A gap year is a year dedicated to learning outside the classroom, often involving world travel, self-education, service work, employment, and entrepreneurship.
(This page discusses the idea of gap years—click here to view organized gap year and travel programs.)
The Classic Gap Year
Most commonly, a high school graduate will take a gap year before starting 4-year college.
According to the American Gap Association, “Gap Years originally started in the United Kingdom in the 1970’s as a way to fill the 7 or 8 month gap between final exams and the beginning of university. The intention in the UK for that time was to contribute to the development of the student usually through an extended international experience. . . Since its transition to the United States, Gap Years have taken on a life of their own – now embodying every manner of program and opportunity imaginable, both domestically and internationally, all with the shared purpose of increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers.”
While the idea of taking a gap year has been around for a long time in Europe, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, the ideas has gained significant traction in recent years in the U.S., aided especially by Malia Obama’s 2016 announcement that she would take a gap year before entering Harvard.
How does it work with college admissions? Many high schools students will apply for college at the end of their senior year, get accepted, and then defer their admission for a year. This lets them enjoy their gap year without worrying about getting into college.
The Modern Gap Year
But the modern concept of the gap year has expanded far beyond 18-year-olds. Other ways that people are taking gap years include:
- Taking a gap after finishing college, before jumping into full-time work (for ages 21-25)
- Taking a gap during a career transition (for adults of all ages)
- Taking a gap during middle school, before jumping into an intensive high school experience (for ages 12-14, as proposed by Ken Danford in Eighth Grade Out!)
A gap year is really just a year in which you give yourself permission to be a full-time self-directed learner. Some people (especially recent college graduates) take a gap year and love it so much that they take a second, and then a third… and eventually then end up just calling it “life”.
Gap Year Options
There are two ways to do a gap year: join an organized program, or do it yourself.
Organized Gap Year Programs
Do a quick google search for gap year programs and you’ll find an overwhelming number of options. Most programs cater to 17- to 20-year-olds, and prices range typically from $10,000-30,000. You can easily spend more on a gap year than a year of college!
Visit our list of recommended gap year companies that cater specifically toward self-directed learners.
DIY Gap Years
Read my blog post on Tools for Building a Cheap and Meaningful Gap Year.
If you don’t feel the need for an organized group gap year experience—or you’re simply not able to afford one—you can piece together your own experience. Consider including:
- low-budget world travel
- volunteering / service work
- internships / apprenticeships
- creative projects that you’ve long put off
- developing an art form or physical skill
- a short-term living experiment in a new city (especially living in community)
- entrepreneurial ventures (i.e. starting your own freelance service or small company)
- extensive reading and writing
- interviewing people who do what you might want to do, Roadtrip Nation style
A do-it-yourself gap year is very similar to a year of purposefully skipping college.
Interview with Ethan Knight
Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association (americangap.org), talks with Blake about the value of taking intentional time off in the young adult years, his self-designed gap year in Asia at age 19, what’s missing in the traditional college experience, and tips for staying safe on your own global adventure.
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