Early indications suggest we're in the middle of the biggest gap year ever.
Remote learning, social isolation, and college costs are a few factors that drove 1 in 6 high school seniors to change their plans to attend college this fall, compared to the fewer than 3% of American students who usually take a year off before college.
"The pandemic has really magnified what you're already struggling with," said Jane Goldstone Sarouhan, a founder of J2Guides, a gap year counseling service. "That has really given more students than ever pause on thinking about going straight off to college, which of course those of us in the gap year are kind of thrilled about. Because it's such a fruitful opportunity for so many people."
What is a Gap Year?
A gap year is an extended academic break for high school graduates to explore other interests before starting college, such as social service, volunteer work, and language immersion.
The chance to travel, explore, and go on adventures is usually what attracts students to a gap year, which is often internationally-focused. But during COVID-19, overseas travel is mostly off limits.
Instead, students have found opportunities closer to home in the United States, such as domestic gap year programs, political campaigns, and student networks — though some have managed to travel overseas where it is allowed.
We spoke with six "gappers'' who decided to take a year off from school to find out how their gap years have gone so far.
Hometown: West Orange, New Jersey
School: Stanford University
Before 2020, taking a gap year never crossed Tyler Newman's mind. But fast-forward to a year later and it seems like it was her plan all along.
In August, Newman founded The Year of Mastery, a gap year program and student network of more than 300 students. The students meet up virtually twice a month to network, share advice, and bond as they work toward a common goal of fulfilling 12 months of skill exploration.
Newman has spent her gap year building The Year of Mastery and working on other projects, including her online media platform for women of color, Afro Puff Chronicles; her upcoming, virtual Women of Color conference in March; and writing a screenplay for a short film.
Taking a Gap Year
"I never really thought a gap year would be part of my journey. The idea of taking a gap year was never part of my vocabulary at all. I think it was just kind of forced upon me because of my circumstances. Once my school decided to go virtual, [a gap year] turned out to be the best idea for me. Since then, I've definitely embraced everything."
"I wanted to spend each month of my gap year focusing on a specific challenge to complete or just learning and diving into different passions that I felt like I neglected during high school. Focusing on learning languages, which is something I'm passionate about, or working on writing or creating short films. That's initially what my goal was, and then it became something bigger as I got more people involved."
The Year of Mastery
"I was just wanting to dive into my passions, have a structure of school, and also have the community that I would have had at school. I'm really a people person. The idea of just being alone in my house for months was not appealing, so I wanted to have at least some kind of virtual community."
"We meet about twice to once a month as a community, and once each week as a pod. It's a group of about 2-3 students meeting and talking with one another each week and seeing if they're on task with their goals or if they have gotten off track. It's good to have a touchpoint with someone else going through the same experiences you."
Hometown: Truro, Massachusetts
School: Middlebury College
When Freya Rich decided to take a gap year, she never expected to be standing face to face with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. She had originally wanted to travel to Southeast Asia and South America for a year of backpacking, volunteering, and environmentalism, but the coronavirus pandemic put an end to that.
With the help of gap year counselors, a new destination emerged: a backpacking trek through Arizona with Carpe Diem's borderlands program. Her trip would include backpacking in the Saguaro National Park, environmental conservation, and a visit to the border wall in Nogales, Arizona.
Taking a Gap Year
"I was feeling pretty burnt out from the traditional classroom style of learning, and I really wanted to learn more by doing through experiential education. So for me, having the time and the freedom to dive deeper into my established interest and discover and explore new ones was something that I was really excited about doing."
"It had a focus on climate resilience in desert communities, as well as immigration justice. Both of those were really interesting to me and something that I didn't know anything about, being from the East Coast. I just thought it would be a really good opportunity to learn a lot more about my own country there and a different part that I haven't able to before."
"When we first drove up to the wall, it was super — a memorable moment, because it's just huge and so imposing, and you can see how it just completely divides. We went to the wall in Nogales. It used to be Ambos Nogales, so it used to be one community, and the wall just splits it down the middle. Your cousin could live down the street one day and the next, it's in a different country.
"It was a couple of times when we were speaking with the immigrants. They didn't speak English, so I was able to help translate a little bit. That was really powerful. They just taught me so much about the situation that's actually happening, and hearing their experiences and stories first-hand was really moving and just super powerful."
"A common myth about gap years is that they have to be this really expensive thing that's just unattainable to a lot of people, and that was a big worry for me when I was planning it. But it really doesn't have to be a crazy expensive thing. And actually, the J2 Guide's budgeting session gave me a lot of resources about how to think outside the box and use non-material resources to plan the budget and figure out how I was going to afford it."
Hometown: Peachtree City, Georgia
School: Duke University
Zack Stone needed a break after "four pretty intense years of high school" and did not feel like jumping straight into college was the right move. Taking a gap year was his solution.
After he graduated, Stone worked on the communications team for a local political candidate and helped run social media accounts. Then, in September, he joined the High Mountain Institute (HMI) for three months of backpacking, rock climbing, and rafting across Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.
In January, he settled in Costa Rica — the country opened its borders in November 2020 for visitors who meet visa and COVID-19 requirements — for a four-month stay to take Spanish classes and participate in work exchanges.
Taking a Gap Year
"I wanted some time off of formal education and [to] learn through exploration. I wanted to grow as a person, develop my 'soft' skills, and become more independent. I didn't feel any urge to immediately get started on higher education and join the workforce. And with the introduction of online classes and mostly closed college campuses, I felt I could be more productive and fulfilled away from school."
"I don't know precisely what I want to pursue in my education and career, so my gap year has been a truly amazing opportunity to receive real experiences in the passions I am considering following. Working on a campaign has given me better insight into politics, while living in the backcountry and having discussions around land management has grown my passions for sustainable development, and living, learning, and working in Costa Rica is fueling my desire to bring an international focus to my studies and career."
Lessons in Adversity
"One of my favorite lessons that I have learned thus far is reframing the way I think about challenges. With HMI especially, we faced difficult physical and mental challenges every day, ranging from hiking in the freezing cold and biting wind at 14,000 feet of elevation to trying to cook and set up camp in a blizzard to having to unexpectedly camp for the night without water. But we all ultimately found that these challenges were what made the experience so special. By working and struggling together, our group learned, appreciated the easy moments, and grew."
"All of this growth has brought a new sense of independence and self-confidence. Planning, budgeting, and taking care of myself far from home has been a totally new experience for me, but one I have enjoyed. And now I feel secure that when I do return to my education, I will be able to prioritize my academics and goals rather than focus on the rapid adjustments of living away from home."
Hometown: San Francisco, California
School: Georgetown University
Major: Biology pre-med
Taking a gap year taught Avery Arcuri how to be spontaneous and take opportunities as they come. For someone who prefers structure over disorganization, that's no small feat.
Arcuri kicked off her gap year in August by working at two local businesses in San Francisco to become financially independent. Meanwhile, she joined the content team at Gapyearly, an information and support center for gap year students. She later spent a month living in Washington D.C. with two Georgetown students to get acquainted with the city and campus she'll call home in the fall of 2021.
After returning home in December, Arcuri began working as a behavioral interventionist for Cortica, a pediatric healthcare company for children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.
Taking a Gap Year
"My gap year was extremely last-minute. In early August, Georgetown reversed its decision to house freshmen on campus, and I felt like the rug had been swept out from under me. My parents, since May, had encouraged the idea of a gap year due to COVID-19 and for the reason of preserving my freshman year, but I was eager to get to college even if circumstances were different.
"When Georgetown reversed its decision, it seemed obvious that a gap year was the right decision, even as someone who enjoys structure and felt super out of my comfort zone taking a year off with virtually no plans."
"My long-term goals during this year are mostly to better hone my academic interests before college, and to take advantage of learning that happens outside of the classroom. I have attended small, competitive schools since kindergarten, and what happens inside the classroom has always overshadowed everything else, so this gap year has been a very transformative learning experience before I enter college, which is exactly what I want it to be."
A New Mentality
"Because of COVID and the last-minute nature of my gap year, I didn't have much of a planning process. But I knew I wanted to work, so I started out by mass-applying to jobs, and when opportunities came to me, I learned to embrace them and adopt a 'say-yes' mentality. As someone who needs visibility into the future and lots of structure, I will say that this has been extremely uncomfortable for me at times, but has taught me more than I can possibly imagine — about flexibility, independence, and being able to be comfortable in my discomfort."
"I've been able to grow and become financially independent, which is an opportunity that will serve me well and one that I wouldn't have fully been able to accomplish without my gap year. I think that the most rewarding part of this gap year has definitely been the amount that I was able to learn about myself, my desires, and who I want to become as a person. I have had more time with myself than I ever thought I would, and this time of reflection has allowed me to clear my head and ground myself before heading off to college."
Hometown: New York City, New York
School: Yale University
Not many college students can say they helped a presidential candidate win an election. But that's how Cormac Thorpe has spent most of his consecutive gap years, which began in May 2019 and will last until August 2021. Thorpe worked on President Biden's campaign team as a field organizer from September 2019 to November 2020 while traveling around the country for primaries.
After spending the holidays at home, he flew to Bogotá, Colombia (which allows airline travel following a negative COVID-19 test), to work on a farm. Later, he joined Gapyearly's marketing team to help other "gappers" plan their years; interned remotely for a Colombian company; tutored a U.S. student in Spanish; and will soon be participating in Global Citizen Year Academy, an intensive leadership program that prepares incoming college students.
Taking a Gap Year
"I took a gap year during the 2019-2020 school year and was planning on going to school in the fall of 2020, but there were a combination of things that made me want to take another year off. COVID-19 was one factor; Yale's plans weren't what I'd hoped they would be, and I didn't want to spend half of my first year all online.
"Second, I had been working on the Biden for President campaign for nearly a year and wanted to see it through the election. Third, because I had been working for the whole year, I wanted to take some time to do something else besides work and school (like you might on a more "typical" gap year)."
"I definitely went back and forth with multiple options, but I wanted to have some work, some travel, some immersion into other cultures, and things that pushed me outside of my comfort zone, as those were things that I didn't get as much of in high school. I wasn't as interested in gap year programs because I preferred figuring things out on my own and didn't want to pay for expensive excursions, and I steered away from focusing on academics because I'd get that in college."
"I often worked 70-80 hour weeks and was totally consumed by it, which was stressful and almost made me want to stop a few times. But finishing it out strong and winning the election was one of the best feelings I've ever had."
"I've learned that people are complicated, interesting, and can be so much fun to talk to and get to know. I've also learned how to feel comfortable and at home in multiple places and how to be flexible and more comfortable with uncertainty. I've made friends with people from all over the country and the world who I wouldn't have otherwise met, and I've gotten better at being more responsible, confident, and acting like an adult.
"They aren't necessarily lessons I wouldn't have learned at some point later on, but learning these things now will make me approach college and entering the workforce more clearly."
Hometown: Burlington, Vermont
School: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Major: Community nonprofit leadership
When Molly Cohen chose to take a gap year, it felt more like a leap of faith than a calculated decision. No one else she knew had made the same choice, but Cohen was content with waiting for the world to return to normalcy before heading to college.
After planning her gap year throughout the summer, she went on a three-month backpacking trip with ARCC through Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Washington that was equal parts adventure and education. The final leg of the journey took her to Hawaii.
Taking a Gap Year
"The world was not looking like it was going to be returning to normal by the fall. By May, I decided that this seems like the right thing to do. I was like, 'Oh, God, I'm already late to the gap year game. I have to start thinking about what I'm going to do.'
"None of my classmates took a gap year and none of my friends took a gap year. The town I grew up in, taking a gap year was not a super normal thing to do. As time passed, people started to become more like, 'Oh, you made the right move.' I didn't know I was making the right move at the time, but it just worked out that way."
"The big criteria for me was obviously traveling — which is such a different context when we say travel now versus travel a year ago — but I wanted to go somewhere else, and I wanted to be surrounded by other gap year kids. I wanted to be with young people, and I wanted to do something educational. When you have all those criteria, ARCC was perfect."
"I ended up doing a program with ARCC that started September 15 and went until November 23. That was the greatest thing I've ever done. It was me and 13 other students, then two instructors. We quarantined for two weeks before we left. We did a test at home, then we flew there, and then, once we were all together, we wore masks and social distanced for the first three days and then all retested. Once we got all our negative results back, we traveled as a bubble."
Mixing Education and Adventure
"We went from Utah to Montana to Wyoming to Washington. When we were in Washington, we went to Leavenworth and then stayed at a permaculture farm in the North Cascades. When we were in Wyoming, we met with park rangers, and we learned so much about the wildlife.
"We also talked a lot about the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt so lucky to be surrounded by people who were so willing to have really tough conversations about what was going on. We would usually go on a hike of some sort, and then we always set aside time for discussions about the land that we were on or if something was happening in the news."
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
Header images courtesy of: Tyler Newman, Freya Rich, Zack Stone, Avery Arcuri, Cormac Thorpe, Molly Cohen
Learn more, do more.
Popular with our students.
Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.
Take the next step toward your future with online learning.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.