There are so many reasons to consider a gap year: You’re not ready to start college, you have a passion for travel, or you want to learn more about yourself. But a gap year can mean so much more than just postponing college or university for a year in order to travel, work, or volunteer in another country. It can mean escaping a tough home, school, or work situation; traveling with a significant other; leaving a job before transitioning a new career path; or just straight up taking a break from reality.
Statistically, young Americans don’t travel as much as young Europeans or Australians, and the concept of a gap year isn’t as common. But a gap year can come at any age, for any reason, and for any amount of time. And if it’s something you haven’t considered before, but the idea resonates with you, I encourage you to explore the possibility. I speak from experience: After graduating from college but before beginning my career, I left the United States and spent nine months living in Sydney.
What Might Stop You from Taking a Gap Year (and Why You Shouldn’t Let It)
You got into the college of your dreams.
According to EF Gap Year Head of Marketing Art Corriveau, “More and more U.S. colleges value gap year experiences. America’s most prestigious colleges now actively encourage accepted students to defer enrollment to take a gap year.”
Jesse Allen, the author of The Shadow Place, took a gap year to Jordan after completing her master’s degree and learned that you should “spend time getting to know yourself outside of the classroom. Take the time to listen to your own ideas about what you want to do before settling into a degree program.”
So defer your acceptance if you really want to travel now, or consider taking a year to travel after college, and plan accordingly.
Christine Miller of Carpe Diem Education says, “the long-term impact for gap year travelers/students can be astonishing: academic burnout becomes a distant memory and increased self-awareness leads to a more focused direction.”
You’re worried about delaying your education and being behind your peers.
Gap years have become more popular in the past four years, according to a Google Trends history search. And, according to The Wall Street Journal, 90 percent of gap year students return to college within a year. So you may not be as far behind your peers as you fear.
You have the potential to gain maturity, insight, real-world experience, communication skills, leadership abilities, direction, and cultural awareness that just isn’t possible at most colleges. A BUNAC Working Adventures survey found that 96 percent of surveyed professionals in the education industry would recommend someone work and travel overseas to help them achieve professional goals. “In today’s competitive workplace, demonstrating that you have been able to navigate the world, new cultures, and new situations sets you apart,” says BUNAC USA Program Coordinator Lubka Jacobs. In the survey, 79 percent of those surveyed believed students who do so have stronger communicative skills, and 82 percent believed students who participate in gap year programs are more mature and culturally sensitive.
The benefits of learning outside a classroom can pertain to you even when you’re in school, as Catherine Tansey (a participant in Teachers for Thailand) found while in nursing school, “I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse, but I was fearful of leaving school with no plan of action … taking a gap year was the best decision—and one of the most strategic, I’ve ever made. By selecting a structured way to take a year off from school, travel, and get to know myself better, I was able to feel confident in my decision to return to school when I was back stateside.”
Troy Stephens (a participant in BUNAC’s internship program) says, “It’s made me more flexible and open-minded towards different career fields.”
A traditional education isn’t for everyone, so your gap year could lead to professional experience and opportunities you may not have considered before.
You love your job.
Kirstie Jeffries of travel blog Venga, Vale, Vamos, had a steady job and comfortable life when she decided to take her gap year. “My biggest fear was having no clue what would happen after the year was over … throwing away a good life feels far riskier, but my gap year was completely worth that risk.”
These days, there are even sometimes opportunities to keep your job and do a gap year, for instance, by taking a sabbatical, joining a traveling working program like Remote Year, or simply asking your company if you can work remotely for a period of time.
You can’t afford it.
Unfortunately, travel is expensive. And organized gap year programs aren’t free. However, financially preparing for a gap year, whether on your own or with a program, teaches you how to budget (among other real-world skills) very quickly.
Ramsay Kerr, director of Asian tour company The Dragon Trip, took a gap year before university on his own and says, “I spent six months working in order to fund six months of travel. The process of having to save really made me better at managing money … I had learned and developed a lot as a person before I even started my travels.”
Saving money before traveling is a great approach to start funding a gap year—or if you’re currently working, to start setting aside part of your monthly budget for travel. Students can also look into scholarships or opportunities like volunteering or teaching English, which may provide a stipend. Another option is applying for a working holiday visa in a qualifying country. This is how I was able to take my gap year in Australia and work service-industry jobs.
You’re close with family and friends in your current hometown.
Leaving behind a life you know and love can be difficult. Jeffries shared this great advice: “If you’re hesitating due to the fear of the unknown, remember that, even if you take a more traditional path, life will still throw unexpected surprises at you. Whether you stay at home and continue studying or working, or you set out to explore the world, you’ll never be able to predict the future, so why not chose adventure?”
My two cents … it’s OK to be nervous about the experience and even somewhat hesitant. Leaving the security and support of a life you’re comfortable with is overwhelming; however, it’s all going to be there when you return, and you never know what opportunities you could create for yourself abroad.
Things You Should Consider Before Taking a Gap Year
If you’re going to take time off from school or work, make sure what you do can help you achieve both personal and professional goals. Are you taking a gap year to learn a new skill or language? Are you looking for a totally unique cultural experience, or are you trying to gain professional experience in a foreign country?
Travel has endless benefits, but make sure you’re taking this time for the right reasons and have clear intentions. Plan your destinations, type of trips, and programs with these goals in mind. When taking a gap year (or whatever amount of time), consider an action plan for when you return as well that takes into account housing and financial possibilities.
Your Education or Job
Can you afford—financially and logistically—to take time off from work or school? If not, look into ways you can potentially study or work while also traveling on a gap year.
One of the benefits of doing a gap year with a program is that housing and other logistics are paid for and dealt with up front. Budgeting and planning are some of the skills you’ll develop in a gap year, and while you’re abroad, it’s important to stick to a budget and manage realistic expectations. Jeffries suggests, “Find the balance that makes the most sense for you … budgeting isn’t only about spending as little as possible; it’s also about prioritizing your spending and figuring out where you can and should splurge a little.”
You want to enjoy this year, so plan and budget according to your goals.
Do you have the emotional support of friends and family? If you’re a high school student this is especially important, particularly if you’re relying on your family financially. It’s also important to have a backup plan if you need to return home from your gap year for any reason.
Length of Time
Obviously, you’ll want to enjoy the spontaneity of travel. But by deciding on the length of your gap, you’ll be able to stay on budget and plan for your return.
Finding the Right Gap Year Option for You
A gap year is more than just backpacking. You can choose to go solo, travel with a friend, or participate in a program. I recommend participating in a variety of experiences and types of travel to get the most of your time abroad.
Kerr recommends “a balance of the two [organized tours and planning on your own]; start on an organized tour for your first month, after which maybe you’ll be confident enough to go at it alone … maybe do a month of an organized program based in one location, then backpack for a month before basing yourself for a longer period of time again.”
Here are some useful programs for planning a gap year:
- Organized Gap Year Programs and Backpacking Tours: The Dragon Trip and EF Gap Year
- Abroad Internship: BUNAC and The Intern Group
- Volunteer Programs or Teaching English: TEFL Org, and International Volunteer HQ
- Language and Cultural Immersion: Global Citizen Year, China Study Abroad, and Carpe Diem Education
- Working Abroad: Remote Year, WiFi Tribe, Roam, and SETT
More from SmarterTravel:
- A Study Abroad Packing List for Student Travelers
- Should You Travel If You’re in Debt?
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Working Holiday Visas for U.S. Citizens
Ashley is forever grateful for the chance to take a gap year in Sydney, Australia and thinks you can only truly realize where home is until you leave it. Follow all of her adventures (big and small) on Instagram.
Editor’s Note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.