Encouraging a Gap Year: How, Why, & What the Heck Is It?

Before reading any further……you first may be wondering, what the heck is a gap year?

By definition, a gap year is a period (typically an academic year) that’s taken by a student as a break between secondary school (high school) and higher education (college).

Gap years are also common for recent college graduates & young professionals (in their 20’s-30’s) that desperately need a change of pace…….

Although gap years have gained popularity in recent years, the term is still vastly unknown by many. My hope is that it becomes more commonplace & acceptable among society over the coming years.

Even the current US president’s daughter, Malia, is partaking in a gap year herself. 

Before you’re quick to judge & assume that gap years are only for the uber rich/privileged, let me assure you that this certainly isn’t the case.

Individuals from all backgrounds (rich and poor) & upbringings (exposed and sheltered) can partake in their own version of a gap year.

The concept of taking a gap year can be applied to anyone (regardless of your age), but let’s use a recent high school graduate as the example to elaborate on this more below.

For the large majority of students who plan to attend university after high school, the actual transition period from one to the other is relatively short.

Graduation typically happens in the month of May or June……….the following academic year begins in either August or September.

Encouraging a Gap Year

That doesn’t lend oneself with much time for reflection, exploration, or even time to think about the future (at least without sound reasoning behind it).

We have placed this burden on ourselves…….

Society has unconsciously engrained in us the belief that if one doesn’t attend college/university directly out of high school, something must be wrong….

We hear the all too common questions time & time again:

“Cameron’s not going to college? He’s screwed.”

“What’s Melanie going to do with her life without a college degree?”

“Who’s paying for this vacation?”

Regardless of what your stance is on attending college straight out of school or not, we can all agree that there’s a lot of pressure put on these young 17-18 year olds (at a time in their life where a big decision needs to be made). This pressure doesn’t alleviate post graduation either.

What I’m advocating for & encouraging (along with many others) is a gap year.

A gap year is NOT taking a year off to slack off, sit on the couch, & eat bonbons (…..what are bonbons. I don’t even know).

A gap year is a year to:

  1. Explore– travel, immerse yourself in a culture other than your own, learn a new language.
  2. Take methodical risks– intern for for a mentor or a company, start a business on the side, and so on.
  3. Go out of your comfort zone– do this on a daily basis & you’ll grow as a person.


Everyone’s gap year experience will certainly vary depending on their budget. Many will include some form of travel, whether it’s a short distance to a new area of your town for an internship or further to another country.

With that being said, there’s a clear distinction between vacation & travel.

Vacation is traveling to a foreign land & sitting stagnant (sitting on a beach, in a hotel, casino, etc) doing nothing.

Travel expands your cultural perspective & broadens your worldview (visiting museums, national landmarks, backpacking, interning/volunteering, learning another language, etc).

There is nothing wrong with vacation (it’s actually good for your health when done correctly a few times a year), but the point of a gap year is to figure out what you want to do.

That can’t be done sitting stagnant.

Most high school students are undecided in their major upon entering college, and the segment of those who have indeed “declared a major” their freshmen year commonly end up changing it throughout their 4 years anyway.

If they change their chosen major too late, earning an undergraduate degree often turns into a 5 year endeavor instead of 4 year one.

The 5 year part is fine…..it’s the extra burden & another year worth of expensive tuition costs I’m not okay with.

7 in 10 students who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower. Source: The Institute for College Access & Success- Project on Student Debt

You are stuck with college debt forever. Let’s not forget that!

Even if you file bankruptcy, you’ll still be stuck with college debt.

A gap year won’t make college any cheaper at all, but that’s not the point.

The point of a gap year is to help make your decision on whether it’s best for you to attend college or not much easier.

Instead of jumping into school immediately because society/family/friends expect it of you, it’s better for you to take your time in order to make an informed choice.

Important tip (useful whether for yourself or to tell someone else): If you think you’ll attend college after a gap year, I recommend applying for enrollment & then deferring it for a year. That way when you’re ready to attend, you have a set plan to go to the university of your choosing right after.

College is a great place to learn, grow, & gain in depth knowledge, but only once you know why you want to be there.

Some may say that the first year of college is a great place to decide what you want to do. This is based on each person’s opinion. I just don’t feel that $8-25K of first year student tuition debt should go towards figuring out what you want to do.

If you’re completely set on not taking a break with schooling, a great idea is to take general education classes at a local community college or online for a much lower cost while you decide. If neither of those options appeal to you, in-state schools are also much less expensive to attend as well.

Throughout a gap year, a great thing to do is to intern for a company & get connected with people that may help further your career down the road, while simultaneously gaining real world experience (that may not be able to be replicated in the classroom setting).

Note: I took a ton of business classes in college. I had some great professors, but one main problem I had with some was that they never even ran businesses themselves. They understood basic business theory on paper & in textbooks, but had never implemented it.

That would be like learning how to sky dive from an instructor who had never gone skydiving before.

Wouldn’t you be a little nervous?

I hope so.

Those lectures unfortunately weren’t all strong experiences that could translate over to the real world of business.

What we should all strive to gain are strong life experiences.

Experience that will challenge us on a continual basis…….whether we’re already set in our professional career paths or just starting out in college.

With some time (6-12 months) to explore with a gap year, you’ll be in a much stronger state of mind to make a big life decision.

……should I continue on this path of academia?

……am I going to school because I want to be here (or is someone else forcing it)?

……what value am I going to directly gain from this experience?

Take your time, go out of your comfort zone, & explore…………these decisions will help shape you for decades to come.

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