What is a Gap Year? | Top Universities

What is a Gap Year?

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Hasna Haidar

Updated Apr 21, 2021



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If you’ve spent some time exploring our website for information about gap years, you may have come across advice on everything from budgeting and making checklists, to deciding where to go and what to do. Taking a gap year can be a daunting process, whether you’re a student taking an adventurous time-out after years of education, or a parent supporting your child as they embark on their first taste of independent traveling, learning or working.

There are many things to take into account once you’ve made the decision to take a gap year (and making the decision itself is no easy task either!), so, to get you fully prepared – or at least as prepared as you can be – for what may lie ahead, here’s a round-up of everything you need to know about taking a gap year:

What is a gap year?

First and foremost, what is a gap year? It is usually a constructive 12-month break taken from study or work in order for the individual to pursue other interests, generally markedly different from their regular life or line of work.

Following on from this definition, if you’re a professional taking a break from your formal work life in order to pursue other interests, you’re more likely to refer to this year as a “sabbatical year” – you’ll spend your time pursuing activities that will either greatly supplement your regular line of work, or will be completely unrelated to it.

The term “gap year” is more commonly applied to students who take a year (or less, rarely more) away from their regular studies, usually between high school (upper secondary school) and college (university). Some students may instead take a gap year before starting the last stage of their secondary education (such as A-levels), or even after graduating from university, to better prepare themselves for entering the workforce. As such, a gap year can be any break taken between life stages, whether that is between school and university, between university and formal work, or when changing careers or going into retirement later on in life.

Other common names for a gap year are: pathway, prep-year, leap year, defer year, bridge-year, drop year, year out, year off, overseas experience (OE) or foundation year. The name you use will depend on what you intend to do during your gap year, what country you’re in, and sometimes the institution you wish to enter after your gap year is over.

Why take a gap year?

There are many reasons why you (or your child) might want to take a gap year. Typically, students view it as an opportunity to gain professional or personal experience, achieve specific goals and/or explore personal interests. If you’re considering taking a gap year, it is important to think carefully about whether it’s the right decision for you, and what you might gain from it. If you’re applying for a university course or for a professional role, you’ll be expected to show that your year was not only fun but also productive and meaningful. So when planning a gap year you should consider how various activities will help you develop personally and intellectually, contribute to a good cause, gain a deeper understanding of the world, and develop enterprise, maturity, commitment and independence outside of formal education.

Some common reasons to take a gap year include:

Broaden your view of the world

Whether you simply want to see and experience another country, or gain an appreciation and awareness of global issues, taking a defer year can be a great way to immerse yourself in another country.

Gain relevant work experience and key skills

Working during your defer year means you’ll gain plenty of experience, skills and knowledge, which (especially if in a relevant field) can be highly valuable when applying for jobs later on.

You could also use this knowledge during vocation-focused degree programs (such as nursing, law or veterinary science).

Earn some money

Following on from that, a working year off can also be a great way to earn some extra money before starting university. You might not earn enough to pay your entire university costs, but you could perhaps cover expenses such as accommodation, text books, travel or even the first semester/term of your course fees.

Develop useful contacts

During your defer year, you’ll likely meet a range of different people from all walks of life. This could include people you can call on for job opportunities and references, or simply some international friends on whose sofas you can crash on if you get the chance to visit their home country later. Speaking of which…

Make international friends

Living and working alongside local people during a year off abroad can mean you’ll really get to know them, allowing you to develop a nuanced understanding of different cultures and perspectives. You’ll meet all sorts of people and, if you hit it off with them, you might even gain lifelong friends.

Improve employability with key skills

You don’t have to work during your year off to develop plenty of transferable skills that will make you more attractive to university admissions officers and to future employers. These key skills that can be gained without working include organization, communication, teamwork, independence, social skills, decision-making, self-sufficiency, time management, budgeting, using initiative, improved self-confidence, leadership and developed maturity.

Challenge yourself

Many students take the year to tackle challenges they’ve set for themselves, step out of their comfort zone, face their fears and enjoy new experiences. You might decide to go trekking through a jungle, climb a mountain for charity, volunteer in a developing country, or go scuba diving, skiing or snowboarding.

Take time out between school and further studies/work

Taking a break before starting university or entering the work force can help you feel refreshed, energized and ready to tackle your course or job. Some students may also need to take a year out if they fail to get the grades they need to get into their chosen university. Many institutions report that students who have taken a gap year come back with a more mature attitude to independent study and education in general. So hopefully you should arrive back with the focus, clarity and drive necessary to begin a degree program, or commence a career.

Improve and gain new life skills

This can be anything from learning and becoming fluent in a foreign language, becoming an instructor in an adventure sport, boosting your IT skills or learning how to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL).

Do something worthwhile

Many students think of their gap year as an opportunity to do something worthwhile, such as volunteering with a charity either locally or abroad. Many students also feel that they need to take the opportunity to take a drop year when they can, before too many commitments start tying them down to one place.

Ten good (and bad) reasons you might take a gap year >

Disadvantages of a gap year

While there are many benefits to taking a gap year, it’s worth considering that there are also risks involved. Some of the disadvantages of a gap year you might encounter include:

  • You’ll be a year behind everyone who graduated high school/secondary school with you, if they didn’t take a year off themselves.
  • It can cost a lot of money to organize and realize.
  • You may get injured or sick during your travels – if you need prescription medication, make sure to check whether your medication is legal and available in your destination country/ies.
  • You might lose something – make sure to make copies of all important documents such as tickets, passport, ID card, driver’s license, insurance policy, next-of-kin contact details, emergency phone numbers.
  • You might run out of money – this can be prevented by budgeting well and always having a back-up reserve in case of emergency.
  • You might find your break too interesting/distracting, and end up not wanting to go back into formal education.
  • Your study skills may have diminished, making it harder for you to adjust to life in education. This can be particularly true for mathematics or physics students, or any course that involves complex theoretical processes and techniques that may not be used outside of the classroom.
  • Some institutions do not look favorably upon drop year students, particularly if they did not incorporate enough constructive activities into their year off.
  • Traveling for long periods of time can be difficult and uncomfortable, and the daily challenges of adjusting to a new environment can be both physiological and emotional.
  • You might discover that the gap year provider you chose is unethical, dishonest, or did not deliver what they promised.
  • You may simply find that you didn’t get the experience you were hoping for.

If your child is taking a year abroad, read our parents’ guide for advice on how to support him/her during their travels >

Types of gap year

Typical activities for students include: advanced academic courses (to get ahead of their studies), extra academic courses (to catch up with their studies), pre-college or university courses (to prepare for entry into undergraduate education), non-academic courses (to supplement their knowledge in other areas), learning a trade, volunteer work, traveling, internships, participating in sports and adventurous activities.

All these fit into one of the four typical types of gap year explored below. There are many organizations and providers dedicated to each type, and plenty of resources to draw on when deciding what type of gap year to take and how, or simply to offer inspiration. The four most common types of gap year are:

Working gap year

Spending a year working can be useful to earn some money, gain skills and experience and start to build up a network of contacts. You could work your way around the world, spend some time saving up for a period of travel or aspect of the year, or simply build up some savings before starting university.

If you choose to combine a working gap year with some travel, you’ll get to experience working in different locations, often in multicultural teams and using language skills, giving you a deeper insight into the local culture than you’d get when simply traveling through.

Usually, drop year workers tend to choose low-skilled or intermittent/temp jobs which are easier to get – and easier to get out of when it’s time to move on. You can also find year-long placements or internships in a range of industries, if you intend to spend the entirety of the year working.

Typical temporary gap year jobs include:

  • Teaching or supervising an outdoor activity (scuba diving, surfing, wakeboarding, kite-surfing, bungee jumping, alpine skiing, cruising, etc.)
  • Teaching English (or a different language you are fluent in)
  • Working in agriculture (such as crop work, working with livestock, planting trees)
  • Tour guide/operator
  • Grounds maintenance staff
  • Administration and office work
  • Catering and hospitality (hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.)
  • Community development
  • Product promotion, retail and market research
  • Childcare (such as babysitting or being an au pair)
  • Conservation and sustainable development

Of course, working in other countries often requires a work visa or permit – this can be difficult, as it may involve finding an employer to sponsor you, paying a visa application fee, and the employer demonstrating that they cannot hire someone for the same job locally. However, there are some visa and work schemes designed for travelers looking for temporary work.

For example, a working holiday visa is available in many countries, allowing travelers to undertake employment for the purpose of supplementing their travel funds, without needing to find work sponsorship in advance, or enrolling in a university exchange program. There may be restrictions with this type of visa, including restrictions on age, the number of hours you can work, the number of employers you can work for, the specific industries you can work in, and sometimes even restrictions on working in jobs deemed to further your career path. These visa schemes may be called “reciprocal visas”, with agreements in place between two countries so that citizens of each enjoy the same benefits.

Volunteering gap year

Spending the year volunteering can help increase your sense of community, help you build a network of contacts and may later lead to the offer of a permanent or paid job. Whether your year out is within your home country or abroad, there are many opportunities for voluntary work across a range of career sectors, and plenty of established volunteering projects which you can research online.

Volunteering roles are available in registered charities, foreign-aid projects, not-for-profit organizations, governments, NGOs and other organizations. Typical roles include admin, finance, fundraising, event organizing, care work, working with children, legal work, teaching, conservation and expeditions.

If you want to volunteer abroad, there are lots of international volunteering placement schemes which offer short placements (from a week up to a year) where you can help around the world with all kinds of initiatives. Make sure to check all the terms and conditions associated with your volunteering placement – some organizations may ask you to raise specific amounts of money, while others may have significant up-front charges.

Read more about the benefits of a volunteering gap year >

Traveling gap year

Some students choose to dedicate their year entirely to travel, either alone or with friends. There are many gap year social networking sites, with message boards and information to help you find a travel mate, share ideas and get advice for lone traveling. Many websites also provide assistance in finding hostels and budget accommodation in different countries, and you can also get assistance with discounted student travel tickets including round-the-world flight tickets.

Traveling locally is also an option, and can have its advantages: you’ll spend less on travel expenses, it’s easier to find temporary work to top up your funds, you may have a ready-made network of friends you can call on for accommodation, and it’s a great introduction to parts of your own country where you might consider seeking job opportunities in the future.

Before jetting off on your traveling gap year, tick off items from this handy checklist >

Studying gap year

Studying during your gap year allows you to take a year out before university while still continuing to further your education. There are several options for studying abroad or in a different location to where you are usually based. You can take a short-term summer program, or apply for a position in an exchange program that specializes in study opportunities abroad – this can also be done as part of your undergraduate or postgraduate degree, so it might also be worthwhile checking with your chosen institution(s) to find out whether they already have these placement programs in place.

Many further education colleges and training centers also offer courses suitable for gap year students which could help you develop key skills such as office, IT and business skills, or gain extra skills and knowledge in fields such as languages, art, music, drama, sports or conservation. Keep in mind that most courses charge a tuition or session fee, and you’ll need to cover expenses for study resources and materials, internet connection, accommodation, food and travel.

Read more about the first three main types of gap year >

How to fund a gap year

A gap year can include many costs. These include fees charged by experience providers, travel costs, living expenses, spending money, visas/work permits, driving permits, insurance, internet and mobile phone costs, equipment including a comprehensive first aid kit, any hospital, prescription or health costs, and perhaps even passport renewal.

Many gap year providers offer starter packages to help you settle into your new country more easily. This includes organizing a bank account, medical insurance, accommodation, transit from the airport and even helping you find a job on arrival. They often provide details of all the things you’ll need to do both before and once you arrive, which can be a good resource to use when planning your budget.

Planning and funding your year off can take over a year and there are many different avenues you can choose from, so it is important to start thinking about funding as soon as possible.

Some ideas to help you fund a gap year include:

  • Work before you go
  • Work during the year (either in one place or while traveling)
  • Open a dedicated bank account for savings and add to it regularly
  • Fundraise through sponsored events and activities
  • Ask your family and friends to donate (perhaps instead of birthday gifts) or ask them for paid chores
  • Sell some of your unwanted items online
  • Apply for a grant or a loan from government/federal funding bodies, charities and grant-making trusts
  • Apply for funding from a local charity or service club
  • Apply for a bank loan or a training loan (known in the UK as Career Development Loans)

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