How to Decide When to Take a Gap Year

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The school to work to retirement blueprint seems may seem like the natural progression of life. Disrupting the conveyor belt feels like it could be a fatal mistake, but the good news is there is a pause button. It’s called a gap year and it's up to you when in your life you press that pause button.

Regardless of the years of lectures you’ve endured about the linear path of life you’re supposed to follow, there is not one track you must unswervingly stay on to achieve “success” (spoiler alert: life is almost never linear). Deciding when to take a gap year can be a weighty decision, but instead of worrying about the inevitable gaps, breaks, and pauses of life, embrace them. Set your own course. Make room for self-discovery.

man in backpack and outdoor gear with red beanie

How do you know when is the right time for you to take a gap year and travel? Before college? After college? A few years into your career?

Why deciding when to take a gap year matters 

A gap year is an out-of-the-box experience that can’t really be neatly packaged into a single cut and dry definition. A gap year can take many forms, be taken at anytime, any age, and for however long your little heart desires. And take it from anyone who has ever taken “time off” to travel—it’s worth it (and it’s not really time off at all). A gap year isn’t merely a hole to be filled as you aimlessly drift through life. A gap year is an intentional space created for you to grow into who you are. 

There are plenty of reasons why it’s not the right time to take a gap year. It is generally much easier to paddle around in your own backyard pool than to immerse yourself in an ocean halfway around the world. At almost every point of your life you’re going to feel that you should be doing something other than traveling the world. The question remains: what time in your life will you shake your in-the-box notions of success and instead answer the call for adventure? No matter your status—student, dropout, young professional, et al.—or stage in life, there are gap year programs out there just waiting to reignite your passions and add enthusiasm to the everyday!

[Get matched with gap year programs—seriously, it’s that easy]

Popular timeframes for gap years

camel trek in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Looking to escape the cold and embrace a well-earned suntan?

Gap year before college

Pros: If you’ve finished cleaning up your high school graduation party decorations, and aren’t quite ready to beeline to a college dorm, a gap year program may be just what your adventurous soul needs. Taking a gap year before college is great way to renew your motivation and interest in study. This can have a significant positive impact on your grades when you do go back. Not to mention it will make you more confident, mature, and all that other stuff you can tell your parents when you break the news that you’re not going to college right away. 

Cons: Unless you’ve already had plenty of travel experience, heading off to a foreign country can be very daunting when you are fresh out of high school. You may have doubts about how you will cope away from home for the first time, but once you get out there and drink the Kool-Aid, homesickness will fade into the background of all the amazing adventures you will be having. And while it cannot be denied that you will be one year behind on your college track, you will also end up being light years ahead of everyone when you do return.

[Download your free copy of our gap year before college ebook!]

#1 Recommended gap year before college program:

Winterline Global Education offers skills-based gap year programs for young adults with an adventurous spirit and an interest in the world around them. Young adults are much better prepared for college—and life—when they take the time to explore a wide variety of interests and learn real-world skills that they did not get in high school and will not get in college. Winterline Global Education’s gap year program is specifically designed to help you bring out those secret talents you didn’t know you had and discover what you enjoy doing most. 

Runners up:

backpacker in snowy landscape

Or would you rather embrace a snow-capped adventure for your gap year?

Gap year
during college 

Pros: A gap year during college urges you to stop and smell the roses or risk total burnout. Taking a gap year during college can be a great way to clarify your direction in education (and life) while catching your breath. Travel the wider world in all its complexity and glory and you’ll understand there are bigger issues for humanity than a bad date or lost game of beer pong. You also get a chance to make some cool new friends outside the usual characters you’ve been running with.

Cons: College is already sucking you dry, so money is suspected to be the biggest issue in taking a gap year during college. However, if you do a little research, you’ll find there are multiple ways around this (fundraising, scholarships, working abroad, etc.). You’re parents may also be an opposing force as you try and ditch school to travel the world. They might try to tell you if you stop now, you will lose all momentum and never start back up again (but we’re calling B.S.).

#1 Recommended gap year during college program:

SPI Study Abroad combines an authentic language immersion experience with cross-cultural leadership skills and meaningful hands-on experiences during their gap year programs for college students. SPI Study Abroad’s gap year programs encourage students to enhance and develop lifelong skills while gaining global perspectives and learning another language. The traditional classroom takes a back seat to exciting activities around the city, conversations with locals, and weekend trips to places where history, art, and culture come to life.

Runners up:

[Prepare early: Download this planning timeline we made just for you]

girl posing with graduation cap in the street

If you’ve just graduated (high school or college—either one), the world is yours!

Gap year
after college

Pros: Besides having something to talk about in an interview other than your flip cup record, a gap year after college can contribute to longer term happiness in that job you are hoping to land. While taking the time to really think about which profession to enter, a gap year after college serves as a huge resume builder and will give you a leg up in a competitive job market. Plus, you will acquire some crazy adaption skills and you’ll be much more ready to handle a job transition it if you’ve spent time shifting whole societies before.

Cons: Throughout your senior year, those student loans have been nipping at your heels. Now that graduation has come and gone they are threatening to suffocate you and stuff you in a cubicle. OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but still, student loans usually don’t defer anymore once you’ve graduated. But who said you can’t make a little money and work abroad to keep them at bay?

#1 Recommended gap year after college program:

Projects Abroad invites and encourages recent college graduates to volunteer in worthwhile projects in developing countries and make a difference in the world. Projects Abroad’s gap year programs are offered in the form of a wide range of service projects and internships that will allow you to be part of a multinational community with a passion to serve, learn, understand, teach, inspire, and be inspired. Also, gap year participants receive topnotch in-country support from their staff to ensure you have a safe, worthwhile, and fun experience.

Runners up:

calendar with page opened to November

There may never be a perfect time, but there *is* time for you to do a gap year.

gap year

Pros: So maybe you've settled into a job that just isn't doing it for you—now what? Do you step straight onto the conveyor belt of more education? Do you plunge headfirst into a career for life? No, silly—you take that grown up gap year you always wish you had! Go get yourself a new lease on life and take a grown up gap year.

Cons: Transition tends to get harder as you get older and more settled. The thing about transition is that it isn’t pretty, but stagnation is downright hideous. Opening up to new directions, instead of being narrowly focused, is hard when you’ve achieved a certain level of comfort. Realize that there’s more to freedom to be had than casual Friday.

#1 Recommended adult gap year program:

Greenheart Travel offers gap year programs that change lives, advance careers, and create leaders. They do this by partnering with organizations and governments around the world that empower their local communities through experiential learning and practical development. Greenheart Travel’s gap year programs help participants reach their full potential through travel and cultural exchange, leading to a more tolerant, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world. 

Runners up:

Deciding when to take a gap year is the first step towards adventure!

The only real risk you run in deciding when to take a gap year, is deciding not to take one at all. The most regretful people are those who felt the call take a gap year, felt their own restive travel bug and wanderlust uprising, and squashed it. That persistent little travel bug may have been dormant for a while, but now it’s got you curious. So what are you waiting for? Stride off into the sunset to your gap year program abroad!

See all gap year programs abroad