What is a Gap Year?

A gap year can be many different things, but most of the time it is a break in a student’s formal education, often between the end of high school and the beginning of college.

The term “gap year” is a misnomer, however, for two important reasons.  First, a gap year doesn’t represent a gap in a student’s life or education; it’s more like a bridge, establishing a purposeful connection between one phase of development and another.  Secondly, a gap year doesn’t have to be a year.  Many students’ gap “years” are only nine or ten months, the equivalent of one academic year.

The most effective gap years are thoughtfully designed and carefully planned with a student’s goals in mind in order to maximize opportunities for insight, reflection, and self-discovery.

A gap year can be devoted to any number of experiences, including:

  • traveling abroad to live in and experience another culture.
  • learning (or practicing) another language.
  • engaging in domestic or overseas service work.
  • pursuing a project or honing a skill (writing a novel, making a film, directing a play, starting a non-profit, building a boat, working for a political campaign, studying painting or architecture, working in environmental conservation, volunteering on a farm or in a community garden).
  • seeking adventure and/or accomplishing a goal (biking across the United States, sailing on a tall ship, hiking the Appalachian Trail, running a marathon, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro).

While many students opt to participate in structured, established programs that place them in groups of other young people, some students enjoy designing their own gap year experiences, neatly tailored to their own interests and goals.

Gap years need not involve pricey programs or travel to far-flung locales.  According to Harvard dean of admissions William Fitzsimmons, many students “divide their [gap] year into several segments of work, travel, or study.”  Some students, he writes, “remain at home, working, interning, and still finding time to read books they have never had time to fit into their schedules…Others have been able to forge closer ties with parents or grandparents from whom they may have drifted away during the hectic pace of the high-school years.”

Taking a gap year can make a student:

  • more mature
  • more focused
  • more independent and self-reliant
  • more confident
  • more adventurous
  • more culturally sensitive and accepting of others
  • committed to lifelong learning and self-discovery
  • better at working in groups and collaborating with others
  • better at solving real-life problems
  • more likely to graduate from college
  • more likely to perform well in school (college students who have taken take gap years have higher GPAs than their classmates who came straight from high school)

To learn more about the many benefits of taking a gap year, read our blog post!

gap year