What is a Gap Year? How to Create a Life-Changing Gap Year Experience

Olivia Christine Perez
Olivia Christine Perez

Traversing the globe as a writer and marketing consultant, Olivia writes for Go Overseas about topics including gap years and general travel advice.

What is a Gap Year? How to Pick a Life-Changing Gap Year Program

I was 16 when I joined my first volunteer program overseas. At 18, I took a year off before college to find direction and focus on my health and wellness, leveraging guidance from a well-respected mentor. After college, at 23, an economic recession left me with another year free to network and invest in my professional development before entering the world of full-time employment.

It’s safe to say that gap year programs -- in all of their forms -- were sort of my 'thing.'

But my initial expectation of a gap year was oversimplified. I had very little guidance and didn't realize how much power I had over such an experience.

I initially saw a gap year as an opportunity to travel and develop my professional resume. I didn't see it as anything more than a stepping-stone and chance to try something new. It was a moment to briefly soul-search and pursue projects that would make me more successful in the future (read: wealthy); an opportunity that I thought would help me fast track through this journey called “adulthood”.

It soon became clear that my perceptions of a gap year barely scratched the surface of its potential. It wasn't just a break from school and routine class work. It also wasn't a flash-second "Aha" moment of clarity.

It was a metamorphosis.

This made me wonder: do students truly understand their power in defining their gap year? I know I didn't.

What is a Gap Year?

What is a Gap Year?
Photo by Kylie, CAPA England Alum

A “Gap Year” traditionally refers to a one-year break when recent high school graduates travel, study, or volunteer abroad before continuing on to pursue an undergraduate degree. This break from examinations, academic schedules, and standardized curriculum offers an engaging opportunity for students to invest in hands-on training, networking opportunities, international travel, and personal growth.

Prospective gappers seek out programs to help them discover or focus on the major they want to pursue in college and explore the idea of learning outside of the classroom.

Today, gap years translate to travel breaks, months abroad, volunteering, work exchange, or studying overseas. The experiences are often accompanied by photos of #TravelGoals or feel-good philanthropy and somewhere along the way, the true potential of taking a gap year gets blurred between Instagram likes and academic detox.

What A Gap Year Really Is

What A Gap Year Really Is
Photo by Kaitlyn, Thinking Beyond Borders Alum

The truth is: reaping the benefits of a gap year isn’t as simple as taking time off before pursuing higher education. It isn't just about the school break and tourism-based introspection. It is an investment of your time with a reward that is largely built on attitude, planning, and input -- as well as the program’s curriculum and leadership quality.

Proper research and preparation make it easier to identify and commit to programs that will be a good fit for your transformative growth. You should come in understanding that while your gap year will be insightful, it won't be instant.

Between carefully curated programs, expert guidance, cultural immersion, and enriching experiences, your gap year, over time, will incite a strong sense of purpose and passion within you.

What A Gap Year Can Be

What A Gap Year Can Be
Photo by Wendy R., Spanish in Nature, Madrid Alum

It’s not an exaggeration when you hear . Your trip can be one of the most pivotal journeys in your early adult life.

It can change the way you view and understand the world, and make you a more passionate learner and global citizen. Your gap year can be the perfect opportunity to explore and leverage experiences like:

  • Establishing your sense of self as an adult.

    Who are you? And what type of person do you want to become?

    The time spent during your gap year learning to think critically and live consciously will help you consider (and even walk) the path toward the person you want to be -- or will help you begin to visualize that person.

    These programs challenge you to expand your views, dispel judgment, and make forward-thinking decisions. They push you to question what is comfortable and become more curious about the world, as a blooming adult.

  • Finding a sense of purpose and direction.

    Your gap year experience is meant to establish your sense of purpose in the world -- not immediately solve global problems. The opportunity should help you gain a critical understanding of causes you feel passionate about and the issues you want to focus on when you return to school.

    Your gap year is essentially your first step in making meaningful progress throughout your career.

  • Reshaping the learning process.

    You'll quickly realize that your gap year program won't be about grades, like "normal school." Because of this, the year offers an opportunity to begin meaningful, purpose-driven work without fear of academic failure

    A gap year can offer the opportunity to take control over your learning, growth, and relationships: you become the student and teacher.

How to Craft a Life-Changing Gap Year

How to Craft a Life-Changing Gap Year
Photo by Amber E., InterExchange Work & Travel Canada Alum

You now know you want to make the most out of your gap year now that you know it can change your life. Where do you even begin? Here are four places to start before and during your program:

  • Look for qualified mentorship rather than management.

    It is easy to sign up for a gap year program with standard top-down management. It is difficult (and rare) to find gap year facilitators trained to mentor beyond the classroom or volunteer experience. When reviewing programs for your gap year experience, consider leader qualifications and one-on-one mentorship availability. Thinking Beyond Borders is one of the companies leading the way in to give you true mentorship and learning experiences.

  • Find fresh ways to give back.

    "Giving back" is a common theme in study abroad and volunteer programs. The problem is, some do-good programs don't focus enough on the long-term effects of giving back during a gap year -- or don't properly educate travelers on the realities of such philanthropy.

    To be most effective, seek out fresh programs that place emphasis on new learning opportunities, relationship building, expert shadowing, and community engagement, and arm yourself with questions to consider when comparing impactful gap year programs.

  • Practice daily humility.

    During your gap year, you will encounter hurdles that challenge your habits, values, and mindset. While patience and positivity are some of the few , humility is an extremely important trait to carry with you.

    These characteristics will help you adapt to new environments and become a more enthusiastic learner, helping you find peace in saying "I don't know".

    It will also encourage you to make more meaningful relationships that contribute to your critical thinking and growth. As observers and students of the world, humility will help you make the most out of your year abroad.

  • Seek opportunities for "higher learning".

    Programs like Thinking Beyond Borders create to encourage "higher learning". They dispel the notion that cross-cultural learning can be achieved within touristic limitations and encourage students to experience a location (and its accompanying challenges) by engaging with the community on a "higher", more local level.

    If you want to craft a gap year that offers maximum impact, check that your program offers engaging experiences that will empower travelers and students to get involved beyond the surface, beyond the classroom, and beyond their borders.

How Will You Define Your Gap Year?

How Will You Define Your Gap Year?
Photo by Maddie, Pacific Discovery Southeast Asia Alum

If you are considering a gap year, take a moment to evaluate your expectations, goals, and the program's potential. Carefully consider the ways you will plan for a meaningful gap year experience during your time abroad and think about how you want to make your experience matter.