We know gap years can benefit your academic performance, boost your career prospects and readiness, and are incredible opportunities to discover your interests, unlock skills, and change your perspective. But, even amidst all the research that proves gap years are valuable personally, professionally, and academically, there’s a simple question that sometimes goes unanswered: How exactly do you plan a gap year?
Having taken a gap year myself, and writing and researching them pretty extensively since then, I’ve gotten to see the range of how people plan, conduct, and structure their gap years. There are students like me, who never expected to take a gap year, and self-structured their own. There are students who knew a gap year was in their plans well before they graduated high school. Whether you’re a high schooler thinking about the next steps in your education or just a young person craving something different than what college is offering you, there’s value in taking a gap year. So, let’s break down how:
What’s best for you where you are now?
Step one of the “how to take a gap year” checklist depends where you are in your life and education. For high school juniors or rising seniors, you have several choices: You can opt to apply to colleges, and, upon acceptance, defer for a year and take your gap year before entering university life. Deferring is becoming an increasingly popular option for American students, as the majority of colleges actually support students taking time away from school before the rigor of college begins, and studies show that stepping off the academic treadmill can set you up for greater success later in life. This is a fantastic option if you know you eventually want to go to school, or if you feel you need a bit more time to decide what you want to study, where you want to go, or are just seeking real-world experience before diving into higher education.
(Curious about deferring? We’ve got a free guide on how to do that here.)
If you’re like me, and decide to take a gap year after you’ve technically already begun your college career, check into your university’s withdrawal policies. Some schools require that you drop out altogether if you aren’t enrolled in classes; others offer you a year of being unenrolled while still holding your space if you decide to return.
What do you want to do?
Knowing what you want from your gap year is crucial to knowing how to take one. Do you want to travel? Learn a certain skill? Work? Think about what you believe will serve you best. That leads to how you actually want to spend your year: Some students choose to self-structure their gap years, where they travel on their own, find their own internships or work, and make their own plans. Meanwhile, programs like UnCollege allow you the freedom to discover what matters to you with the support of experienced coaches, a cohort of people in the exact same position you are, and built-in ways to further your skills. If you choose a program, there’s likely an application process. If you opt to self-structure, start thinking ahead of time about how you’ll fill your days in a worthwhile way.
Start answering the tough questions.
The question I get asked most about gap years is: How do I fund this? That depends heavily on step #2--programs may have tuition or fees, but some also offer scholarship opportunities that will help you fund travel and expenses. Most programs also have housing options, which is important if you’re venturing beyond your hometown and can’t crash at home.
If you self-structure your gap year, cinching a job is a fantastic learning experience and way to build hands-on skill sets as well as supporting yourself. During my gap year, I worked a job that paid bills and unpaid internships to gain experience. Either way, know how you’re funding your gap year before embarking on one.
Talk to your parents, friends, etc.
(Hey, parents! UnCollege has a special guide just for you. Click here.)
Chances are, your parents will have thoughts on your decision to defer or leave school altogether. Including them in conversations about your gap year is an important step in figuring out logistics, as their support might change your options. Need advice on talking to family and friends? Head over here.
Get everything in order.
Plan, check. Destination, check. Now, all you need is to get organized: Update those passports, fill out any relevant job, internship, or program applications, get your budget together, and ensure you’ve tied up any loose ends at your school. Spend some time making a list of goals you want to accomplish during your gap year, whether it is something personal, like becoming more outgoing, or professional, like learning a new language or developing a body of work for your resume. Having those goals in the back of your mind will help keep you on track wherever your gap year takes you.