How to Take a Gap Year in College in 4 Steps


Feb 24, 2023

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Choosing to go to college is already life-changing enough, and now there’s a consideration for a gap year? Despite inconsistent and sometimes unrealistic portrayals in the media about gap years, they can provide much-needed experience and motivation to young professionals who want to pursue passions or expand their skill sets. What is the process like on how to take a gap year if you choose to follow one?

1. Define Your Gap Year

A gap year is a rigid definition — a year-long break from a previously consistent, structured educational schedule. You may choose to take a gap year to:

  • Travel the world 
  • Pursue passion projects
  • Do internships
  • Participate in volunteer work
  • Experiment in a different field
  • Take care of sick loved ones

Everyone’s motivations are different, so it’s vital to provide your definition of the gap year and what it will encompass. Often, it’s described as experiential learning, even though it’s outside the confines of standardized education. Nobody’s gap year is the same because there are so many experiences in life that provide educational value outside of school walls. Be as creative as you wish.

Most importantly, it’s essential to define its purpose. Otherwise, the year may go off the rails, laden with distractions. But everyone is capable of crafting a productive and valuable gap year. It can be right after high school or during college — whatever suits the student’s needs the best.

2. Perform a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Will the emotional and fiscal price of the gap year equate to or exceed the cost in benefits? The answer to this question will affirm whether or not the gap year is the right decision. It requires self-awareness and reflection, knowing your habits, tendencies, and dedication to education.

Here are some questions to guide your thinking when determining if a gap year will be worth it from a few angles:

  • How much will it cost to pursue the gap year? 
  • Am I okay with graduating later than expected?
  • Will my gap year contribute to my wellness or global betterment?
  • Will the time reinvigorate my dedication to school, or will it cause me to lose momentum?
  • Does the project I want to pursue help inform future decisions about my career or life path?

Studies show gap years often motivate students to improve their studies, especially since most students return after gap years anyway. Not everything about a gap year has to revisit education — sometimes it can’t, especially if the objective of the gap year is out of your control, such as caring for loved ones. 

Gap years also teach invaluable life skills that employers love to hear were gleaned from self-driven experiences. Students can hone their team management, communication, and decision-making skills from experience outside the classroom.

3. Talk to the Necessary Parties

Depending on when you’re taking your gap year, you’ll have different people to discuss your plan with. If it’s after high school, you may need to talk to guardians, roommates, mentors, or job prospects concerning your intentions. Your gap year may influence others, and it’s as compassionate as it is essential to consider them in the equation.

There are a few more steps if you’re in the middle of your schooling. Deferrals are agreements you discuss with the school to keep you as a student. It outlines the terms of your gap year and who to contact if there are changes. You will need to write up one before your departure.

Review school policies by talking to your dean, professors, or advisor about how deferrals work and if your credits, scholarships, grants, and other opportunities will be valid after a gap year. Taking a gap year between college years is notably more challenging, because you must allot time for understanding the bureaucratic system and re-enrolling, alongside planning your gap year.

For example, if your concentration only offers classes every two years, you will need to understand how it will affect graduation time if you miss a semester or two.

With deferrals, the Gap Year Association has a comprehensive list of United States-based universities’ policies. You can also schedule meetings with the administration if you’re concerned about how to take a gap year in college correctly.

4. Make an Itinerary 

Once the admin is taken care of, you can begin the fun part — setting everything in stone. Whether you want to backpack Europe or work a job in your town for the next year, write down everything you must do to start the process and who you need to talk to. 

You could also write a vision of how you want the year to go and what you want to get out of it to ensure you feel accomplished. The more clarity the itinerary has, the more significant benefit you’ll get from the experience.

The gap year can contain many events and learning opportunities — it doesn’t have to focus on one task. Research trees at your local forestry organization, and then learn more about cultures traveling to South Africa. It can be as jam-packed or as malleable as you desire, so long as every part goes back to the original thesis of the gap year.

Taking a Gap Year the Right Way

Now that you’ve considered your direction for how to take a gap year in college and talked to your school, you’re ready. Or perhaps, you’ve decided to wait a little longer, or it’s not suitable for you. Deciding how to take a gap year requires intense self-reflection, educational analysis, and preparation. 

Students could benefit from a break to explore if their motivation and determination stay strong. No matter how the gap year ends — even if you don’t necessarily end back up at school because you went through a period of self-discovery — you took the time to practice independent learning. 

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