It’s a longstanding tradition in England, an accepted norm in Europe and beyond. But in fast-paced, career-driven America, the “gap year” – an intentional buffer between high school and college – isn’t quite so mainstream.
But the gap year has gained some traction in the US. In 2014, Forbes reported a 20% increase since 2006 in high school graduates taking a year off to volunteer, travel, and round out their personal development. Some universities now encourage incoming students to defer their enrollment for a year – including Harvard. Their reason? The rising pressure on students to conform to the expectations of others.
“Burnout is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals. Time out can promote discovery of one’s own passions.”
– from Harvard College’s admissions page
We think a gap year is worth considering, and apparently we’re not the only ones. Recently the White House announced Malia Obama’s decision to attend Harvard after taking a gap year.
But is a gap year right for you? Let’s take a look at a few ideas behind this idea of a gap year and hopefully get a broader perspective:
A gap year won’t put you behind.
Diligent students might cringe at the idea of waiting to go to college, wondering, “Won’t that put me behind?” We’d like to answer that question with another question: “Behind what?” It’s your life, and it’s not a competition. Go to college if that’s what will help you accomplish what God has called you to. But don’t go just because it’s what people expect of you.
Think, for instance, about how many college students change their majors. (Studies vary, but it’s more than half.) Consider, too, the rising college debt, which has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. Rushing off to college because “it’s what people do” may not bring you closer to your life’s goals. Instead, it could be a really expensive way to realize that you aren’t sure what those goals are.
A gap year, on the other hand, can be an opportunity for you to find the answers to some of those big questions. That’s time well spent in the long run. Check out some of the benefits of a gap year, compiled by the American Gap Association:
- Greater job satisfaction and a less selfish approach to working with others.
- More confidence in career choices.
- Improved motivation and academic performance upon returning to school.
- For those who travel, cross-cultural adaptability and practical experience.
- Better understanding of yourself, your values, and your capabilities.
- And more.
Do you know what your life goals are? More importantly, have you asked God what his goals are for your life? He made you, after all; he’s got a pretty good idea what sort of career will fit the gifts and personality he gave you in the first place. Taking some time to get to know him and how he’s made you is definitely not a setback.
A gap year isn’t a year off.
If you feel that your 13 years of education entitle you to check out of life for a while after you graduate, that’s fine. Play some video games, go to the beach, mooch off your parents, road-trip with your friends. Do whatever you want – just don’t call it a gap year.
Traditionally, gap year participants have invested time and energy by volunteering and traveling. Of course, travel isn’t cheap; some students opt to work part of the year and then travel. Others spend more time saving up money for college, while including activities closer to home like volunteering, taking a class, or learning a new skill. A gap year can be highly structured through an organization or custom-built to suit your needs.
Whatever you do, think it through. Don’t simply take a year off and expect personal growth and development to magically happen. Be intentional – otherwise you may finish your year with regret over binging on Netflix instead of learning a language or serving your community.
Here are a few questions to help you get started.
What do I want to accomplish?
When the year is over, what books do you want to have read? What new skills do you want to have developed? Are there questions you need to take to the Lord? Are there ways that you want to serve? Set some goals, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself – just be sure that they aren’t so lofty that they’re unattainable. (In other words, start guitar lessons and practice regularly. Don’t expect to be a virtuoso.)
And don’t be afraid to dream a little! Check out some of the out-of-the-box experiences of students who’ve chosen YWAM training for their gap year.
- Riding elephants in Nepal.
- Learning calligraphy and traditional fan dancing in east Asia.
- Working at summer camps in Germany.
- Being the first person to share the Gospel in unreached villages in south Asia.
- Drilling wells in Amazon villages.
- Climbing mountains, learning to surf, and running a preschool in South Africa.
- Exploring the ruins of the ancient church in central Asia.
- Praying for someone to be healed, and seeing God answer that prayer.
- Counseling orphans in Ukraine.
- Offering someone their first Bible.
- Hosting seminars on health, finances, and relationships in India.
- Staying in Muslim host homes and sharing the traditional fast-breaking meal during Ramadan.
- Leading high school students on their first mission trip in Nicaragua.
And that’s just the beginning! God can accomplish a lot in a year. Ask him what his dreams for your year are.
What do I want to learn?
One goal of your gap year should be to discover more about the way God has made you. That has huge implications when you’re making decisions about your future! And here’s the thing: the best way to learn what we were made for is not by taking some assessment test or online quiz. We learn what we’re made for in motion.
The best way to learn what we were made for is not by taking some assessment test or online quiz. We learn what we’re made for in motion.
So get out there. Serve. Volunteer. Get involved in your church or community. Go on a mission trip. By all means, read good books about your areas of interest – but go out and make your own stories, too.
Who or what can help me have a successful gap year?
Is there a mentor you could meet with regularly? Maybe your church is willing to offer you an internship so you can learn from people whom you respect and who care about you. Signing up with a trusted organization is another great way to learn. Whatever you do, don’t try to do it on your own.
What will keep me from accomplishing it?
Some of these are obvious. Television, sleeping all day, or a crazy social life could easily turn your gap year into 12 months of summer vacation. Set boundaries ahead of time to help you meet your goals.
Other hindrances are less tangible. Fear is a huge factor in preventing people from trying new things. Don’t let your hesitation about the unknown or your anxiety of making a mistake hold you back. God’s is far less interested in your comfort than he is in your heart and your relationship with him. If he wants you to be stretched and challenged, let him do it.
Don’t take a gap year to “find yourself.”
Don’t get us wrong – if you’re intentional in setting aside a year to serve and travel and gain practical experience, it will most certainly be a time of self-discovery. And that’s a good thing.
But the better thing is this: get to know the God who made you. No amount of self-discovery will ever measure up to the value of knowing Jesus. It’s the smartest investment you could make. And the best part? Since he’s infinite, the adventure never stops – you get to keep growing in relationship with him, even when your gap year is a distant memory.
So however you choose to use your gap year, make it about Jesus, not about you. Choose activities that force you to depend on him. Hang out with people who look like him and make you want to know him more. Seek him. He’ll help you “find yourself” as you find him.
More Gap Year Resources:
- American Gap Association has a list of organizations that they accredit and colleges that are “gap year friendly.”
- 101 Ideas for Your Gap Year – Great ways to get the creative ball rolling, although there are some things on this list we definitely wouldn’t endorse.
- See if there’s a gap year fair coming to your area.
- In case you have these 7 questions about your gap year, USNews has 7 answers.
- For your inspiration, from Relevant: Is Changing the World a Lost Cause?
- Check out shorttermmissions.com for an extensive list of missions opportunities offered by over 100 organizations.
- And we’re biased here, but what better way to spend your gap year than in a YWAM DTS?