Should you take a gap year? Here's what experts say

A gap year is more than taking time off to work, pay for school or take an extended vacation.
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/ Source: TMRW

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to rethink their long-term plans, like committing to multiyear college programs — especially since forced virtual learning has not led to an overall reduction in the cost of schooling. Instead of enrolling as normal, some students and parents are researching gap year options. In fact, according to Gap Year Association’s executive director Ethan Knight, the search-programs function on the GYA website has gone from 500 searches per month to 2,300 in the time of COVID-19. The Gap Year Association is a nonprofit dedicated to making quality gap years more accessible to more young Americans.

A gap year is more than taking time off to work, pay for school or take an extended vacation. The Gap Year Association defines a gap year as: "A semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one's practical, professional and personal awareness.”

Why take a gap year

Concerning gap year programs, two of the most notable limitations caused by the pandemic is the ability to travel internationally and to participate in large-sized, in-person service opportunities. However, this hasn’t slowed down interest in gap-year programs.

When asked about the pros and cons of taking a gap year, Katherine Stievater, founder of Gap Year Solutions said, “In normal times, gap years have been growing in popularity because they offer students a chance to take a break from the traditional academic cycle. Sometimes students are burned out after 12 straight years in a classroom, and the stress of balancing academics, extracurriculars, college applications and social pressures. Other students need some more time to mature before the relative independence of college life. And sometimes students have known about gap years through friends or family members and have long had a plan to take the time off to travel or experience new things.”

Tiffany Waddell Tate, CEO of Career Maven Consulting, has found that identifying one’s core values is a major reason to take a gap year. This includes gaining clarity on academic and social areas of interest prior to beginning college or making a career pivot.

Dr. Corinne Guidi, an educational consultant at Bennett International, said, “[Gapping is] an opportunity to go against the grain for a bit while keeping their future educational plans in sight. Deciding what to do during one's gap year should not be stressful or overwhelming. Instead, I always encourage students to reflect on things they enjoy and notice what excites them as they are researching possible jobs, internships or even virtual experiences.”

For those worried about whether the cons outweigh the pros, Stievater said, “You will hear people try to come up with the downside of gap years, but honestly, they ring pretty hollow. For example, some will claim that deferring college pushes out the time to start a job, which reduces lifetime earnings. However, any calculations like this fail to consider the high percentage of students who don’t complete college at all or take up to six years to graduate. Studies have shown that college students who take gap years transfer less, have higher GPAs and graduate on time.”

While there are many good reasons to take a gap year, especially during uncertain times, it should be known that it’s wiser to move forward with enrollment if your top-choice college doesn’t offer deferrals or if you qualify for substantial grants or loans since some financial aid institutions don't offer deferrals or won't have funds later. This is pretty common for student athletes.

Gapping options during the pandemic

Gapping has never been a one-size-fits-all situation, and right now, gapping has taken on a slightly different look.

Knight shared some novel ideas for options, like parents allowing their college-age children and peers to live for an extended period in an Airbnb without their parents. Some programs have this model with a putative RA to provide programming and supervision.

Other novel ideas include: doing an outdoor conservation corps or outdoor experience, getting certified as a contact tracer or volunteering online or through a toll-free hotline and taking career-focused online certificate programs.

“One of my students is a dancer and wants to understand the business side of dance. So she is interning in-person at a dance studio with the manager, teaching some dance classes and working with another company helping organize dance competitions," said Stievater. "Another student is working at a thrift shop in her local area and doing an online internship with a nonprofit in Morocco working on LGBTQ rights and taking French language lessons. Many students still hope to travel internationally this spring, but we’ll see — I am telling them all to have a Plan B.”

Career coach Waddell Tate added that “the key to a successful gap year is being intentional with your time and talent, while also being clear on what is feasible in terms of your financial, mental and emotional well-being. Consider it an opportunity to serve and learn in meaningful ways, which is certainly needed right now.”

“There are just so many ways for students to structure their time with volunteer projects and service work, traveling in the U.S. (often with other gappers), and pursuing personal interests: writing, blogging, music performance, videography and filmmaking, photography, acting, dancing, cooking, teaching, language learning and so on. … The pandemic does a remarkable job of bringing out the entrepreneur in Gap Year students since it forces them to think creatively about opportunities closer to home,” said Stievater.

Planning a gap year

So, how do you plan a gap year during a pandemic?

“Gap years are moving targets right now," Ethan Knight said. "[The Gap Year Association is] suggesting families pack a Plan A, B and C into their thinking — where A is maybe international (or whatever the dreamy reach is), B is likely something domestic in the U.S. right now (which is seeing a huge renaissance of growth and new programming) or C is something online … perhaps with a credential or service component, albeit done online. Inevitably, this fall will be a challenge for families to stay fluid as the globe and country have various hotspots of Coronavirus outbreaks.”

Knight says that when gappers and parents visit their website, they should spend no more than 45 minutes. Prospective gappers should go through at least 10 programs and write down the activities (not the programs) that get them excited.

“This is powerful because most students are making a decision based on what they know, not what’s out there," he said. "That list then turns into a great roadmap of a ‘bucket list gap year.’”

Waddell Tate advises gappers to “explore resources like Idealist.com to search for socially responsible internships or fellowship opportunities. Make a list of the things you want to learn, experience or do, then search for openings and opportunities that align with those items. If you are thinking about traveling or working in a place not close to where you live, talk to friends, family and warm connections that live and work in the places you are considering to see what insight or support they may be able to provide as you are making your decision. It's critical to have a support network in place as you prepare for the transition.”

If things become overwhelming, Knight recommends hiring experts like gap year consultants. These can be found on the association’s website.

If hiring a consultant is not within your budget, talking to or reading experiences of other gappers can be extremely helpful. Guidi recommends reading testimonials on CovidGapYears.com, a website intentionally created to help students who are searching for inspiration on what to do during their gap year.