How to Spend Your Gap Year

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

The gap year is an increasingly popular option for students who are just graduating from high school and making plans for a higher education. But what is a gap year? Well, it’s definitely not a vacation. The gap year is a sabbatical from your formal education, an academic year away from the classrooms, grades, and exams that have defined your education until this point. There are countless gap year programs designed to help you pursue an enriching experience, whether you’re planning on working, travelling, conducting research, or just saving money for college tuition. So if you’re looking for some cool gap year ideas, check out these tips and get the most out of your year away.

So you’re about to finish high school and all your buds are heading off to college. And that’s something you’d really like to do. But there’s a part of you that feels like you’ve spent most of your young life waking up to the alarm, trudging to the bus stop, cramming yourself behind a desk, and mashing information into your brain. Sure, it’s important stuff, but you’re wondering if maybe there’s something more.

This feeling is exactly why more students than ever before are considering the value of taking a gap year. There’s no rule that says you have to jump into college the minute you throw your mortarboard into the air. In fact, CNBC reported in 2017 that more than 35% of high school seniors were actively considering taking a gap year before pursuing a degree.

While the gap year represents a break from the constant forward thrust of your formal education, that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be a year-long holiday. You’re a high school grad. Whether you’re going to college right away, eventually, or not at all, you’ve still got work to do. And there are a lot of practical reasons to take the year off; work, travel, research, volunteering. You may actually have the opportunity to strengthen your prospects in college and career by taking a gap year.

But is a gap year right for you? And if so, what are some of the wisest ways to spend your gap year?

We’ve got a few pointers, and even a few ways you can dip a toe into your higher education without making the full leap.

  What is a Gap Year?

The gap year is an academic break between secondary and post-secondary school. Students graduating from high school may consider taking the following year to pursue an array of other opportunities before embarking on a college education.

These opportunities may include work, travel, specialized research, internships, advanced study in math, science or the arts, and a whole host of other enriching experiences. You may pursue your gap year experience independently, or you may pursue a more structured experience through a gap year organization.

You have a ton of freedom. There are plenty of cool ways to spend this time. It may not be a vacation, but you might still be able to visit exotic beaches, eat strange local foods, and meet fascinating people. You may check experiences off your bucket list. But it’s not just an extended holiday. In order to call it a gap year, you must have an actual plan for a constructive way to spend this time. You must also plan on returning to school following your year away. And before you get all hung up on the threat of losing your academic motivation, The Gap Year Association reports that 90% of students who take a gap year enroll in college within the year.

The Gap Year Association is an organization focused on advancing and encouraging constructive use of the gap year. The 501(c)3 nonprofit association is recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as the accreditation and standards-setting organization for gap year programs.

The Gap Year Association,reports that “we have seen their profound benefits on students from all backgrounds, and believe an intentional gap year can be part of the welfare for us, our nation, our neighbors, and our fellow global citizens. The Association collaboratively pioneers research on its outcomes, as well as serves as an information and advocacy hub for university admissions personnel and educational counselors. Our primary focus is on making gap years an accessible option for high school graduates. While we believe that every participant would benefit greatly from a gap year, we also maintain that a gap year is not the right ‘fit’ for everyone.”

If you’re looking for a few interesting and structured gap year ideas, the Gap Year Association could be a great starting point. The Association identifies Gap year programs that have been evaluated for their quality and legitimacy. These include opportunities for internships, volunteering, travel, and a host of other life experiences that have been verified by this independent accrediting agency. Notable accredited programs include:

  Why Take a Gap Year?

Every student is different, and every student has different needs, which is why it’s actually kind of funny that so many of us just graduate high school and go to college at the exact same time. The gap year offers a little nuance and flexibility to what can sometimes feel like a ceaseless academic treadmill.

In many ways, the best reason to take a gap year is just to step away from this educational experience for some perspective. Research cited by the Gap Year Association reveals that students who begin college following a gap year routinely demonstrate greater maturity, growth and preparedness for college than those who dive into college mere months after graduation.

The Association goes on to note that “the highest three rated outcomes of gap years is that of gaining ‘a better sense of who I am as a person and what is important to me’ followed by ‘[the gap year] gave me a better understanding of other countries, people, cultures, and ways of living’ and ‘[it] provided me with additional skills and knowledge that contributed to my career or academic major.’”

These findings illuminate a few of the very best reasons to consider a gap year. It could actually be a great way to gather new experiences, new skills, and new knowledge. There is untold value in getting to know both the world, and yourself, outside the walls of a classroom. When you do return to the classroom, you may be a slightly wiser and worldlier version of yourself.

  Get The Money (Dollar Dollar Bills, Y’all)

There is also tremendous value in taking a year to work, earn money, and save toward a degree, all while building skills that will be essential to your chosen career path. America is in a student loan crisis. We’ve collectively topped $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, tuition continues to rise, and wage growth is barely keeping up with the also rising cost of living.

We’re not trying to freak you out. We’re just saying that college is a serious and often costly investment. Make sure you do it wisely, and with a full sense of how those student loans can stack up.

You’d be amazed at the headway you can make in a year of hard work, especially if you’re still living rent-free with the folks. Use this opportunity to build up your bank account. And while you’re saving, you’ve also got a whole extra year to research more affordable schools and unique pathways to earning a degree without falling into the trap of excessive student loans.

Speaking of student loans, your gap year could give you one other strategic advantage. If you can use this time to establish and declare legal independence from your parents, it could significantly improve your access to financial aid, especially need-based grants (which you generally won’t have to repay upon graduation). You and your parents should consult a financial advisor to find out if this is a good move for you.

If you plan to use your gap year to work in the field, visit our Career Counselor for tips on interviews, resumes, cover letters and more.

  Are You Experienced?

As long as you’re out there making a little money, do your best to make it in a field that actually interests you. One of the best ways to use your gap year is to test the waters in an industry that you’re actively considering. If you planned to major in political science, try getting a job or internship for a local campaign. Thinking of a career in public service? Drop into city hall and ask if there’s an office where you can apply to work. Interested in a hospitality career? Hotels and cruise-ships are always hiring support staff.

Remember, you’re entry-level right now. But an entry level job in a field of your choice is an amazing way to see what life is like on the inside. And while you’re on the inside, make sure to network. Build contacts, ask questions, learn everything you can about a career trajectory in the field. That knowledge will give you a huge advantage as you prepare to declare your college major down the road.

Not only that, but there are actually some schools and degree programs that award College Credit for Work Experience.

To learn more, check out How to Get An Internship.

  Hit the Road, Jack

If you’re approaching the end of high school and you’re feeling like you’ve only seen the world through a map on a classroom bulletin board, your gap year could be a great way to get out there and see some things.

Go for a cross-country drive. Participate in a program abroad. Pick a destination based on your intended career, or pick a destination based on whimsy. If cost is an issue, pick destinations where you can crash with friends or family. The thing about travel is that, no matter where you go, as long as you keep your eyes, your mind, and your heart open, you will learn and grow. You’ll taste new things, experience new sensations, and see things that will change your perspective.

These are all experiences that you can take with you into college. And getting out on your own a little bit, after a lifetime spent at home, could help to make the transition to the independence of campus life a little more manageable.

If you get out on the road and realize you love it there, we’ve got good news. You can stay out there without giving up on your gap year plan. Online college makes “worldschooling” an eminent possibility for those committed to a nomadic education. To learn more, check out Worldschooling and Online College.

  Volunteers of America

Volunteering in community, charity, non-profit or activist groups can not only provide you with valuable growing experiences, but it could improve your candidacy for a competitive university.

Take a year to truly immerse yourself in a program aimed at helping those in need or confronting an issue of social consequence like human rights or global climate change. This is an experience that can add tremendous depth to your understanding of meaningful, real-world issues, an eye-opening first-hand engagement of subjects which can feel largely theoretical when you’re inside a classroom.

All of this is to say nothing of the intrinsic value of doing something meaningful or contributing something of value to your community before enrolling in college.

And if, after rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in a worthy cause, you realize it’s something you’d like to make a career out of, check out these Social Work Programs and 25 Notable Online Degrees.

  Adulting Education

College is great. Philosophy classes are interesting. History can be really compelling. The sciences and the arts can be nothing short of exhilarating. But you could graduate without learning a thing about balancing a budget, or how to save toward retirement, or how to use a washing machine.

The gap year could be a great time to practice adulting. This is a good time to start taking responsibility for things that you’ll eventually have to do on your own. One day very soon, your parents won’t be there to wash your socks or make your bed. Get into the habit of taking care of your own business.

Even more importantly, consider your parents and other trusted friends or family members as valuable educational resources. Ask any questions you have now about stuff like credit ratings, the pros and cons of renting versus owning, how to live within your means, and all that stuff that adults are supposed to just know but don’t necessarily learn in school. Use this year to get yourself ready for the real world. This is one thing college won’t do for you.

And once you feel like you’ve gotten significant experience out there in the real world, there are actually quite a few online colleges where you can get started without waiting for the beginning of the next fall semester. If this sounds like something that might be right for you, check out Online Colleges that Start Anytime.

 Other Gap Year Ideas

These are just a few of the most popular ways to use a gap year, but it’s hardly limited to these options. There are countless other popular pathways — both independent and structured — for making wise use of your gap year.

You could use this year to learn a new language, perhaps even through an immersive travel experience. Au Pair programs are also a popular way to manage gap year travel on limited funds. This international exchange program matches students with families in need of live-in childcare. Also in the childcare category, some may spend the gap year working as a camp counselor or youth program staff. These are especially desirable paths for those considering an education in teaching, childhood development, or child social services.

Finally, and not to be overlooked, the gap year may simply be a good way to take a break from the monotony of your formal education. This doesn’t mean you can’t take a few online courses, or study a subject that means something to you outside the parameters of academics, testing, and grading. Take the time to knock down just a few credits before you take on your college education whole-hog.

Taking a year to learn at your own pace, on your own time, may be a great way to preempt the burnout or exhaustion that some students experience in the transition to higher education. Use the year to read great books, tighten your guitar chops, study French cuisine, learn how to blow glass, master your yoga skills...whatever ignites your passion and interest.

You might also be able to use the extra time to seek out and apply for scholarship opportunities. To find out who’s actually giving away free money, check out Researching Scholarship Opportunities.

Like I said, you have a ton of freedom. Just use it wisely!

After a year away, you may get used to your independence. You may even start to enjoy it. If you do, you may consider enrolling in an online college after your gap year. This could be your best bet for balancing the freedom you experienced in your gap year with your ambitions for a college education and a degree. To learn more, check out the Best Online Colleges for 2019.

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