Gap Year: The Essential Guide for High School & College Students

May 7, 2019

You’ve probably heard the term before, but what is a gap year? A gap year is an open-ended term that means something different to everyone. “Gap year,” “gap time,” “bridge year” and “launch year” are often interchanged, but the general consensus is that a gap year is the time individuals take to reflect on their personal, professional and academic goals prior to determining their next steps. A gap year is an intentional “break” from the common academic routine to do something different.

API Gap Year Fairs - Jan 15

What You Should Know About the Gap Year

  • Time is finite. The gap year is not a year of vacation or time to goof off; it’s purposeful and shouldn’t be approached casually. Make sure to research and plan in advance.
  • It doesn’t have to be a full year! Structured gap year programs can range from two months to an entire year.
  • Students should have a specific goal. Students take a gap year for a reason and choose to take this time now versus later.
  • Students don’t have to be committed to one program. Students can build out the year pursuing a variety of experiences and enroll in numerous programs.

Benefits of a Gap Year

Taking a break from school can sound fun and relaxing for high school graduates, but what benefits does a productive gap year offer? Depending on students’ goals, gap year benefits can include the following:

  • Time for personal development. The transition from high school to adulthood and college is marked by difficult decisions. Choosing the right university, declaring a major and taking the first steps toward a professional career requires introspection. The gap year is the perfect time for this.
  • Improved health. The gap year is great for relieving stress and focusing on improving mental health. This year can help improve students’ focus on the years of study ahead.
  • Time for professional experience. Some students choose to use the gap year to gain professional work experience and build their resumes. Whether working in their hometowns or abroad, students spend their gap years thinking about what they would like to accomplish in their careers.

Program Types

When thinking about what to do during a gap year, students can do their research independently or reach out to a third-party provider who offers gap year programs and can help them find housing, activities, excursions, volunteer/internship placements and other opportunities.

What You Should Know About Gap Year Programs Offered by Providers

  • Categories. Gap year programs fall under a few different categories: adventure/travel, community service, environmental and marine conservation, internship/work experience, and travel/culture.
  • Structure. Programs focus on cultural immersion and service, and they require students to reflect on their experience through group activities, projects, and various other assignments.
  • Engagement. Providers create a small cohort for their gap year students to engage in hands-on learning.
  • Safety. Providers take on the responsibility of ensuring the highest possible level of safety during excursions and activities. All API housing is located in cities with low levels of crime, and host families are screened by a trusted housing agency.

For more information about API’s safety features, visit the API Health and Safety Resources page.

A gap year doesn’t have to involve international travel; students can spend part or all of a gap year program in the U.S. working, interning or volunteering.

A Comparison of Domestic and International Gap Year Programs

Domestic. Students completing a gap year program in the U.S. can seize different opportunities:

  • Explore the wilderness. Biking, hiking, camping and backpacking can be an integral part of the gap year experience.
  • Complete an internship. Many employers offer opportunities to recent high school graduates.
  • Volunteer with a nonprofit. Students can contribute to a cause they believe in and develop teamwork skills.

International. Combining API programs with different opportunities on-site can be a great way to maximize your gap year. For example, students can opt to study a language for their first experience abroad, use their new language skills to give back to a host community through a community service program with API, and then apply their new professional skills to an internship placement!

Students taking a gap year abroad can enroll in the following programs offered by API, for example:

  • Session 1 (Fall) – Study abroad in Granada’s Intensive Language Program
    • Complete 12-20 semester credits of Spanish language courses and gain extensive exposure to the Spanish language in a short amount of time.
    • Session 2 (Spring) – Serve in Buenos Aires’ Community Service Program
      • Spend 1-3 months working at a local organization dedicated to promoting opportunities for at-risk youth, supporting patients at a local hospital or contributing in your own unique way to a local non-profit and put your new language skills to good use.
  • Session 3 (Summer) – Intern in Santiago, Chile
    • Just a short plane ride from Buenos Aires, Santiago, awaits with its thriving metropolis and extensive internship placements. Use your newfound skills and professional passions to contribute to a local business and continue to expand your language skills.

Vetting a Gap Year Program

Before choosing a program, it’s important to consider gap year pros and cons. This requires a bit of research. To learn more about a particular gap year program, students can take the following actions:

  • Get in touch with alumni. Most programs have an alumni network. Reach out to a Program Coordinator to get in contact with past students.
  • Read reviews. Websites such as Go Overseas, GoAbroad and TeenLife not only serve as a central space to learn more about gap year programs but also allow student alumni to post reviews of programs.
  • Consult with gap year advisors. Many gap year advisors have conducted site visits with the organizations you might be interested in and communicate with these organizations regularly. They understand program model differences among providers and have firsthand knowledge of what programs look like in action.
  • Check accreditation. Research if organizations are accredited by the Gap Year Association (GYA). GYA-accredited programs have gone through an extensive process to earn this distinction.

Visit the Gap Year Association website to check if a gap year program is accredited by the GYA.

How to Fund a Gap Year

Students have many options to raise the money they need for a gap year program. From gap year scholarships to crowdfunding and 529 plans, each of these options requires dedication and persistence.

Gap year scholarships are usually offered by the program provider and prospective university. Students can also consider the following scholarship opportunities:

Fundraising is a creative way for students to raise funds. Here are some suggestions:

  • Community car washes
  • Bake sales
  • Walk-a-thons
  • Writing a sponsorship letter
  • Crowdfunding (GoFundMe, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc.)
  • Selling calendars or T-shirts
  • Babysitting, yard work, and pet sitting
  • Recycling
  • Garage sales
  • Tutoring

Check out this GYA article for more fundraising ideas.

A 529 plan is an education tuition plan that is tax-free on savings and investments. This is a popular savings fund for college that is often used to pay for a gap year program.

Check out this Forbes article to learn more about how to open a 529 college savings account.

Gap Year After High School

A gap year after high school can be spent abroad or in the U.S. Students can take this time to relieve their stress from high school and prepare for the pressures of college. In addition, students have time to “find themselves” and learn more about who they are becoming as independent adults. The benefits of taking a gap year after high school are well worth the investment.

Why Take a Gap Year After High School

High school graduates may choose to take a gap year before college for the following reasons:

  • Improve test scores. If students’ SAT or ACT scores were not high enough for admission to their dream schools, a gap year is an opportunity for them to study and retake those exams.
  • Reconsider their choice of university. During this time, students can visit university campuses and make an informed decision without any rush.
  • Take time to think about goals. A gap year program is an opportunity for students to think deeply about their education and career goals. Exposure to a foreign culture or new subject can open their minds to possibilities they hadn’t considered.
  • Focus on personal development. Students will be challenged and stretched by new experiences, surroundings and people. A gap year program allows individuals to develop skills that are not usually formed in a classroom setting.

Benefits of a Gap Year After High School

Taking a gap year after high school can increase students’ motivation for college, bring clarity to academic goals and challenge their ability to adapt to foreign surroundings.

  • Gain clarity surrounding academic goals. At the end of a gap year program, students may realize they need to change their intended majors; gaining this clarity before registering for courses can allow students to save money and time.
  • Greater motivation for college. A study of 2,502 Australian students found that taking a gap year was “linked to higher motivation in college,” according to a Wall Street Journal article.
  • Learning how to set goals. In the process of researching gap year programs and figuring out why they should take a gap year, students learn how to set goals and make informed decisions.

What Do Colleges and Universities Think of the Gap Year?

In general, higher education institutions are supportive of students taking a gap year. Some institutions have an official deferment policy specifically for taking a gap year; others are just starting to develop such a policy.

Because there is no uniformed approach to student gap year programs, it is important to research how deferring admission to college will affect a student’s status at the university. For example, the institution’s view on taking a gap year as an incoming freshman may differ from its view on taking a gap year as a transfer student.

It’s important to check with the admissions office and registrar before making a final decision.

Visit the GYA website for more information about which colleges and universities in the U.S. accept gap year deferment.

Where to Find Gap Year Programs

Many resources are available to students interested in gap year programs. Guidance counselors, fairs and associations are committed to helping students find the gap year programs that are right for them.

Guidance counselors, foreign language teachers and other faculty leaders

Students should first discuss alternatives to college with a guidance counselor. Guidance counselors walk families through the college admissions process and discuss postsecondary opportunities. They can also help identify schools and opportunities that are a good fit based on a student’s academic record and interests.

Check out the GYA’s Professionally Certified Gap Year Consultants list.

Fairs & Events

Numerous associations put on fairs to connect students with gap year program coordinators.

  • USA Gap Year Fairs. This national circuit of events from January through March brings together reputable gap year organizations, interested students, parents, high school college counselors, and gap year advisors.

Check out the Gap Year Fairs Schedule to find a fair close to you.

  • National College Fairs. GYA has partnered with the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) to bridge the gap between secondary and higher education. The NACAC hosts college fairs in every major city; students can expect to find college admissions representatives and gap year organizations at these events.

Register to attend a National College Fair to learn more about gap year programs.

University-Sponsored Gap Year and First Year Abroad Programming

Students taking a gap year during college need to carefully research the university, the provider and the program. The admissions requirements, program cost, and program length are all variables that students should consider in the decision process — especially if the program is abroad.  

College Gap Year Programs

Many universities recognize the benefits of taking a gap year and have developed their own programs. Below are a few college gap year program options for students to consider.  

Florida State University — Gap Year Fellows

High school seniors interested in taking a gap year must submit an FSU Gap Year application. Once the application is approved, they are required to spend at least six months in a cross-cultural setting. Upon return, FSU Gap Year Fellows will spend time reflecting on their experience and participate in guided group activities.

For more information, visit the FSU Gap Year Fellows program page.

UNC, Chapel Hill — Global Gap Year Fellowship

The fellowship award is an $8,000 stipend open to high school graduates accepted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fellows may qualify for an additional $8,000 merit award from Global Citizen Year if they decide to join Global Citizen Year.

Check out the Global Gap Year Fellowship program page to learn more.

Tufts — 1+4 Bridge Year

Tufts provides accepted Tufts students the opportunity to learn from a transformational year of full-time community service before beginning their academic studies on campus.

Learn more at 1+4 Bridge Year and on the Global Programs page.

Florida State University — First Year Abroad (FYA)

Students may spend their freshman year studying abroad in London, Florence, Panama City or Valencia.

For more information about FSU’s FYA program model, visit the FYA website.

Michigan State University — First-Year Seminars Abroad

Freshmen attend a two-day summer seminar on campus, followed by 10 to 14 days traveling abroad in a group.

These seminars are designed to educate students on the following areas:

  • Global issues
  • College-level standards and skills
  • Critical thinking, writing and reading

In addition, students are given the opportunity to grow their personal and professional networks. This program is an excellent way for students to broaden their horizons and engage with foreign cultures.

Learn more at the Michigan State University Office for Education Abroad.

From Gap to College: How Can Gap Students Integrate With Students on Campus After the Program?

There are a number of ways students can get back into the flow of things once they’ve finished a gap year program:

  • Reach out to the admissions office and speak with an academic advisor about the process of applying to college after a gap year. Find out if the school has a program or process set up on campus to assist returning gap students.
  • Check in with the study abroad office and ask how it supports re-entry for gap year students on campus.
  • Connect with other gap year students and stay in touch.
  • Attend a Lessons From Abroad (LFA) Conference or GYA Conference to learn more about how to integrate with students on campus.

Gap Year During College

Students considering taking a gap year during college are sure to have many questions about what to expect, where to find a gap year program and how to plan a gap year. Below are a few frequently asked questions and answers.

What Is a Gap Year in College?

Students can spend a gap year in college traveling abroad, working, volunteering or enrolled in a gap year program. Gap years may be taken either abroad or in the U.S.

Why Take a Gap Year During College?

Students take a gap year during college for different reasons: to stimulate personal growth, promote professional development, increase motivation for college, learn about foreign cultures, and take some time to think about academic and life goals.

Can You Take a Gap Year in the Middle of College?

Many universities encourage their students to take a gap year during college. Students should speak with an academic advisor to find out more about a specific institution’s policies for taking a gap year in the middle of college.

If you have any other questions about gap year programs, reach out to a gap year counselor on your school’s campus.

How to Know If You Should Take a Gap Year During College

Before you decide to take a gap year during college, it’s important to consider your reason for taking a gap year and to set goals for this dedicated time. A gap year is not time to “goof off” but to actively focus on specific goals. (See “Why Take a Gap Year During College?”)

<h3>How to Find Gap Year Programs During College</h3>

Students can consult their universities’ academic advisors, career advisors and gap year program directors for information about gap year programs and policies.

Tips for Returning to College After a Gap Year

Transitioning from a year abroad to the daily grind of college life can be challenging. Here are a few tips to make the transition smooth:

  1. Give yourself time to process your experiences of the previous year.
  2. Meet with an academic advisor to help bring you up to speed on what you need to know.
  3. Consider joining a college club that aligns with your interests and passions.
  4. Stay in touch with your peers from the gap year and support each other.
  5. Draw from your ability to adapt to new situations — just as you did during your gap year.

Gap Year After College

A gap year after college is time for students to apply what they learned in their degree programs by volunteering or working — before pursuing a postgraduate education.

Taking a Gap Year After College: All You Need to Know

There are many benefits to taking a gap year after college. During this year, students have the time to:

  • De-stress and unwind from the pressures of exams and deadlines
  • Reflect on future career and academic goals
  • Volunteer and give back to communities
  • Focus on personal goals and relationships

Gap Year Programs After College

Below are a few options for gap year programs after college:

High Mountain Institute: Students have the opportunity to spend their gap years in the wilderness rock climbing, studying conservation issues and gaining hands-on learning experience.

Nomad Planet: Students can spend one year, one season, one month or one-and-a-half weeks traveling and working alongside a group of artists, entrepreneurs and digital nomads.

Thinking Beyond Borders: Students can spend seven months, 13 weeks or eight weeks learning and volunteering in a culturally immersive experience abroad.

Year On: A program structured across three phases in which “students explore and volunteer abroad, focus on their interests and build skills in San Francisco, and launch themselves into the ‘real world’ with the support of their Year On coaches and community,” according to the Year On website.

How to Find Post-College Gap Year Programs

Students can consult the following sources for post-college gap year programs:

Gap Year Association (GYA)

The GYA sets the standard for gap year programs and is dedicated to advancing the field and bridging the gap between secondary and higher education. GYA hosts an annual conference for industry leaders

Gap Year Consultant/Advisor

These advisors focus solely on working with gap year students. Gap year consulting firms such as Center for Interim Programs, Enroute Consulting, Taylor the Gap, Gap Year Solutions, Taking Off and A Gap Away work with students across the U.S. Students can connect with these resources online or visit their tables at a USA Gap Year Fair or NACAC college fair.

Gap advisors use gap year questionnaires to learn more about students’ interests, hobbies, goals, etc. These questionnaires help advisors offer better suggestions for programs or assist students crafting an independent gap year.

Online Program Directories and Listings

Students can conduct their own online research through Go Overseas, TeenLife and GoAbroad.


A Gap Away

API Abroad, Health and Safety

Center for Interim Programs

Enroute Consulting

Florida State University, First Year Abroad

Florida State University, FSU Gap Year Fellows

Forbes, “5 Steps to Opening a 529 College Savings Account”

Gap Year Association

Gap Year Association, Gap Year Financial Aid

Gap Year Association, Gap Year Programs

Gap Year Association, “How to Raise Money for Your Gap Year”

Gap Year Association, University Deferral Policies for Gap Years

Gap Year Association, Working With Gap Year Consultants

Global Gap Year Fellowship, Global Gap Year Fellowship

Gap Year Solutions

Go Overseas


High Mountain Institute, High Mountain Institute Gap Year Programs

Michigan State University, First-Year Seminars Abroad


National Association for College Admission Counseling, National College Fairs

Nomad Planet

Princeton Review, “The Gap Year Experience: A Life-Changing Opportunity”

Taking Off

Taylor the Gap

TeenLife Media, LLC

Thinking Beyond Borders, Gap Year Programs

Tufts University, Tufts 1+4 Bridge Year

Tufts University, Tufts First Year Global Programs

USA Gap Year Fair

USA Gap Year Fairs, Gap Year Fairs Schedule

USA Gap Year Fairs, Gap Year Scholarships

The Wall Street Journal, “Delaying College to Fill in the Gaps”

Year On


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