what is a gap year?
Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Taking a gap year – Introduction

Many students and parents automatically think of college as the next step after high school. However, there are other options for students who feel as though their educational and professional trajectories aren’t quite so linear. Perhaps you’ve heard that a gap year is a great option that provides students with an outside-the-norm, enriching, and educational experience. But, you may be wondering, what is a gap year?

We’ll shortly get into the “gap year” meaning, but it’s also important to understand that gap years may not be for everyone. However, when taken with intention, gap years are often life changing times. After reading this article you’ll understand the gap year meaning and be better prepared to decide if the gap year experience could be for you. 

In this article we’ll explore the ins and outs of gap years, including:

  • What exactly is the definition of a gap year?
  • Potential gap year ideas
  • Gap year statistics
  • What specific gap year programs exist?
  • How to decide whether to take a gap year
  • General gap year advice, and more…

What is a gap year?

Now that you’re intrigued by the topic, let’s get into its meaning. What is a gap year? A gap year is a wonderful time for students to have an experiential learning experience outside of the traditional educational setting. Think of it as a year full of extracurricular activities for your resume. 

There are many gap year programs that can assist students in deciding what to do during their  gap year. However, there is certainly no one right or wrong gap year program. The gap year experience will vary greatly from person to person, and there is no shortage of gap year ideas that students can choose from.

A likely question to follow, “What is a gap year?” is, “Why take a gap year?” Students can benefit from taking a gap year after high school in order to learn more about themselves and further pursue areas of interest. It’s a time to dive into extracurricular activities for your resume. Gap year programs are a great way to gain confidence and recharge before heading into four years of university

Definition of a gap year

The answer to “what is a gap year” and the gap year definition is simple: a year taken off from university or college in order to pursue other goals. A gap year may also refer to a year taken after college when graduates don’t go straight into the workforce in their field. It’s important to understand that a gap year isn’t a “year off,” as many describe it. It’s a time to experience, learn, and gain awareness. These gap year experiences also serve as meaningful extracurricular activities for your resume.

Students typically take a gap year after high school and before college, however, many university graduates opt to take a gap year after college. A gap year is an opportunity to do some experiential learning in order to gain confidence and experience

There are many reasons that students might choose to take a gap year: 

  • Experience something new (travel, internships, volunteering) before college
  • Work and save money before college
  • Reapply to college after graduating from high school

What to do during a gap year?

We’ve covered, “What is a gap year?”, a year taken to pursue a passion or gain professional experience. Many gap year ideas exist, as many students have taken gap years that look completely different. No gap year experience is right or wrong. The purpose of a gap year is whatever you want it to be. When thinking about what to do in a gap year, think about what you want to gain during that year. As long as you put intention behind it, then you’re sure to have a successful gap year experience. 

why take a gap year?
Photo by Windows on Unsplash

There are many things to consider before deciding to take a gap year. If you decide that it’s right for you, then there are ample gap year ideas and gap year programs to assist you in deciding how to spend your time. 

Students can take the time to travel and have a cultural experience, volunteer and get involved in the community, or intern and gain professional experience. Gap year ideas are endless! 

When looking for gap year advice and considering what to do in a gap year, think about your goals for that gap year. Do you want to recharge and reapply to schools, dedicating more time to college applications in order to get better college admissions results? Or, do you want to learn more about yourself in order to guide you in how to choose a college major? These questions will help you to decide what gap year ideas or gap year programs will suit your needs and goals. 

We all know tuition costs are high. Do you want to take some time to work and save before setting off? That’s certainly an option. There are many valid gap year ideas. And remember, a gap year after college will vary greatly from a gap year after high school.  

After all, what is a gap year anyway? We know it’s time away from the traditional education or career path. But a gap year after college or a gap year after high school will differ depending on goals and financial circumstances. The best gap year advice is to set some goals and make a plan that works for you. Doing that will give you plenty of gap year ideas just for you. 

Gap year and travel

After years of study and an obsession with extracurriculars for college, college rankings, and college applications, it’s probably exciting to think about something other than extracurriculars for college and the college admissions process. What is a gap year to you? Well, it could be an adventure just for you. So, if you’re really feeling like college might not be for you right now, stop obsessing over extracurricular activities for your resume and instead consider gap year programs or gap year ideas. 

what is a gap year?
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Is your list of gap year ideas centered around the idea of exploring a new place, culture, or language? Students taking a gap year after high school or a gap year after college may decide to travel around the world or the country before returning to college or entering the workforce. Travel is a great time for self-discovery and to enhance self-awareness. 

There are many gap year programs at universities that encourage travel during a gap year after high school. Some universities, such as Princeton, offer gap year programs that allow accepted students to take a gap year and travel within a university-sponsored program. 

However, you don’t necessarily need the support of a university to travel during a gap year. You can certainly do so on your own. Consider your financial situation when debating a year of travel. It can be costly. Gap year ideas can include opting to work for six months in order to finance your travel for the other six. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all gap year experience. 

Gap year and volunteer

Students may also decide to do some gap year volunteering. There are many ways in which students can volunteer during their gap year after high school or their gap year after college. 

what is a gap year?
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Certain universities will sponsor gap year programs that allow students to do some gap year volunteering at various organizations. You could also find your own gap year volunteering opportunities through other external organizations. 

Gap year volunteering is one of the best extracurriculars for college and a great way to make your college applications stand out. Students who plan to reapply to college during their gap years could bolster their college resume with volunteer work. Recent graduates who decide to take a gap year after college may find inspiration or motivation through gap year volunteering that could direct their career plans. 

Not sure where to start when looking for gap year volunteering opportunities? Check out this list of resources for gap year advice about gap year volunteering through different gap year programs. 

Gap year and intern or job shadow

Volunteering and travel are great gap year ideas, however, gaining professional work experience is another way to bolster your college resume and college applications if you’re thinking of reapplying. Working or interning are impressive extracurricular activities for your resume. They’re also great ways to gain practical experience that could help you choose a college major

There are many benefits to interning or working during a gap year: 

  • Learn about a career path that interests you
  • Gain an understanding of adult life
  • Save money for college

Gap years don’t have to be a series of Instagram-worthy moments, with crazy travel pictures in beautiful settings. There’s a lot of value in taking a year to get ahead with savings and professional experience. 

Working and interning are great gap year ideas that allow students to enhance their college resume with practical experience. And, you’ll even pad your savings in the process sounds like some pretty good gap year ideas to me!

Taking a gap year before college

Let’s continue to explore “What is a gap year?” and what it could be for you. Students may be searching for gap year ideas and choosing to take a gap year after high school for a number of reasons. 

Gap years are a great way to gain experiences that lead to further self-awareness while getting closer to achieving your goals. They can be a way for students to recharge, outside of the traditional academic setting, and enter college with more motivation to learn. A gap year could serve as a way to fund your college education by working full time. You’ll have some savings and gain professional experience. 

why take a gap year?
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Mind the gap (year)

When exactly do you need to decide to take a gap year? It can vary from student to student. You might choose to take a gap year as early as the beginning of your senior year, or maybe your college admissions decisions make you rethink heading directly into college, or you might have known throughout your entire high school career that a gap year is for you. Your reason for taking a gap year will likely affect your timeline. 

Many schools will allow you to defer admission for a year if accepted. However, if you’re considering a gap year while completing your college applications, you should make sure every program you’re applying to will allow you to defer. 

A gap year after high school could be even more enjoyable if you already know that you’ve been accepted and have enrolled in college for the following year. Consider committing to a school by their deadline with a deposit in order to secure your spot after your gap year has ended.

Gap year statistics

While there are both gap year pros and cons, the gap year statistics seem to be overwhelmingly positive. 98% of students who decided to take a gap year thought that they had a fruitful experience. 96% said it helped them to gain self-confidence and 93% said it enhanced their communication skills. 

Taking a gap year is gaining in popularity, but gap years still aren’t commonplace. Out of 300,000 college freshmen surveyed, only 1.2% decided to take gap years. While the gap year experience may not be what every student expects, gap year statistics are quite positive overall. 

Here are some other recent gap year statistics: 

gap year statistics

Top schools like Amherst, Princeton, and MIT are now adopting admission policies that make it easier to defer admission for a gap year. You should look into the schools you’re sending college applications to see what type of gap year programs or requisites they have. Check out some of the gap year programs at FSU and Tulane to see what these schools are offering. 

While there are many gap programs out there, your gap year should be whatever you want it to be. If none of the gap year programs with universities appeal to you, look for your own gap year program, or simply plan it independently. 

Benefits of taking a gap year before college

There are various gap year pros and cons, but if you go into a gap year with the right intentions, the benefits of the gap year experience are many. And as we saw in the statistics, most students found their gap year to be a rewarding experience. 

Why take a gap year? Taking a gap year bolsters your college resume and even your employability. The learned experiences in that gap year can translate to useful skills in the workplace. Work or internship opportunities are a great way to gain professional experience. 

If you have academic interests, try exploring career paths within that field. This gives you practical experience and helps you to decide or confirm your college major. Some students may also work during their gap year in order to save money for college. 

Traveling during your gap year, either with a gap year program or not, is a wonderful way to learn and explore at the same time. Students will learn about a new culture, community, and could even learn a new language. 

A second chance at college admissions

Gap years can also be second chances at the college application process. If college admissions didn’t go your way the first time, a gap year can be a great time to work on your extracurricular activities for your resume and polish your college application and college resume further. 

One student chose to do just that with her gap year. Sumaiya had a clear plan for her gap year, entering a specific gap year program, but she also used that time to complete more college applications with the support of CollegeAdvisor.com.

While there are many different gap year ideas that students bring to fruition, they all seem to have ample benefits. Taking a gap year after high school has been proven to improve students’ academic performances. The academic benefits span over four years, with gap year students outperforming their peers academically by a range of .01 to.04 on the 4.0 scale. Students often come back from their gap years motivated, focused, and mature, which leads to greater success in college. 

How will a gap year affect my admission chances?

You may be wondering how taking a gap year could affect college admissions. It will not undermine your admission odds. In fact, many universities such as Amherst, Princeton, and MIT are creating structures that encourage students to take gap years. Some schools even have specific gap year programs that incoming freshmen can apply for. If all you think and dream about are potential gap year ideas, then these types of university sponsored gap year programs may affect how you build a college list and choose a college. 

While some universities encourage gap years with specific gap year programs, other schools don’t have the same set up. So, while taking a gap year won’t affect college admissions, you should always double check with the university to make sure that you can take a gap year without forfeiting your enrollment

If you choose to take a gap year without enrolling in university, you can use the experiences from your gap year to strengthen your college application. It’s the perfect time to add some meaningful extracurriculars for college to your college applications. 

Gap year costs and scholarships

With college costs high, and most students needing to take out student loans in order to finance their education, the cost of a gap year may seem like a lavish and irresponsible decision. Taking a gap year is an exciting opportunity, but let’s take a moment to think about the financial aspects of a gap year program or just taking a gap year independently. Gap year ideas will greatly affect your budgeting.

what is a gap year?
Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

Just like tuition costs affect your college choices, so will the cost of various gap year ideas. But, gap years aren’t always financial burdens. In fact, gap years can help you to earn money that will help you finance your education. While gap year volunteering won’t earn you money, you could get a job instead or volunteer and work at the same time. 

Gap year programs or independent travel during a gap year may be expensive. There are scholarship opportunities available for gap year programs. Gap Year Association and EF Gap Year are gap year programs that offer scholarships and grants to their participants. Some universities that encourage gap years or have specific gap year programs, often offer assistance or options for financial aid. 

Students taking gap years could work for part of the year in order to fund their travels or gap year volunteering. If finances are the only factor keeping you from the gap year program of your dreams, know that there are options. 

While gap years may seem costly and elitist, there are actually many options for students of every income level. Verto Education offers international semester long programs as low as $5,000 for students who qualify for an “opportunity grant.” Some programs even allow students to gain college credits. 

More options to finance gap years has likely come from an increased awareness of gap year programs. Specifically, there has been a recent increase in interest in the US. Some think it may have something to do with the former first daughter Malia Obama deciding to take a gap year after high school in 2016.

Still worried about the cost? Forbes breaks down the gap year and offers some options to finance a gap year. 

Should I take a gap year?

What is a gap year? A gap year isn’t just a compilation of extracurricular activities for your resume. It’s a passion project with a purpose. 

Like choosing a college, deciding to take a gap year is a big decision. When weighing gap year ideas and options, it’s important to think about what you’d like to gain from your gap year: work experience, language learning, redo on college admissions, etc. 


Sumaiya, a CollegeAdvisor client, had success with her gap year because she had a plan. She knew that she wanted to help women start their own business. Sumaiya found a gap year program called Global Citizen Year that worked for her. She even received a scholarship. Sumaiya is not only spending her gap year volunteering, but also sending out college applications again. She says the college admissions process seems less stressful this time, now that she’s done it before and is no longer in classes. 

There are few instances of students taking a gap year and regretting it. Gap year students are able to gain real world experience and confidence. The gap year experience often contributes to choosing their college major and career path. Gap years can serve as a wonderful time to partake in meaningful extracurricular activities for your resume. 

If you’re interested in learning more about gap years, check out this book that discusses how taking a gap year can make you a better global citizen. 

Gap year pros and cons

With more and more students googling “what is a gap year,” gap year programs have been gaining popularity in recent years. The pandemic especially has swayed many students from heading straight into university from high school. While exploring gap year ideas is exciting, you’ll want to look at both the gap year pros and cons. 

Recharge and gain motivation. Students may feel burned out after twelve years of schooling culminating with college applications. A gap year can help to refresh, reset, and get excited about learning again. Wasted time. If you haven’t set clear intentions and goals for your gap year, you risk the possibility of feeling like you wasted your time. A gap year is whatever you make it. Avoid taking an unstructured gap year. 
Gain or build skills. Take the year to dive into a new culture and learn a new language. Or enhance one of your passions and make it a marketable skill. Expensive. Traveling or volunteering for a year could get pricey. The cost of a gap year, plus college, may seem too high for a year of self-exploration.  
College resume builder. A year spent partaking in meaningful activities will only add to your college resume or work resume. Your proven independence and acquired skills during that time will be attractive to many employers. Hard transition back. Going back to college after a year away from the traditional school setting can be challenging. The majority of your peers will be on their own for the first time. Being ahead of the pack could feel isolating and make connecting to others more challenging. 

As you can see, there are many gap year pros and cons. Creating your own list, unique to you and your interests and goals, could help in making your decision. Ultimately, taking a gap year is a personal decision. 

How to plan your gap year

There is no shortage of gap year ideas or gap year programs, but where should you begin when thinking about what to do in a gap year? Start by first defining your goals and intentions for your gap year. 

what is a gap year?
Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Do you want to acquire language skills? Consider travel. Do you want to develop leadership skills through service? Try volunteering. Does the idea of saving extra money before entering college sound like it could relieve some financial stress? Work and save some money. 

Choosing what you want from your gap year after high school is the best way to start planning. From there, you can start looking into gap year programs or plan independently. Ideally, students wanting to take a gap year will start planning as early as senior year. Students planning to take gap years need to decide if they will defer college admissions decisions or reapply the following year. If you decide to defer, learn all the requisites at your schools of interest. 

Similarly, planning a gap year after college will change a lot based on your goals for that time. Are you exploring career paths or looking into graduate school? Gap year advice for planning your gap year has everything to do with the individual who is taking the gap year after college. But, there are no shortage of gap year ideas for whatever your short and long term goals may be. 

Gap year ideas

After you’ve thought about your intentions for your gap year or gap year program, the fun really begins. There are many gap year ideas to get you excited about this next adventure! 

covid 19 and gap years
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Here are some gap year ideas to get you started: 

  • Take on a job that interests you, or a job that pays and allows you to live independently and save. 
  • Find an internship in your desired field. 
  • Travel somewhere you’ve never been before. 
  • Do some gap year volunteering with an organization that excites you. 
  • Apply to a gap year program that looks meaningful to you. 
  • Split your year between working and traveling or working and gap year volunteering. 

Gap year programs will vary based on individual students. There is no right or wrong gap year program. As long as it excites you and is financially manageable, then it’s the perfect gap year program for you. As an added bonus, all of these gap year ideas will serve as impressive extracurricular activities for your resume.

Gap year in the time of COVID-19

Many students have decided to answer the question of “what is a gap year” themselves, by taking a gap year while awaiting normalcy from universities nationwide. While things have improved greatly in the US, there are still COVID-based gap year considerations to factor into your decisions or planning. 

what is a gap year?
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Some schools stopped sponsoring international travel during the pandemic. You’ll want to check into the gap year programs at your desired schools to see if there are any limits or restrictions on their gap year programs. 

Independent travel may also be complicated or restricted depending on the part of the world where you’d like to be. Do some research about COVID restrictions, pandemic progress, and vaccine availability for your desired destinations to see if it will hinder your experience. 

Some internships are likely still limiting capacity due to the pandemic. Internships could be virtual or hybrid in order to limit the number of people in the workspace. Consider if that is the type of experience you want from your gap year. 

Why take a gap year? – Final Thoughts

Taking a gap year can be a life changing experience. Students are able to further explore their interests, develop new skills, and gain independence and confidence. When done well, gap years can help students to develop purpose and direction for their futures. Whether it helps them to choose a college major or a career path, gap years have many benefits. 

Choosing to take a gap year is a personal decision. Take into consideration gap year pros and cons when making a decision. If done well, gap years provide impressive extracurricular activities for your resume. Discuss the idea with your family. And remember, CollegeAdvisor.com can help guide you through the decision making process and navigate planning a gap year that suits you and your future goals. 

what is a gap year

This article was written by Sarah Kaminski. If you want to get help with your college applications or figuring out to take gap year from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expertsregister with CollegeAdvisor.com today! Also, check out our other guides to Best Colleges and College Acceptance Rates as you think about college admissions and make a plan to achieve your higher education goals.

Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.