What is a Gap Year? Five Big Questions

4 minutes

The gap year is catching on here in the USA. Students, parents, college admissions counselors, and higher educational institutions increasingly recognize the power of post-high-school experiential activities to prepare for further academic and career pursuits. If you or someone you know is considering a gap year, let the following Q-and-A be a leaping off point.

The gap year is catching on here in the USA.
The gap year is catching on here in the USA.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

What is a gap year?

The American Gap Association defines a gap year as an experiential semester or year “on,” typically taken between high school and college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.

Note that an experiential semester or year does not necessarily have to take place overseas. Experiential is an intentionally broad term and can refer to things like working, volunteering, joining a community advocacy group, caring for a loved one, and sure, traveling abroad too.

How much will a gap year cost?

The breadth of possibilities for experiential learning during a gap semester or year means that it does not have to be prohibitively expensive. There are many highly-structured group travel programs that are worth the money (and some offer scholarships), but local experience through work, community service, or internships, or more self-guided travel with a bit of support in the background can have equal impact.

That being said, a gap year could cost thousands, could result in a break-even scenario, or it could even mean putting some money away. If you’re interested in an international experience, organizations like InterExchange offer programs to help you minimize expenses.

Is a gap year right for me?

Ask yourself about your intentions and goals. Documenting a few key areas of desired learning can help you determine what kind of experience is right for you, and to ensure that a gap year is a “year on” and not just a “break.” If you already have a strong sense of what you want to achieve in college and are unsure of how you might stay engaged otherwise, then college might be a good fit. If you aren’t sure what you’d like to study for the next several years, it might be better to step back from academia, even if just for a few months.

With a bit of planning, a gap year or semester can not only teach you more about the world, but also add clarity and depth to future pursuits. Solid real-world experiences provide foundations of meaning, which can support the shakier (more abstract) learning that often takes place in academia. An increasing number of colleges and universities encourage gap years and have specific policies for deferral of enrollment.

How can I make the most of a gap year?

Think quality over quantity. Your college admissions application may contain a dozen spaces to list extracurricular activities but for how many of those activities can you provide an in-depth impact analysis? On how many have you deeply reflected so that you can clearly articulate your key takeaways?

The Turning the Tide report spearheaded by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (and now supported by over 130 institutions), recommends that admissions offices “clearly indicate that numerous extracurricular activities or long ‘brag sheets’ do not increase students’ chances of admission.”

One important consideration is how you can connect your existing passions with other subject areas. If you have coding skills and want to pursue programming coursework in college, you might think about volunteering to teach basic coding to youngsters or aging populations. This could help you solidify your existing knowledge, gain interpersonal skills, and even help you discover new passions.

Fancy a future in environmental justice? An internship with a local newspaper could equip you with interviewing and reporting skills to share the stories of communities impacted by pollution. A gap year is an opportunity to draw interdisciplinary connections, bringing light to various future paths.

A gap year should be an opportunity to apply existing skills for the benefit of a community, and not just part of a race towards collecting personal achievements. This might mean helping your family, friends, a church group, local library or community center, an employer or a combination of communities. Granted, with some planning you will get a lot of great resume builders out of a gap year, but that should not be the end goal.

Are there tools to help me plan a gap year?

The American Gap Association provides resources for students, parents and educators. AMP Global Youth provides resources for young people planning or returning from international experiences. USA Gap Year Fairs lists domestic and international opportunities.

InterExchange staff are friendly, professional, quick to respond and happy to offer support as you plan your experiential “year on.” You can reach out at 1.800.597.3675 or workabroad@interexchange.org.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
Exclusive partner of the Erasmus Student Network for J-1 Visa sponsorship of internships in the U.S.
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Generation Study Abroad
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation