What is a gap year? A guide to your intentional break

July 3, 2024

Have you ever felt the weight of expectation pressing down on you, urging you to follow a predetermined path straight from high school to college and then onto a career? If so, you're not alone. But what if there was another option, a chance to step off the well-worn track and forge your own path? Enter the gap year – a concept that's gaining traction as a valuable tool for personal growth and exploration.

But what is a gap year exactly? Who can take a gap year? What can you do during a sabbatical? And finally, is it really just a waste of time? In this blog post we’ll dive deep into the world of gap years, answering all these questions. We'll explore the core principles, debunk common myths, and provide insights into crafting a gap year experience that resonates with your unique aspirations.

Beyond the definition: the essence of a gap year

The Gap Year Association (GYA) defines a gap year as:

“An intentional period of time devoted to personal growth and exploration through experiential learning opportunities, typically taken after high school and before career or post-secondary education, to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.”

This definition reveals several key aspects of a gap year.

  • Intentionality: it's not just a random break; it's a planned period with specific goals and objectives for self-discovery.
  • Experiential learning: it goes beyond textbook knowledge and focuses on learning through real-world experiences.
  • Personal growth: the focus is on expanding your horizons, developing new skills, and fostering self-awareness.
  • Timing: while traditionally associated with post-high school, gap years can be taken at any stage in life.

Experiential learning, an important component of gap years

Between all the key aspects we cited, there is one that is the real core of any gap year experience: experiential learning. But what is it?

Experiential learning, as defined by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), is a dynamic process involving:

  • Hands-on engagement, that is actively participating in new activities and immersing yourself in different environments.
  • Critical reflection, or a deep analysis of your experiences, reflecting on your learnings, and challenging your perspectives.
  • Personal agency, the ownership of your decisions, overcoming challenges, and building confidence.

Through this cycle of continuous exploration, reflection, and growth, you can gain valuable insights and shape your path forward. Imagine yourself volunteering in a remote village, tackling real-world issues alongside locals. Or perhaps interning at a cutting-edge startup, gaining practical skills in your chosen field. Or, again, backpacking across Europe, navigating unfamiliar cultures and pushing your comfort zone. Each one of these experiences presents a unique opportunity for learning, both successes and failures fueling your personal transformation. And this is exactly what a gap year involves.

What can you do during your gap year?

The beauty of a gap year lies in its flexibility. A sabbatical is not a one-size-fits-all mold, but rather a customizable journey tailored to your individual aspirations. Here's a glimpse into the diverse activities you could pursue.

  • Volunteering: during your gap year you could contribute your skills and time to worthy causes, working with communities, wildlife conservation projects, or environmental initiatives.
  • Internships: if you’re more career-oriented, you could gain valuable work experience in your field of interest, learning from professionals and gaining practical skills that will enhance your resume.
  • Independent travel: another option is to immerse yourself in new cultures, explore historical landmarks, and discover hidden gems on your own terms.
  • Language learning: whether you’re a language major or just looking to learn a new language, you can take courses in a foreign country, conversing with native speakers in everyday situations.
  • Personal development programs: last but not least, you could embark on self-discovery journeys through workshops, retreats, or specialized programs focused on mindfulness, leadership, or outdoor skills.

Just remember, the essence of a gap year isn't about the specific activities you choose, but the impact they have on your personal growth. Let your passions guide you, embrace new challenges, and create a gap year experience that resonates deeply with your individual needs!

Three girls eating pizza together during their gap year in Italy

Who can take a gap year? 

Traditionally, the image of a gap year student is that of a recent high school graduate backpacking across Southeast Asia. And while this remains a (too much) popular option, the reality is far more diverse. Gap years are increasingly appealing to individuals of all ages and backgrounds, including:

  • College graduates looking to take a break from academics to gain real-world experience, explore career options, or travel before settling into a job.
  • Career changers who want to use that time to reevaluate their professional goals, acquire new skills, or volunteer in a different field.
  • Mid-career professionals wanting to recharge and gain new perspectives on their work by taking a sabbatical year, volunteering internationally, or pursuing a passion project.
  • Retirees looking to embrace a new chapter in life by embarking on adventurous travels, volunteering in their communities, or learning a new skill.

Ultimately, anyone seeking personal growth, self-discovery, and a chance to break away from the conventional path can benefit from a gap year!

Dispelling the myths about gap years

The idea of taking a gap year can be met with raised eyebrows and furrowed foreheads. Images of aimless backpacking and questionable souvenirs  can indeed cloud the true potential of this transformative experience. But here’s the truth: gap years are not about lounging on beaches or delaying the inevitable. 

However, as people keep up the skepticism about sabbaticals, you might want to be prepared to debunk the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding this experience. 

Myth #1: A gap year is just a year off - a vacation in disguise

Many people associate gap years with laziness or a desire to postpone adulthood. They might picture someone lounging on a beach for a year, escaping responsibilities and putting off their future plans. This perception often stems from a lack of understanding about the purpose and structure of a gap year and from the traditional view that the most productive path is a straight line from high school to college and then directly into a career. 

Here's why the myth doesn't hold up

A gap year is anything but a break from responsibility. It's a chance to take on new challenges and develop valuable skills in a different setting. Whether it's volunteering in a developing country or interning at a startup, a gap year requires initiative, resourcefulness, and the ability to adapt to new situations. It's a time for self-directed learning and personal responsibility, not a year of idleness!

Myth #2: It will set you back academically

The fear of academic regression is a major roadblock for most people considering a gap year. Students envision themselves forgetting crucial formulas, losing their edge in writing skills, or falling behind on the ever-growing mountain of information expected for college entrance exams. Parents, too, share this anxiety, picturing their children losing valuable study time and struggling to reintegrate into a rigorous academic environment after a year away from textbooks.

Here's why the myth doesn't hold up

A gap year, with its enriching experiences, can broaden your perspective and enhance critical thinking skills. Living abroad can expose you to different cultures and social issues and traveling can ignite a passion for new subjects. These experiences can fuel your motivation to learn upon returning to school, making you a more engaged and well-rounded student. Additionally, some colleges view gap year experiences favorably, recognizing the potential for personal growth and development.

A girl graduating college after her gap year

Myth #3: It hurts your job prospects

Many believe a gap year on your resume translates to a gap in your employability. They envision potential employers viewing a break from traditional career progression with suspicion, questioning your commitment or work ethic, with this perception often stemming from outdated views on career paths and a lack of understanding of the skills gained during a gap year. 

Here's why the myth doesn't hold up

A gap year spent wisely can actually enhance your job prospects in several ways.

  • Demonstrates initiative and adaptability: employers today value well-rounded, adaptable candidates who take initiative; and a gap year often demonstrates your ability to step outside your comfort zone, learn new skills in unfamiliar environments, and manage your time effectively.
  • Provides valuable work experience: gap year opportunities can provide valuable experience directly related to your desired career field. What’s more, you'll gain practical skills, build your network, and learn about different work environments.
  • Highlights passion and interests: a gap year spent pursuing your passions, whether it's wildlife conservation or learning a new language, reveals a depth of character and genuine interest in a specific field.

Myth #4: It's only for the rich and privileged

The misconception that gap years are a luxury reserved for the wealthy is a significant barrier for many. People might imagine expensive travel programs or exclusive volunteer opportunities as the only options, making a gap year seem financially out of reach.

Here's why the myth doesn't hold up

Gap year experiences can be tailored to fit any budget.

  • Budget-conscious options abound: there are numerous affordable gap year programs available thanks to organizations that offer low living costs, work-exchange programs that provide accommodation and meals in exchange for a few hours of work each day, or house-sitting gigs that allow you to explore a new location for free.
  • Creative financing strategies: you can save up during high school or college, explore scholarship or grant opportunities specifically designed for gap year programs, or start a crowdfunding campaign to supplement your finances.
  • Focus on experiences, not luxury: the core value of a gap year lies in the experiences themselves, not extravagant travel or expensive activities. Prioritize meaningful experiences over luxury, and you'll be surprised by the enriching and affordable opportunities available!

Myth #5: You'll lose touch with friends and family

Many people believe that a gap year spent traveling or volunteering abroad will inevitably lead to a disconnect from family and friends back home. They might envision a year of missed birthdays, fading friendships, and strained relationships, without even thinking about communication technology and the potential for growth within relationships.

Here's why the myth doesn't hold up

A gap year doesn't have to mean sacrificing your connections. 

  • Technology bridges the geographical gap: advancements in communication like video calls, instant messaging, and social media platforms allow you to stay connected with loved ones no matter where your gap year takes you.
  • Shared experiences create stronger bonds: your gap year experiences will provide you with incredible stories and memories to share upon your return. And this can foster deeper connections and enrich your relationships with family and friends.

All in all, should you take a gap year?

The question of whether or not to take a gap year is a common one, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer. It's a deeply personal decision that depends on your individual goals, circumstances, and personality. So, before diving in, take some time to reflect on your aspirations and anxieties

Here are some self-reflection questions you can ask yourself!

  1. Do I feel burnt out or unsure about my future path? 
  2. Are there specific skills or experiences I want to gain before starting college or a career? 
  3. Am I financially prepared for a gap year, or can I make a plan to be?  
  4. Am I comfortable with the idea of being independent and responsible for myself for an extended period? 

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to take a gap year is a personal one but you can always seek guidance. If you need help, try to talk to your parents, teachers, counselors, or people who have taken gap years themselves. Their advice and experiences can be invaluable in helping you make an informed decision!

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