A “gap year” involves taking time off school to do something else of value, and the idea — long popular among students in other countries — has seen a recent growth in interest among Americans. While you can design a gap year however you want, many students use this time to travel to far-flung locations, take part in community service or work to save money for school.
For some firsthand insight into gap years, Student Loan Hero spoke with graduates who took a gap year before college. Below, they share the benefits they gained from taking time off, whether on their own or through a school program, as well as advice to others interested in doing the same.
Among the gap year accomplishments they’ll discuss are…
- Figure out your path in life
- Help others through community service
- Feel even more committed to your college classes
- Make money for college
- Travel the globe
- Extra advice on taking a gap year
Before enrolling at Santa Clara University, Naeem Turner-Bandele headed to Brazil to pursue his dream of playing soccer at the professional level. Unfortunately, he had to switch his career trajectory after suffering a concussion, but Turner-Bandele says his time in Brazil was eye-opening.
“The time I spent in Brazil, mastering another language, appreciating a different culture — and gaining a perspective about life that I would have never known had I done what my classmates did — was invaluable,” said Turner-Bandele.
But perhaps more importantly, he also used this time to figure out his career path.
“I discovered what I would do with my life after I was done playing: become an engineer and computer scientist who would use technology to enhance the lives of people who were underserved and underrepresented,” Turner-Bandele said. “Now I aim to help people all over the planet, like many of the young men who played with me in Brazil and their families.”
Because his own gap year experience was so enlightening, he encourages others to also spend some time away from academia before college.
“I tell students, parents, teachers and administrators alike that my life and the path that I’m on would not have been possible without the gap year,” he said. “Because of the financial undertaking and time commitment that college requires, I believe the most significant cost and greatest con is attending college when you are unsure about who you are and what you are going to do.”
Whether or not you’re interested in leaving the country during your gap year, you can use this time to help others by taking part in community service. Sonia Steinway followed this path by joining the AmeriCorps program City Year after high school.
“I tutored and mentored 6th and 7th grade students in a school in the South Bronx, as well as planned and managed service days with volunteers across New York City,” Steinway said.
Along with giving Steinway a chance to make a meaningful contribution, City Year offered mentorship and a network of civic-minded peers.
“I loved that City Year provided guidance and mentoring for the participants so that I wouldn’t feel alone or adrift,” said Steinway. “City Year also had a built-in peer network because all of the participants are between the ages of 17 and 24.”
What’s more, City Year provided a small stipend so Steinway didn’t have to go into debt to finance her gap year. This structural support is why she encourages other students to participate in a program for their gap year.
“Having the structural support of a program means that there are people to help guide you and hold you accountable,” said Steinway. “Most programs pay enough to live on, if no more than that, and provide educational awards or scholarships.”
Before enrolling in Wellesley College, Carlota Zimmerman took a year off to stage her one-act play, which ended up as an off-Broadway production.
“My parents were a little leery, but it was a wonderful experience,” said Zimmerman. “Seeing my work treated with respect on the stage — and in the New York Times and New York Magazine — was crucial in keeping myself grounded during freshman year.”
What’s more, Zimmerman feels that a year off can make you even more committed to your college education than some of your peers.
“While everyone else is blowing off classes, you might be the student who looks around her and realizes how lucky she is to be there and takes full advantage of college,” she said. “Taking a gap year is a great way to learn that doing things in your own way, on your time, things that matter to you if no one else, is the key to success in this life.”
Although some students travel or volunteer during a gap year, others use this time off to save for college. According to William Taylor, career development manager at MintResume, most students he works with use a gap year to pad their savings accounts.
“Many of the students who come to me for counseling have taken gap years before college mainly because they lacked the funds necessary to attend college,” he said. “So these students take a gap to make enough money via odd jobs or paid internships.”
Along with securing their finances, Taylor says a gap year boosts maturity.
“They become more practical and self-reliant in the process,” said Taylor. “I believe it’s a great learning experience for these students.”
Although you may not have as many job opportunities as you will once you earn your college degree, you could find work that helps you pay for college and take out less in student loans.
For Amba Brown, the author of the Finding Your Path series of youth self-help books, a gap year was all about traveling the globe. After seven months of working and saving money, Brown and her best friend purchased an around-the-world plane ticket.
“We traveled to England, around Europe, via America and back through Hong Kong and Asia,” said Brown. “We were only 19 years old, so our priorities were affording a place to sleep and seeing the sites. We lived mostly on rice and tuna for the trip, but the people we met and the places we saw made it an unforgettable experience.”
Although Brown says long-term travel can be challenging, she believes the pros far outweigh the cons.
“It opened our eyes to the world, and since [then], we have both lived overseas and developed a curiosity for exploring more of the world,” said Brown. “It instilled a lifelong confidence that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”
Plus, she learned how to manage her money and be financially independent.
“My advice for students considering taking a gap year would be: Make it happen,” said Brown. “No experience earned is wasted.”
Although a gap year might not be for everybody, a lot of students can benefit from taking time to reflect on their goals before college. Whether you travel, volunteer or work, a gap year could have major benefits on a personal, professional and financial level.
But Steinway warns to think of your gap year as a year “on” rather than a year off.
“If you think of the time as a year ‘on’ — and really immerse yourself in whatever you’ve chosen to do — and not as an excuse to slack off, it will make a big difference in what you’re able to get out of it,” she said.
Some colleges let you defer admission for a year, so you don’t have to worry about losing your spot or needing to re-apply the following year. As long as you’ve thought through the pros and cons and have prepared financially, a gap year before college could be a life-changing experience.