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Should I Take A Gap Year?

ef gap year staff
Written by

Nicole Rosania

Two men discussing gap year ideas
  • Publish Date:February 15th, 2024

A gap year is a leap of faith. Will it be the best year or your life? Do the pros outweigh the cons?

Gap Years have been on the rise in the US in recent years. Each year, more and more students decide a gap in their studies is the right decision for them to take time away from the classroom, learn more about themselves, and the world around them. There are many benefits of taking a gap year at a young age, including preparation for college, discovering your career path, and finding a direction in life. A gap year is intentional time that can be filled with pursuits and experiences that address your individual needs and goals. Therefore, it can look different depending on the person and the length of the gap. There are many ideas for what to do in a gap year, including making an impact via service-learning, studying a new language, or working an international internship. Or perhaps, your gap year is spent  locally gaining work experience in your community. 

Regardless, deciding to take a gap year is a hard decision. It’s a choice that ultimately must be made on your own after a long consideration process. “Should I take a gap year” can only be answered after thinking through your current challenges, considering your personal goals deeply understanding your motivation for wanting this experience, and spending time to envision your future during and post gap.

What is a gap year and how it can impact your future

In the United States, a gap year is when students take a break from their studies, usually after completing high school, although a gap in your studies can be taken at any time for any personal reason. You might take time off after high school, during college, or even after graduating university. Your gap experience can be customized to meet your unique needs, and depending on how you spend your time, it can be the single most valuable thing you do in the time between high school and college. During this time, you will have space to explore your interests, future career paths, gain independence, experience personal growth, and so much more.  

Taking this time off doesn’t mean a permanent break from the classroom, but rather a step away to become re-inspired. In fact, evidence shows that students who take a gap return to the classroom more engaged than their peers. A recent study conducted by Middlebury and UNC Chapel Hill found that students who took a gap year earned GPAs that were .1 to .4 points higher than their peers, even when controlling for other factors. 

Consider gap year pros and cons

Taking a gap can be a life-altering decision, and like any major life decision, it comes with a list of pros and cons to consider. Some pros of gap years include personal growth, self-discovery, and recovery from school burnout by taking a step away from the classroom and a leap into the world. Also, gap year students are often exposed to many career paths during their time away from the classroom and are often put in scenarios that require them to master new life skills, such as navigating public transportation in a major, global city.  

If you opt to travel abroad during your gap year, international travel can help you develop new skills and gain a better understanding of the world around you. Additionally, the experiences you gain abroad will make you stand out from other candidates in the college application and job search processes. Ultimately, gap year students who choose to travel abroad will return home ready for what’s next, with an array of cultural knowledge, new-found confidence, and life-long friendships as well.  

Additionally, there are a few cons to consider when reflecting on if you should take a gap year. Since a gap year is time away from the classroom, you will likely fall behind your peers academically, but you will have spent the same time experiencing once-in-a-lifetime growth off campus  

Another con of taking a gap is it does require a lot of planning; whether you’re deciding to take a gap year as a senior in college, while already in university, or earlier in high school, it will require planning and research. To maximize this time away from the classroom, you’ll want to be intentional with your time and make plans that will help you achieve your goals.  

Since gap years still aren’t the traditional path after high school, there may be some barriers from social pressure and lack of family buy-in as you work through the decision process. It may be challenging to envision yourself successful during a gap year when you’re worried about your peers and loved ones. While these are certainly substantial cons of taking a gap year, there are ways to overcome gap year misconceptions.  

Lastly, taking a gap year can be expensive. Whether you choose to take a gap year program or plan your own experiences, you will need to save and plan for the gap responsibly. The good news is that gap years tend to have a high return on investment, meaning the time, money, and effort that you put into planning your gap year will pay off when you’re in the world on your gap. The experiences you have, people you meet, and things you learn will continue to impact you for the rest of your life. So yes, planning for a gap year may be time consuming and require a financial investment, but you will be investing in your future. Future you will thank you for considering a gap year. 

Reflect on your educational experience

It's important to reflect on your educational experiences thus far. After years of learning in a traditional classroom setting, how are you feeling? Do you feel uninspired by the subjects you are learning in school? Unmotivated to study for upcoming tests or to complete projects? Or maybe you’ve excelled in the classroom and need more of a challenge? All of these are valid reasons to take a step back from the classroom and into the world around you. 

Taking a step away from the classroom doesn’t mean you will stop learning. Not all classrooms have four walls. There are alternate methods of learning, including online courses and learning through experiential education. During a gap year you can learn much more about yourself and the world than you could from textbooks. You can study world history by visiting iconic museums such as the Louvre or practice a new language by ordering your food in a restaurant abroad. Additionally, you will learn more about geography and cultural differences. Above all, you will learn about yourself. How you prefer to recharge after a long day. How you like to spend your free time. Where you can and should push your comfort zone. 

Aside from the academic challenges that often arise in a school setting, there are social challenges at your age as well. It can be quite difficult to reflect on who you are in life when society is pressuring you to fit in. Choosing to take a gap year is a difficult decision because it’s still not the norm here in the US (although it is in many other countries around the world!). However, taking this leap will introduce you to new friends who have similar interests and goals to you. No more trying to blend into a high school hallway. Gap years are all about embracing your uniqueness and finally having the space to let your curiosity roam free. 

Define your current motivations for considering a gap year

After you’ve reflected on your educational experiences so far, it’s time to think further about your “why”. This is the key to deciding if you should take a gap year. It’s important to understand this process can’t be rushed. Time is needed to reflect. Be honest with yourself when thinking through your strengths and needs. Also, think through what is motivating you to want to be successful. Are you hoping to gain experiences during your gap year that may help you land your dream job because you’re aiming for financial stability in your 20s and 30s? Or are you hoping to become rich in experiences so that you have stories to share with anyone who will listen?  Ask yourself these questions. Journal about it. Go for a long walk out in nature. Sit in a park and envision yourself in 5 years. These exercises will help you decide if you should take a gap year or not.

During the consideration phase, you’ll also want to brainstorm a rough timeline for yourself.  When does it make sense for you to take a gap? Are you going to take a gap year after high school? A gap year before grad school? After college?  

Most people take a gap year after high school or before college. However, it is also common to take a gap program after college graduation, before entering the workforce or going to graduate school. Gap years are for anyone seeking a pivotal experience, whether it be academic or not. Gap years also don’t all have to be a year-long. They can be a few months long, or even just a few weeks. 

Prepare for barriers and the challenge ahead

When deciding if a gap year is the right decision for you, you need to prepare for potential barriers and challenges ahead. As mentioned above, taking a gap year is not the go-to path for most American students. You may be the first in your family to take a gap year. Perhaps the first person from your friend group. You’ll want to feel confident in your decision so you can address any misconceptions about taking a gap year. 

There's a lot to consider when it comes to taking a gap—and with that, a lot of apprehension, concern, and misinformation. There are also significant financial considerations when it comes to taking a gap, whether you choose to pursue a gap program or plan your own year. Many gap students add a work component to their gap year plans to help pay for travel.  Working during a gap year teaches responsibility, budgeting, and helps develop your work ethic. If you’re hoping to join a gap program, it’s important to decide when a gap makes sense for you in advance so that you can plan for it financially. Most gap year providers will allow you to enroll a year or two in advance so you can establish an interest-free payment plan. 

Another common gap year misconception is students who take a gap will not go (back) to college, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Karl Haigler, co-author of the book The Gap Year Advantage (2005) states, “Nine out of 10 students returned to college within a year, and 60% reported the time off had either inspired or confirmed their choice of career or academic major".

After having a year to discover what your passions are and hone your skills, it makes sense that gap students are more engaged in the classroom. Falling behind your peers is another common gap year myth, but the reality is, students who take gap years often thrive once they get back to an academic setting! You may want to prepare concerns about this when considering if a gap year is the right move for you. 

Still feeling unsure if a gap year is a good idea? Hear from some gap students directly: 

 “I would say it was a very foundational and growing experience for me. It allowed me to branch out into who I wanted to be, and now I am going to the University of North Carolina. I didn’t even know where I would be going for college, what I’d be doing. I feel like it really set me on the right track in terms of re-attending school after doing my first 2 years of college in Seattle.” - Jett R., Gap Year 2022-2023 

“I feel like you learn so much more from traveling than you do in school. You’re way more independent than you are in school actually. At my internship, I was in my own apartment by myself... I always had roommates throughout my college experience. So that was completely new to me. I had to get myself to work, make myself dinner at night.” - Morgan T., Gap Semester Spring 2023 

Visualize making the most of your gap program

After considering the above misconceptions, it’s time to visualize what this experience might look like for you. What does making the most of your gap year look like? Are you enrolled on a gap program? Are you traveling the world? Enrolled in a course? Meeting new friends? Living away from home? Above all, are you feeling re-inspired and confident in who you are? Hopefully the answers to these questions are all YES! Determining if a gap year will satisfy your goals and make sense in your life is ultimately up to you to decide, since taking a gap year is truly an investment in yourself and your future. 

Once you’ve done some internal reflection, it’s time to talk about your gap! Mention your interest in a gap year and your “why” to a friend. Maybe start to plant the seed to a parent or family member. It’s important to have support when making the decision to take a gap year. 

Bringing it all together

Choosing to take a gap year isn’t an easy decision to make. There are financial implications, societal misconceptions and barriers to consider, and serious questions to reflect on. This process can be quite overwhelming, especially for students considering a gap year! Taking a gap year is ultimately your decision to make, with the support of your family and friends. It’s an investment in your future. Hopefully this guide helps you consider the question “Should I take a gap year?” and inspires you to research gap year ideas to plan your best-year-yet. 

ef gap year staff

Nicole Rosania

At EF Education First, Nicole brings vibrant stories from our unique and wonderful student travelers alive across our channels to inspire others to pursue their dreams.

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