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Updated Oct 20, 2023

Want to Take a Gap Year? 7 Ways to Make It a Productive One

For many high school students, the idea of jumping into the next phase of life immediately after graduation is daunting. Here's how to take a productive extra year between the two.

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Saige Driver, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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The traditional high school graduate who’s headed to college gets a nice summer break before the intensity of higher education begins. But some high school graduates take longer before starting university classes. These new adults take what’s called a gap year.

During a gap year, soon-to-be college students pursue their passions, strengthen their skills or work toward a cause. And yes, some students take a gap year simply to relax or travel, but these gap years aren’t the most productive use of their time. Here are seven ways to make sure your gap year is successful and filled with rich experiences.

1. Do your research and start planning early.

The first step to a productive gap year is to research and determine what you want to accomplish during your time off. Do you want to travel? Would you like to volunteer? Get inspired by visiting a website dedicated to gap years, make a Pinterest board with all the gap year possibilities, or create a list of everything you want to accomplish.

Another great way to plan is through a gap year travel consultant. These specialists can help with planning specifics such as insurance requirements, visa assistance and medical advice.

“Take advantage of programs that offer a gap year planned and packaged,” said Libryia Jones, founder of Wanderist Life. “You get someone to manage the logistics [and] support you throughout the year, and they recruit a bunch of folks for you to travel with.”

Did You Know?Did you know
You don't have to do all the work of building out a gap year on your own. There are gap-year consultants who can handle much of the logistics.

2. Volunteer or gain work experience.

While gap years are sometimes seen as a vacation, that doesn’t mean you can’t be honing skills necessary for your potential industry or making money to pay for your year abroad.

Some travelers teach English, pick up freelance gigs, work at resorts, become camp counselors or even pick fruit to afford a year away. Seek out jobs that will be relevant to the career you want when you land back home.

For example, if you plan to be a teacher, find a job as a camp counselor, nanny or tutor. If you want to be a writer, create a blog with articles, videos and pictures.

3. Take a remote internship in your home or college area.

If you’re living elsewhere during your gap year, you can still immerse yourself in the job market around your home or college town. You can apply for remote internships with companies based near either of these locations, even if you’re all the way across the world. This way, you’ll stay connected to realistic post-college job markets while still enjoying your gap year. You’ll probably learn skills and concepts that’ll help you out in freshman year too.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
You can remain connected to your home area and step into your university job market even from afar. Remote internships during your gap year are one of the best ways to do this.

4. Learn a new language or skill.

Jones recommends learning a new skill during your time off. Consider what job you might want in the future before choosing what to pursue.

“Look up maybe 25 senior-level positions in that field – what are the skills required for the next job up from entry level? Invest time in learning that skill,” Jones told Business News Daily. “There are so many online courses you can take advantage of.”

If you do decide to travel, you can learn a new language and then go out into the real world to put your skills to the test. Once you return home, you’ll be more qualified for some translation jobs solely because you can speak another language. Plus, if you speak the local language, you’ll be able to make more connections abroad.

5. Start that passion project.

If you’ve had a passion project on your mind, your senior year of high school might not have been the best time for it. You had colleges to apply to, AP or IB exams to take, and friends to spend time with. During your gap year, though, you won’t have to make time for classes, and with so many of your peers in college your social life will be limited. You’ll have plenty of free hours to pursue your passion project.

Ideally, you’ll turn your passion project into a source of income relevant to your future university studies. This way, your passion project is both your calling and a way to stand out as you apply for jobs. The way you frame your gap year as you transition from school to the real world is key to a great first job.

6. Know how to market your gap year to potential employers.

When you return home and start applying to jobs, you’ll have to explain the time gap on your resume. But if you took a productive gap year by learning new skills, gaining relevant work experience and making connections, impressing a potential employer shouldn’t be hard.

A gap year “actually ends up being a great topic of conversation in interviews,” Jones said. “Focus on the parts of your experience that directly relate to you being a great candidate, [such as] dealing with difficult situations, managing through ambiguity [or] creative problem-solving.”

If you traveled, Joe Ponte, CEO of Hotelplan UK Ltd., suggests focusing on the communication skills you gained while you were abroad.

“Understanding how to communicate successfully with people of another culture is increasingly important in many career paths, and can give someone an advantage over another candidate,” Ponte said.

7. Make connections.

No matter how you choose to spend your time, you’ll meet new people at every turn during a gap year. Getting to know these people and making a connection could help you find a friend and possibly increase your professional network.

“You never know who you will meet during your gap year who might be able to help you get a job or build a relationship,” Ponte said. “Make sure to take the time to really talk to the people you meet.”

The benefits of a gap year

As you’re thinking about whether to take a gap year, consider the following potential benefits.

  • Exposure to experiences that might otherwise be unavailable: When you’re balancing college studies with a job that helps you afford tuition, you might lack the time for rewarding volunteer experiences. During your gap year, you’ll have lots of time to volunteer in realms relevant to your growth and learning. That could mean homestays and cultural exchanges, or more hands-on volunteer labor.
  • International immersion: If the job you’re hoping to get after college would involve international travel, clients or communication, you might need to learn a foreign language. That’s much easier to do when you’re living in a place where people speak that language. You’ll come back to college more qualified for opportunities than you would have been otherwise.
  • More interesting stories for employers: It’s easy to worry that employers will balk at candidates who let a whole year pass between high school and college. In reality, at a job interview, a gap year can make for an interesting, insightful conversation that separates you from the pack. That’s especially true if your gap year taught you hard skills you’ll need for the job. 

The drawbacks of a gap year

Taking a gap year could also put you at some disadvantages.

  • The feeling of falling behind: If all your friends are a year ahead of you in school when you return from your gap year, you might feel behind on life. Maybe that’ll stress you out and make you imagine you’re missing out on the life experiences your friends are already enjoying. In reality, though, you’ve had an experience they didn’t get to enjoy: a gap year.
  • A rough transition back to formal education: From the ages of 5 to 22, most people are in classrooms for roughly nine months a year. That means most people never spend more than three months away from classes at a time. Now imagine coming back to school after a whole year away. That could be tough, though proper preparation can mitigate this.
  • Potentially high costs: It’s one thing to go a summer without pay when you’re at home waiting to leave for college. It’s another thing if you’ve bought a plane ticket to live and volunteer somewhere else for a year. Even if a program covers your lodging costs, you’ll likely want to explore nearby areas, which often costs a lot of money. But if money is secondary to experience for you, a gap year might still be worthwhile.

Saige Driver contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

author image
Saige Driver, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Saige Driver is an experienced digital marketing strategist who advises business owners on both basic and advanced marketing principles, strategies and tools. She also shares expertise on social media management, relying on her hands-on experience with various platforms to guide clients toward the best services. Driver regularly collaborates with business stakeholders to implement best practices and strengthen brands, using data analytics to inform marketing and sales decisions. She has a degree in telecommunications and journalism and holds credentials in account-based marketing and social media.
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