Taking a gap year before college—or even sometime during—won’t necessarily put you behind. In fact, it could put you ahead.
More American students are pursuing the advantages of taking a gap year—also called a bridge year—between graduating from high school and starting college. Or even taking a year off sometime during college. At first, this may sound risky and you might feel it’ll put you behind your peers. But that’s not necessarily true.
A structured gap year offers rich opportunities to better understand yourself and what you want in life, to become more self-reliant and worldlier, and to gain dedication and compassion in your work. On top of that, studies have found students starting (or re-starting) college after a structured gap year are more focused, more engaged in their academic life, more passionate about their studies, and tend to graduate with a higher GPA.
To get the most out of a gap year, no matter when you take it, be sure to have a plan of how you’ll use the time and what you hope to get out of it. Then have a clear timeline for what happens afterward. Even if you’re unsure you’ll want to pursue a traditional four-year degree afterward, it’s a smart idea to apply to college and then defer your acceptance until after your gap year so you still have the option.
Here’s what you could do with your gap year.
Work and save money. This could mean working in an entry-level or apprenticeship position in an industry that interests you. Or you could split the year between multiple fields of interest. Saving money is always a good idea and could help you remain more financially independent throughout college and minimize student loan debt.
Accept an internship. This option is also great for those who’ve already started college. Some internships are unpaid and don’t always coincide with summer break or the school year. Taking a gap year might mean you could accept and work at an internship you otherwise would have to pass up. Also, a year is a longer time to make more meaningful professional connections, which may lead to a job offer later.
Travel or improve foreign language skills. Traveling—especially abroad—opens the mind to new cultures, different values, and a host of enriching experiences. Especially if you can improve your foreign language skills or work while traveling. There are many work-exchange programs for young students, like being a nanny for a family, teaching English to other students, or being a tour guide or working on a cruise ship.
Prevent academic burnout. With rising competition to get into top colleges, many students experience academic burnout by the time they’re high school seniors—especially if they’ve played multiple sports, volunteered, taken multiple AP classes, and a host of other extracurriculars all to build up their student resume. A gap year is a great opportunity to restore and promote mental health and find balance in your interests and time.
Focus on non-academic life skills. Learn about a personal budget, money management, how credit cards work, or investing. Discover new culinary skills. Learn how to do some of your own car repairs, home repairs, or build furniture. Pursue mental and physical health through exercise and nutrition. Understand the basics of sewing and first aid. These are all useful life skills you may not find time to pursue while in college full-time, but which will serve you throughout life.
Volunteer. If there is a cause that deeply moves you, it might be worth pursuing by becoming a full-time volunteer. You will gain useful life and professional skills, add to your resume, and perhaps learn what you’d like to do for a career that would continue to support your passion.
A gap year can be time well spent. Be sure to discuss it with your family and create a plan to ensure your decision adds to the options for your future.