and a Huffington Post contributor on social justice issues, says her gap year taught her this:

"...that the issues I care about are all interconnected. There is no way to be concerned about racial equality without fighting for gender equity. There is no way to understand the environmental crisis without understanding its ties to racial oppression.

"How can someone fight for LBGT rights if they don’t understand that our society is patriarchal? How can I fight for international justice if I don’t understand the deeper implications of colonialism? Or women’s rights without looking at their educational opportunities? I’m interested in working with sex trafficking in Asia after college."

Will your gap year bring you home with this kind of clarity and inspiration?

The World Needs More Gappers

While gap years have been most traditional in Australia, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe, the concept is, fortunately, spreading to the Americas and beyond. The idea is allowing more young people to reap the benefits of a purpose-driven journey overseas that encourages huge personal growth, develops raw life skills, explores professional paths, extends their global network, and ignites their imagination.

However, we want to encourage students to go into their gap years thoughtfully and with structures in place to help them thrive, dive deeper into understanding a new culture, and come home with more than just a pocketful of stories.

It’s the best way to assure gappers come home with a more creative, well-informed outlook on their future, filled with a deeper understanding of all the ways life can be lived, ones that typically challenge conventional ideas about wealth and status that drives much of society. We need people to experience the world, think beyond their borders, find greater purpose, bring it home, and challenge us.

Learn more about Thinking Beyond Borders gap year programs.

Elaina Giolando
A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-someth Read More...