What to Avoid When Taking a Gap Year

by Published

Don't make these all-too-common mistakes on your gap year abroad

As gap years have gained popularity in the United States more recently (they have been around for a much longer time in Britain and the rest of Europe), there have been many more conversations about what constitutes a gap year and how best to use the time on a gap year.   Everyone has their own opinion about how a gap year could and should be spent: students, parents, gap year counselors or advisors, college admissions counselors, the various gap year programs themselves. When there are so many competing interests and opinions, how does one best decide?

Obviously, what a student does on a gap year needs to match his or her interests and offer the potential of having a genuine and lasting impact. But in order to be considered a success, a gap year should offer other things as well. So, how does a student or parent make good choices about his or her gap year?

3 girls

Make sure to take time during your gap year to have fun!

Without knowing what a student actually wants to do – which obviously varies incredibly from student to student – I can instead offer a few suggestions of what NOT to do, which I think is more broadly applicable to the many students considering or planning for their gap year.

Based on my many years of experience watching students go through their gap year, here are some common mistakes to avoid:

Don’t try to do too much.

This is a common affliction among energetic and gregarious young people – thinking that they are invincible and that they will spend their gap year going to every destination that they have ever wanted to, and doing everything that they have ever wanted to. A gap year is not the time to check everything off a bucket list – that can come later, as someone grows and matures.

I remember a highly adventurous and motivated young woman who tried to pack her gap year so full there was hardly enough time in it for her to breathe! Needless to say, about a third of the way through her year, things started to break down and she herself started to break down – both physically and emotionally – and she had to abandon her plans for the rest of the year.  Once she had done that, she was able to get some rest, calibrate, and then look realistically at what she actually could do for the rest of her year.  She ultimately did learn a great deal from her gap year, but they were not lessons that she had expected to learn!

girl in a temple

Take time out to learn about the places you  travel to.

Don’t be afraid to take risks or even to fail.

In a sense, this is the flip side of trying to do too much – it is not doing enough, not taking any risks because of a fear of failure. Gap years are best spent taking some risks – without them, what’s the point? We all learn from our mistakes and failure can be the greatest teacher of all.  Not that you want to set yourself up for failure, but it is best to go into a gap year willing and wanting to be stretched. And this willingness to be stretched necessarily carries with it the risk of failure. If a student is nervous or a little scared before embarking on their gap year, I consider that a good thing! It tells me that they are taking a risk, not simply sticking with the tried and true.

I know a young man who took a gap year simply doing the same things he was already doing: living at home, working a retail job, going out with his friends on the weekend, texting his girlfriend who had gone off to college every day, etc. At the end of his year, when I asked him how his gap year had gone, his response was “Well, I didn’t do a lot, but I made a lot of money.”  OK, that is not necessarily a bad thing for a young person, but he and his family did not need the extra cash. In my opinion, he will have the rest of his life to work and earn money, but he certainly won’t have the time to take another gap year for a long time to come once he enters the workforce. He would have learned a lot more by taking some risks.

Kids in circle

Don’t be afraid to meet new people, take some reasonable risks.

Don’t forget to do what you want to do.

So far I have recommended not trying to do too much, or not doing too little with your gap year.  So where is that sweet spot between the two?  Well, the third thing to avoid is, not doing what you want to do.  Too often students grow up being programmed by their parents or their school environment into doing this or that, not based on their own interests but rather based on what others tell them that they “should” be doing. So when it comes time for a gap year, this pattern is already well established.

The whole point of a gap year should be to follow an inner drive, to do something that excites you, and something that scares you but you want to try it anyway.

Absolutely the wrong approach is to spend a gap year simply doing something that someone else tells you would be “good for you.” We once had a student on our gap year program who was there because his mother wanted him to be there. During his interview he answered our questions about “Why do you want to join our program?” very articulately, but once he was on the program we realized he was there more to please his mother than to please himself. And this led to no end of problems, both for the student as well as for us!

In the age of helicopter parenting, it is incredibly important that students take a gap year for themselves, based on their own interests, and for their own reasons. Otherwise, they will never really figure out who they are!

[Check out the Best Gap Year Ever]

film crew

Try something new! Challenge yourself to learn new skills.

Choosing a gap year

Gap years are a unique and special time in the life and development of a young adult. Not everyone can or does take a gap year, so if you are considering a gap year either for yourself or for your child, remember that it is best to approach the year as a time of learning and reflection.


  1. Don’t pack it so full that you can’t fit anything else (or unexpected in).
  2. Don’t forget to take reasonable risks, because it is through those risks that you will grow
  3. Don’t forget ultimately who you are doing this for – if you are the one taking the gap year, it needs to be for you!

If you remember these three things, I am confident that whatever you do, you will have an exceptional gap year!

Men camping

Get outside your comfort zone.

Find a Gap Year Program Abroad now!

This article was contributed by Winterline Global Education, an organization offering adventurous gap year experiences for young adults eager to experience the world and prepare for their future.

Topic:  Travel Tips