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.

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 secondary school and university. Some students may instead take a gap year 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.

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.

Types of gap year

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

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.

Travelling 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 travelling. 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

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 specialises 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 centres 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

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 secondary school with you, if they didn’t take a year off themselves.
  • It can cost a lot of money to organise and realise..
  • 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 favourably upon drop year students, particularly if they did not incorporate enough constructive activities into their year off.