Why you should consider taking a gap year

gap year High School
By Kyra J.

Entering my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to take a gap year. Even though choosing this path in 2015 was less of a norm, I was grateful to have parents and teachers who recognized the many benefits of taking a year off from school to pursue a different type of experience than that of traditional academia. 

There are a lot of benefits to taking a gap year – but being able to reap the benefits really depends on whether you have clear goals for gap year and can structure your year effectively in order to meet them.

This article will help step you through what to consider before choosing to take a gap year, and how to brainstorm potential opportunities.

Know Your “Why” and Think Through the Pros and Cons

Before deciding to take a gap year, I thought hard about my reasons for taking a gap year, and what my goals were for the year. I mulled over a confluence of factors:

  • Do I feel burned out, or ready to enter college without a break?
  • Is there an opportunity that I want to pursue now, that I wouldn’t be able to explore at my university?
  • Will taking a gap year impact my transition once I matriculate into college?
  • What will be the financial cost of taking a gap year?
  • In the long-run, will taking a gap year have an impact on my career trajectory and academic goals? What are some of the positives and negatives?

Personally, I felt burned out after high school and wanted a year to relax and recover before an intense freshman year of college. I also wanted to have an opportunity to live in a new country and learn from a new culture – which I felt would help me grow as a person and gain deeper awareness about the world around me.

Find The Right Program or Opportunity

Having defined my goals, I started looking into pre-arranged programs that would enable me to travel abroad for free. The U.S. State Department offers several scholarships for high school students and recent graduates to live abroad and learn a language, for free, including the YES Abroad program, NSLI-Y program, and CBYX. There are a host of other programs – some organized through universities, such as Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill, and others that offer subsidized tuition, including Global Citizen Year. 

I was ultimately offered the opportunity to live in Skopje, Macedonia for 10 months on the YES Abroad program, and the experience changed my life. It was challenging, in large part because it was the first time that I didn’t have the structures of a highly-intensive academic environment to divide up my days. I also had to adjust to living with a new family, make new friends, and create a community for myself from the ground-up. Though difficult, the experience made me feel a sense of empowerment and self-confidence in my abilities that sustained me through the ups and downs of my freshman year of college. 

Taking a Gap Year During College

Having taken a gap year before I matriculated at Stanford, I hadn’t really considered taking a gap year during college. However, the summer after my freshman year, I realized I wanted some time away to really figure out what I wanted to do with my life and as a career. I had spent the summer interning for a judicial reform NGO in Jakarta and fell in love with my colleagues and the work. But the experience also exposed to me the limitations in continuing to work in Indonesia without speaking Bahasa Indonesia. I also wanted to clarify what I wanted to pursue post-college in order to better tailor my coursework and time at Stanford most productively. Thereafter, I knew that having a year to intensively study Bahasa Indonesia would best prepare me for a future career working on Indonesian law and foreign policy.

I first checked my university’s leave of absence policy – thankfully, they were very lenient, and allowed me to take up to two years off without any penalty.I then turned to exploring opportunities that would enable me to learn Bahasa Indonesia for free. 

Though I wanted to take another gap year, I was still hesitant about doing so. I was really excited to find out, however, that I wasn’t the only person thinking about doing so. In fact, a number of students at my university had taken gap years during college (even pre-COVID!). Some decided to work – either by pursuing their own start-up idea or joining a company – while others decided to travel. Some more decided to take some time off for their mental health. Whatever the reason, everyone who went into their mid-college gap year with intention were grateful that they had chosen to do so.

Although my gap year plans were slightly derailed because of the pandemic, I don’t regret my decision to take a step back during college to develop fluency in a language that has since opened up many opportunities for me. While it initially felt strange to not graduate with my original class year, I personally found the pros of taking time off – developing a new skill, spending more time with family, and gaining work experience – far outweighed the cons of feeling a bit “older” than my peers and “delaying” my graduation. 

At the end of the day, taking a gap year is a sign that you’re in control of your life and what you choose to do. And that sort of empowerment translates into whatever you do thereafter.

The Bottom Line

Taking a gap year before or during college can be really rewarding, but it’s important that you have a clear idea of what you want to do and the pros and cons in doing so. Not all gap year opportunities have to pose a financial burden to you – there are lots of opportunities to study abroad for free and gain work experience, if you know where to look (I recommend chatting with your tutor about your goals to identify opportunities that would be a good fit). Or, just taking time for yourself after a stressful four years of high school and/or college is a good enough reason as any. At the end of the day, you have to choose how to live your life – whether that be continuing on the traditional path through college, or seeking a new adventure in between.

Kyra is currently pursuing an LLM in International Law at SOAS, University of London as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from Stanford University with a BA in History, Phi Beta Kappa with honors, and a minor in Human Rights.

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