Considering a Gap Year? These Experiences Could Really Pay Off
When Malia Obama took a gap year before starting at Harvard in 2017, her plan created a lot of controversy on the internet, especially here in the U.S. But students taking a gap year—before, during, or after college—isn’t new, and the trend is widespread in other countries.
The oldest gap year organization in the U.S., the Center for Interim Programs , has been around for nearly 40 years. While there are limited stats on how many students take gap years here, almost 25% of students in Australia take a gap year and American numbers, which used to be estimated at closer to 1% or 2%, appear to be rising.
Also known as a bridge year, a gap year or gap semester can come between high school and college, after college before starting grad school or a career, or even in between semesters while at college. The idea is to refresh yourself after all those years of head-to-the-books learning, explore potential career interests, and get some new experiences while the risks are low—and when you have no kids and no mortgage.
The idea is you then return to school—or start your job search—with newfound focus and intention. What you do while taking off a gap year depends on you. You can volunteer, travel, work, or some combination. Malia Obama almost 25% of students joined a cross-cultural exchange program to Bolivia and Peru, did an internship with a film and TV production company in New York, and traveled with her parents to Indonesia.
Now, you may not be able to pull off the same itinerary as Malia, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great experience of your own. If you’re asking yourself, “Should I take a gap year?” then here are some of the options and logistics to consider.
Should I Take A Gap Year?
Everyone’s circumstances are unique, but common reasons people worry about taking off a gap year or gap semester are a) money and b) getting behind in school or their career. However, a gap year doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive and growing research suggests many of those who take some time off actually do better when they get back.
Studies from Robert Claggett , former dean of Middlebury College, have found students who took a gap year had higher GPAs after returning to school than those who didn’t. Research shows that most students treat gap years as a year “on,” not a year off.
A Gap Year Association survey found that among students planning on a gap year, the reasons given were to gain new experiences (92%), explore new cultures (85%), do volunteer work (48%), and explore possible career paths (44%). And for those who wanted a break from academics (81%), a gap year can be especially beneficial for renewing motivation.
The experience you gain taking a gap year during college can not only help you get ahead in school, but can also give you work experience and boost your resume. And it’s not just the skills specific to your desired career that may come in handy.
A gap semester or gap year can also teach you skills you might never learn otherwise—for example, leading a group on environmental rehab projects, becoming fluent in a foreign language, or teaching at-risk students. The various experiences and people you meet can give you a better idea of what you want to do by presenting you with a wider range of possibilities.
The important thing is to decide what you want your gap year to look like before you take off.
What Are My Options?
You may first want to consider the purpose of your gap year. The isn’t just an extra chance for you to hang out in your parents’ basement playing video games. The key is to decide what you want to do and what your goals are.
Do you want to travel? Where to? Do you want to gain experience in a specific field to see if you like it? Would multiple different kinds of work and volunteer experience help you decide what direction you want to take when you are ready for college or even post-graduation?
The American Gap Association suggests you ask yourself a series of questions to establish what you’re looking for before you start planning. You can start by browsing options and jotting down some ideas or locations that appeal to you.
Low-Cost Service Programs
While there are higher-cost organizations that can place you in volunteer-tourism programs all over the world, some of them may be ethically questionable—is your volunteer work really helping anyone?—and some of them probably aren’t worth the money.
Instead, consider low-cost options to do service work right here in the U.S. AmeriCorps programs don’t require a degree and have you doing volunteer work like repairing trails or delivering food donations.
The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps is a full-time residential program for people ages 18 to 24 to work in teams implementing local service and community projects for 10 months.
Another AmeriCorps program, CityYear , sends groups of volunteers into urban schools to help at-risk students for either a full-year or a mid-year term. In terms of government programs, the State Department sponsors cross-cultural exchange efforts, like National Security Language Initiative for Youth and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program .
There are also organizations like the Student Conservation Association , which puts people to work in teams on conservation efforts. Many of these programs are fully funded and some even offer an award for school after you’re done—so many of them are very competitive to get into.
International Gap Year Programs
There are countless programs that promise cross-cultural exchange, international travel, and even volunteer-tourism. But there’s a growing concern that some of these volunteer-tourism efforts are detrimental to the local communities.
Make sure you ask hard questions of the program you choose, like what does a typical day look like, are there references I can speak to, what are any additional costs, and where does the money go? Good programs typically offer more in terms of safety and structure (and not all of them are expensive).
If you’re looking for a few examples, Omprakash combines volunteer experiences with a curriculum and currently costs $750 (plus flight and living expenses). Cross-Cultural Solutions offers vetted volunteer placements in foreign countries for relatively modest fees (considering everything that’s included).
Work or Volunteer
You can also create your own gap year plan, and don’t have to necessarily go through a program—but it’s probably a good idea to still have a structure. If there’s somewhere you want to volunteer or intern, you can always approach that organization directly. You can also reach out to friends and family connections to find jobs in other locations.
While lots of countries won’t give working visas to college-aged Americans, New Zealand and Australia both offer visas for some jobs, especially farm work. HelpX and Servas list international work exchanges. In the U.S., WWOOF offers room and board for short-term work on organic farms and Backdoorjobs lists seasonal adventure jobs.
If you plan to attend college out-of-state, you could even use the time to work and live in the state where you want to go to school, which may up your chances of qualifying for in-state tuition. Becoming an official resident of another state typically involves things like getting a job, a place to live, registering to vote, and opening a local bank account, though you’ll want to double-check all your school’s (and the state’s) specific requirements for establishing
The key is to look at all your options and decide what your goals are. There are even consultants who can help you plan your year and who have contacts around the world to help structure a program that fits you.
Details and Logistics
Most colleges encourage high school students to apply and get accepted before asking for a deferral or applying to take a gap year. Some universities , like Tufts , Princeton , and University of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill , are also offering scholarships, grants, or even their own gap year programs for students. Check out a list of schools that are gap year friendly .
If you’re thinking about taking a gap year during college, instead of before, then the process could be slightly different. There are plenty of reasons you might want to take a gap semester in the middle of school—maybe you want to do a full-time internship or corporate training program that doesn’t offer college credits, maybe you want to travel or study abroad in a program not offered by your school.
But you’ll want to talk to your college administrators and academic advisors first to ensure you can take off the semester or year and still be guaranteed a spot when you return. You’ll need to double-check all your financial aid and housing paperwork to make sure you won’t have to pay things like extra fees when you get back to campus.
Finally, if you want to take a gap year after college, it will be fairly straightforward in that you won’t have to figure out any college logistics. However, you’ll still have to figure out things like health care—if you were on your college insurance plan, what will you do now?
You’ll also want to make sure you have any required visas and vaccinations if you’re going abroad. Have a safety plan in place: What will you do if there’s a medical emergency? How will you communicate with people back at home? What do you absolutely need to take with you?
If you’re going to be living abroad, be sure to let your nearest embassy know that you’ll be there, so that they can keep you informed of any political or environmental emergencies in the region. And, of course, you’ll want to have your finances in order, which brings us to the big question.
Funding a Gap Year
How are you going to pay for this? There are some scholarships and financial aid available. If you’re looking at taking a gap year after college, then you could potentially apply for a personal loan. You can also fund it the old-fashioned way, by working and saving up money.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re taking a gap year after you graduate is how much you’ll be paying on your student loans. It’s possible you could refinance your student loans in an attempt to secure either a lower monthly payment or a lower interest rate. If you want to reduce your payments while traveling, you could consider refinancing and lengthening your term to lower your payments. (Though this may mean paying more interest over the course of your loan.)
Alternately, you could refinance for a lower interest rate and a shorter loan term, and try to knock out a bigger chunk of your student debt before taking your gap year.
Either way, remember that you’d lose federal student loan benefits when you refinance. But you could gain a better interest rate or loan terms and the simplicity of dealing with just one loan.
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Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.