Should I Take a Gap Year?Written by Alicia Betz, reviewed by the EducationCorner.com Team
When I was getting ready to graduate high school and move on with my life, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I decided to go to college because that’s just what you did. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, and I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I watched everyone around me choose colleges and majors and I felt like I was doing something wrong because I didn’t have it all figured out. Thankfully, it all worked out and I’m happy with where I’m at today, but I, like many other students, could have benefited from a gap year.
Most of those classmates of mine who had it all figured out? They didn’t. They transferred schools, switched majors, dropped out, and changed career paths. There’s nothing wrong with any of that! Really, how many people actually know what they want to do with their life when they’re 18? One of the many benefits of taking a gap year is that it gives you more time to decide what path you want to pursue. However, a gap year isn’t right for everyone, so continue reading to make an informed decision for yourself.
What is a Gap Year?
If you’re already here, you likely know what a gap year is, so here’s just a quick definition. Simply put, a gap year is a year between high school and college where you take a break from school. There are a lot of different things you can do during a gap year, as you’ll see below. According to The Gap Year Association, your gap year can help you find your purpose by figuring out how to make the following four factors combine:
- That which you love
- That which the world needs
- That which you are good at
- That which you can be paid for
What Do You Do During a Gap Year?
The ultimate goal of a gap year is to find yourself and figure out what you want to do with your life. No matter what you decide to do with your gap year, it gives you the space and freedom to start to figure it out.
You can embark on a gap year independently, or you can enroll in a more structured gap year program. An important aspect of a productive gap year is a plan. Even if you want to take this time to live freely and explore, you should still at least have a loose plan and set of goals for yourself. If you’re structuring your gap year on your own, read more below about the most common gap year activities.
This is probably the most common gap year activity, and it might be exactly what you imagine when you think of taking a gap year. Explore the world, backpack through Europe, meet new people; take this time to find out who you are what you’re passionate about. Traveling during a gap year opens up your worldview and exposes you to new cultures. There are a plethora of other benefits to traveling, and the period of time between high school and college may be the easiest time for you to satisfy your wanderlust.
While many people need to work during their gap year for financial reasons, the jobs you have during your gap year shouldn’t be seen as your career. (Unless you fall in love with what you’re doing; in that case, congratulations! You’ve already figured it out!) In most cases, you can find part-time work to support yourself even if working isn’t the goal of your gap year.
If work is your main goal, a good strategy is to work in the field you’re going to pursue. This can help you solidify your choice so you’re not second guessing yourself, or it can make you realize you should pick a different major than the one you had in mind. This also gives you valuable experience and networking, so when you graduate college and you’re applying for “entry level jobs” that require years of experience, you’ll be a step ahead of all the students who didn’t take a gap year
Another reason people work during their gap year is to save up money to be able to afford college. This is a great way to give yourself some time to mature before starting college while also helping to lower your eventual student loan debt.
Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is a life changing experience for many students who choose to take a gap year. Some students choose to join the Peace Corps or to go on an extended missions trip for their gap year. Volunteering doesn’t have to take place abroad, either. Many students find there is a great need right in their own community if they just open their eyes. Whether it’s volunteering at a local soup kitchen or building an orphanage in Haiti, realizing how good you have it compared to others can cause a fundamental shift in your worldview and your future plans.
Work on Yourself
This is possibly the first time in your life you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. No more tests, homework, chores, practices, etc. You can use a gap year as a time to get away from outside influences and figure out who you are. Pick up a new book you never would have dreamed of reading before, learn a new skill, make friends with people who are different from you. Maybe you want to spend a year writing in the wilderness, channeling your inner Thoreau, or you want to dedicate your whole self to dance. A gap year gives you the time to do these things free from pressure.
This can be one of the keys to finding your passion. As you work on yourself, maybe you’ll realize that you truly love working with animals (that which you love). As you look at those around you, you realize that a lot of people are struggling and could be cheered up by the comfort of animals (that which the world needs). You take this time to practice working with and training animals (that which you’re good at). Then, you develop a business idea to provide short and long term therapy animals to people (that which you can be paid for). Now, you can head to college with a real purpose and plan.
Pros of Taking a Gap Year
- You can become a better person. Experiencing any of the above options (traveling, working, volunteering, and working on yourself) helps you become a better version of yourself, and it helps you discover who you really are. Entering college as a confident person with a strong sense of self can make your entire college experience much better.
- You get a break from school. Sometimes, you just need a break, especially after being in school for 12+ years. A study by Andrew J. Martin, Rachel Wilson, Gregory Arief D. Liem, and Paul Ginns for The Journal of Higher Education found that taking a gap year is actually associated with achievement and success in college. After taking a break, you'll feel less jaded and ready to tackle your degree.
- It’s financially smart. As discussed above, you can use your gap year to work, so you won’t have as much financial strain while you’re going through school. Another financial advantage is that you have more time to figure out what you want to go to school for when you return, so you won’t be wasting money on an education that you won’t use. Some students end up needing five or more years to complete their bachelor’s because they change their mind about their major; a gap year can eliminate that problem.
- You have time to mature. Maybe you didn’t quite have things together in high school and you realized too late that you need to take your future into your own hands. Instead of settling for a school that’s still accepting students in the spring, use the gap year to give yourself more options. You can apply over the summer and in the fall to the schools you really want to go to, all the while traveling or earning extra money to help pay for your schooling. You’ll also enter college as a more mature person, and you can avoid making mistakes you might have made a year earlier.
Cons of Taking a Gap Year
- You might never make it back to school. This is one of the biggest reasons people list when they say students shouldn’t take a gap year. It can be hard to jump back into academia after you’ve had a taste of living on your own without having to worry about school for the first time since you were a toddler. You can get used to the lifestyle you start living and it can be hard to motivate yourself to go back for many reasons. Some people find they like the slower paced lifestyle they adopt during their gap year; some people enjoy making a living and don’t want to give that up to go back to school. To avoid this con, make a plan for your gap year and stick to it.
- Social stigma. This con is unfortunate, but for most people, it’s true. If you decide to take a gap year, you may get comments from friends or family members who don’t think a gap year is a good idea. They may see you as being lazy or making excuses for not going to school. You may need to have a thick skin or be prepared to educate them on the benefits of a gap year.
- Money problems. While you can make money during a gap year, this year could also be very financially stressful depending on what you plan to do with your time. If you anticipate money being a stressor, plan far in advance for how you will overcome this con.
- Missed opportunities with friends. While you take your gap year, most of your friends will probably be heading off to college, so you’ll no longer be on the same educational timeline. You could miss out on the bonding of starting college together, traveling during spring break, and eventually graduating together, for example. Keep in mind though, that you’ll likely make many new friends during your gap year, and the opportunities awaiting you during a gap year are endless.
Although there are many advantages to taking a gap year, it’s not for everyone. This shouldn’t be a decision that you just jump into because you’re sick of studying for tests or you’re too indecisive about your future. If you've taken the time to think about it and have decided to take a gap year, Gap Year Association has resources to help you plan every aspect of your gap year.