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Gap Years: Pros, Cons, & How to Make them Effective

Last updated May 16, 2022

If you find yourself on the fence about whether or not to take a gap year after graduating high school, you are not alone. In response to the uncertainty created by the pandemic, many graduating students have taken gap years to evaluate their plans and goals for the future.

Taking a gap year can be fulfilling in many ways - but it can also be challenging. It’s important to be informed about gap years before you make a decision that works best for you. Here’s what you need to know about gap years: their pros, cons, and how to make one effective if you decide to take one.

What is a gap year?

A gap year typically happens between one’s senior year of high school and freshman year of college. A student who takes a gap year typically doesn’t start college in the fall - and instead works, saves money, or travels for the entirety of the school year. Some students eventually start college the following year, while others may discover that college isn’t for them, and choose to do other things - like entering the workforce.

How do I take one?

If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, it’s best to start thinking about it sooner rather than later. If you’re certain you want to take a gap year, you may consider not applying to college altogether your senior year, or deferring your admission to the college you intend to attend after your gap year is over.

What are the pros of taking a gap year?

Earn and save money

The high overall cost of attending college means most students take on debt to receive an education. Working and saving money for a year can help reduce the overall amount you need to borrow. Due to a shortage of employees, many companies are hiring multiple positions, regardless of experience. If a 9-5 job isn't your thing, there are many other creative ways to make money, like side hustles!

A gap year may also give your family time to recover from the recent economic fallout if they’ve been impacted. But remember - if your family has been affected by COVID-19, you are very likely to be eligible to receive more financial aid - learn how here.

Figure out your goals and what you want your life/career to look like

Taking time to live, work, and possibly travel during a gap year brings many students much-needed clarity about what they want to do with their lives after high school. Attending college is expensive, and you’ll need to choose your degree path within 1-2 years of starting. For many, the type of degree they pursue informs their direction in life - making it more than just a huge monetary investment! Taking a gap year to figure things out can be a great decision.

Give back, learn, or try something new

There are many formal gap year programs that offer the opportunity to travel and work in unique places, with room and board covered in exchange for your efforts or labor. If you’re looking for new experiences, have a special career interest, or just want to travel while building your resume, check out our in-depth breakdown of the popular gap year program AmeriCorps here.

Gap Years: Pros, Cons, & How to Make them Effective

What are the cons of taking a gap year?

You might lose momentum

During your gap year, you might lose the desire or interest to attend college - even when you had planned on attending once your gap year was finished. When considering taking a gap year, set a timeline and stick to it as much as you can. Setting an end date to the year will help you prepare for your next steps, like starting college.

Also - just because it’s called a gap year doesn’t mean you need to take a full year off! Instead, look at your options and align them with the timeline you have set - this might mean taking a quarter or semester off rather than a full year.

Quick note: If you are officially deferring admission to a 4-year college, make sure you are keeping in touch with the college’s administration office throughout the year. They can keep you updated on what you will need to do in order to start the following year.

You may forget things you’ve learned

You may have heard the saying, “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” - that applies here, too! Your brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised. If you aren’t using your math, writing, or study skills often, they might get rusty - making it harder to catch up when you return to school. Keep your skills in practice by utilizing these free online learning resources!

You will lose the help of a school counselor

When you transition from high school to college there will be a time when you don’t have a counselor to help you. During a gap year, it will be up to you to stay proactive about your education and going back to school. This can include keeping track of application deadlines (if you are not deferring, you will need to apply to college during the fall of your gap year) and gathering required application materials. If this isn’t your strength, you will need to work extra hard to not miss anything.

There will be uncertainty

Gap years can be fulfilling for many reasons, but they can also be hard. Even with the best laid out plans, there will be bumps in the road. In these instances your persistence to succeed will lead to greater growth. You may have seen and heard about the awesome gap year that someone has taken, but remember, most people, especially on social media, share only the good and very rarely share the bad. For stories of students sharing their challenges in applying to and persisting through college, check out our WeBelongInCollege series!

You will need to stay focused on your goals

A gap year is not right for everyone, but if you decide it is for you, stay focused on your educational goal. There will be people who will disagree with you taking a gap year, but that could be true for any choice you make for yourself! Stick to your reasons for taking a gap year and share your plans. Let the people in your life know that you have thought about your choice from all aspects and that it is a necessary growing moment for you.

How can I make my gap year effective?

Build up college credits at a local community college

Committing to 4 years of college can seem like an enormous, uncertain financial investment. If you still want to work toward a degree, but aren’t ready to commit to a 4-year university - deferring your start and earning credits at your local community college is a fantastic way to affordably, safely do so. Community college offers the same high-quality professors and classes at a lower price, and is a great way to take care of general-education requirements.

Save money and build your resume by working during your gap year

Student loan debt is a huge factor to consider before starting college. Saving money by working for a year can help reduce the amount you need to borrow to pay for school. It can also help you build your resume and gain crucial skills that you can carry with you into whatever career you choose during and after college.

If you need help finding entry-level jobs, check out our free job search tool, AND this list of employers hiring for jobs you can do at home!

Give back and help those in need through service gap year programs

  • AmeriCorps - a national service gap year program that involves “getting things done” in local communities. Volunteers earn an award toward their education, a living allowance, and an opportunity to build professional skills.
  • CityYear- Interested in teaching or working with students? CityYear places volunteers in schools working directly to support students. Similarly to AmeriCorps, you earn a living stipend, an award that helps pay for a higher education degree, and you’ll build education-related professional skills. The deadline to apply is mid-April of every year.

5 Effective Things You Can Do in a Gap Year

Travel to experience other countries and cultures

Here are two examples, but you can search “Gap Year Programs” online to discover even more:

  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) - WWOOFing, as they call it, is a program that connects farm owners with volunteers looking to live abroad and work in exchange for free room and board, and a deep cultural experience.
  • Australia Work and Holiday Visa Program - Australia’s WHVP program offers a year-long travel and work visa to Australia for young adults (18-30) willing to work in high need industries like conservation, construction, brush fire rehabilitation, and tourism/hospitality. It’s a great way to experience Australia while also gaining professional experience and earning money.

Save the world through these environmental conservation gap year programs

  • Foundation for Sustainable Development - Participants receive extensive training in sustainable development principles and gain professional skills in project planning and budgeting, program evaluation, community assessment, and proposal writing. You’ll apply new and existing skill sets as you collaborate with local colleagues on identifying, designing, and implementing a project to benefit the community.
  • Student Conservation Association- Similarly offers expenses-paid opportunities to serve communities and work on projects like forestry, water quality monitoring, public outreach, environmental education, archaeology, and more. 

Before making any big life decision, like taking a gap year, it’s important to talk with a parent/guardian or trusted educator. They can offer you advice and perspective, and together you can make a decision that works best for you.

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