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Rethinking Your Gap Year

Plan gap year activities that will help you build life skills and position you for success in college and beyond.

6/30/2020 | Going Back to School, Featured | 9 minute read

Picture of Mary Sharp Emerson
Written By:
Mary Sharp Emerson

A gap year between high school and college can be a great idea for some students. Yet traditional gap year activities like travel abroad may not be an option this year. Thinking creatively about your gap year plan—and exploring nontraditional gap year activities like online college classes—can help you stay focused on your future goals.


This year has thrown more than a few curve balls. For high school seniors looking forward to starting college in the fall, the future holds a great deal of uncertainty.

What is certain, however, is that the college experience for first-year students in 2020 will look very different than what many students have been anticipating.

In response, more high school seniors are choosing to take a gap year.

The reasons for the current interest in pursuing a gap year vary from student to student. Some may not feel safe to travel or live on campus during the coronavirus pandemic. Some may be experiencing a changed financial situation. For others, it may not feel worth it to pay full tuition for an online experience. And some students are simply willing to wait for a less disrupted college experience.Sidebar text: If you have been accepted to college or university but are thinking about a gap year, be sure to discuss your plans with your admission officer before making a decision. Taking a gap year without following the policies at your accepted college may endanger your acceptance or enrollment in future years.

Whatever the reason behind your decision to take a gap year, time away from a traditional academic environment can be highly productive. It’s a great way to recharge, refocus, and prepare yourself for success when you do return to school.

And while many traditional gap year activities may not be available or appropriate this year, it is still possible to structure a stimulating and fun gap year.

The key is staying focused on what you are trying to achieve during a gap year, and thinking creatively about local activities that will help you achieve those goals.

And remember, whether you engage in a formal gap year program or take time off before you apply to college, you will have to demonstrate that you used your gap year with purpose and intention.

Focus on Building Life Skills

A gap year is not just about taking time off.

Gap year activities should focus on helping you build life skills you will need to position yourself for success in the future.

As you look at various ways to organize your time during your gap year, think about how those activities will help you:

  • Grow your emotional maturity
  • Increase your independence and self-sufficiency
  • Demonstrate your willingness to make a commitment and follow it through to conclusion
  • Showcase your ability to collaborate and work as part of a team
  • Help you communicate clearly and effectively with friends, co-workers, and your community
  • Create a focus on your unique interests and passions

If you’re interested in a specific career field, a gap year can be a great time to pursue a career-focused internship.

An internship can help build specific job-related skills as well as these important soft skills. It can also help ensure that you focus on the right degree and skills to advance your career after college.

If an internship is not possible, don’t underestimate the value of working in general. Holding down a job—even if it’s part time or a “gig” job—shows emotional maturity, commitment, and a willingness to work hard.

It can also give you valuable life experience that will make you better equipped to handle the challenges of college life and your future career.

A gap year is also a great time to demonstrate commitment to your community through volunteering and service projects.

Whether online or in person, there are plenty of opportunities to make the world a better place close to home. For example, start a read-aloud-to-kids program (in-person or virtually) through your local library. Help staff your local food bank or start a collection drive. Develop and implement a fundraiser for your favorite charity. Work on a local, state, or even a national political campaign.

Exploring and organizing local service projects can help you learn a lot about where your passions lie as you think about your college major and career goals.

And the best part about close-to-home or virtual gap year activities is that you don’t have to choose one or the other.

Developing a fulfilling schedule of part-time work and volunteering will demonstrate your ability to multi-task and stay organized.

Don’t Put Academics on Hold

A gap year can also be a great time to think creatively about your academic goals.

In fact, here are seven great reasons why you should consider taking online college courses during your gap year:

  1. Develop college-level study skills. An introduction to college-level courses during your gap year will help prepare you for the academic challenge that college classes will present.
  2. Narrow your career path. Using your gap year to explore different academic interests can help you focus on a specific major, allowing you to jump right into it once you go back to school full time.
  3. Sharpen your digital collaboration skills. Even before the onset of coronavirus, digital learning and collaboration was well on its way to becoming a critical educational and professional tool. And proficiency in online collaboration will likely be a critical skill in nearly every professional field.
  4. Get ahead on college credits. Taking college courses today can give you credits to apply toward your degree down the road, potentially lessening your course load when you do return to school. Check with your university to see what types of credits they will accept toward your future degree.
  5. Fulfill prerequisites. If you already know what your major will be, you may be able to start right into more advanced coursework by getting prerequisites out of the way during your gap year.
  6. Save money. Living at home while taking online classes will certainly save you money over a full-time residency program. It will also give you time to earn money that could be used to offset future loans and college expenses.
  7. Take advantage of the flexibility of online learning. Many online classes come in a variety of formats to fit into a busy schedule, leaving you time to pursue nonacademic gap year projects like volunteering or organizing a service project.

If you were looking forward to heading off for college or experiencing a traditional gap year foreign service project, planning a different kind of gap year closer to home may feel challenging, even disappointing.

Yet with a little creative thinking and a lot of enthusiasm, you can fulfill your gap year goals from the comfort of your home and your community. All it takes is a little imagination, organization, and dedication to set yourself on the path to future success.

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