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Taking a Gap Year: What to Consider

The idea of taking a semester, a year or more off from school during college can be appealing. But is it a good idea for you? Here are some things to consider before you make a decision.

How does a gap year affect overall finances?

A gap year can be a source of more funding for college or a drain on the savings you already have, depending on how you spend your time. You may choose to work for money that you can save to reduce borrowing for college later. On the other hand, you may have to pay for your own living expenses, insurance coverage and possibly program fees in exchange for the experience you want.

A realistic budget should be an integral part of any gap year plans you make.

What about financial aid?

Taking time away from college can affect financial aid. If you've already accepted aid for next year, such as grants, scholarships or loans, you should check with the provider on how your intended plan affects that funding. In addition, your plans can affect your Student Aid Index number, which is part of the formula used in determining financial aid offers. If you've previously taken student loans, check on whether a temporary leave from school means you will enter repayment before you return to classes.

Understand how a gap year can affect scholarships, grants and other financial aid before committing.

What opportunities are you looking for?

Many students who are ready to move away from home find college campuses a secure and stimulating environment to learn more about themselves, others and the world. A well-planned gap year can provide similar opportunities in a different form.

Think about how your plans will affect your emotional, social and economic goals.

Will it be difficult for you to resume your academic career?

The answer to this question can vary greatly from person to person. You may have a strong academic background and the ability to pick up where you left off even after being away from classes for a while. Taking a few classes or self-study may help you retain your academic skills. Or, you might find that after some time away from academics, you have lost some knowledge or the desire to return to school.

Consider your own motivations for time away from school and how that will impact your academic performance.

Are you unsure about your college major or program?

A gap year can be an excellent time to try out a career by volunteering, interning or working in a position related to your chosen field. Such an experience might reinforce your choice of major or program and give you ideas on specialization. On the other hand, you may find you are no longer as enthused about your plans as you once were. If that's the case, this could be a good time to refine your college plans before paying, or borrowing, more for the wrong program.

When planning a gap year, look for programs or positions that will help you decide on your future.

Do you wish to help others or become involved in a specialized program?

Many programs are available if you wish to perform service, learn special skills, travel internationally or work in a certain field. Some, such as study abroad, may be available through your college, allowing you to continue enrollment and possibly earn credit toward your degree. As noted above, organized programs may charge fees or require that you pay your own living expenses. Many gap year experiences result in a lot of personal growth and increased self-confidence.

Define your goals for a gap year and research existing programs that can help you reach them.

Are you looking for connections?

A gap year program can help you meet people with similar goals, or perhaps those of different cultures. You may find a new mentor who can help you in your future career or personal endeavors. You may make lifelong friends, or you may find that you feel alone in a new place far from those you know. You may also miss establishing similar friendships with students of your own age at your college.

Understand what personal relationships you would like to have while away from school and work toward establishing those.

What other commitments do you have?

If you have commitments like student loan debt, children or partners, or regular home and car payments, consider how your plans will affect those obligations. Will you need to earn money to make payments on loans or to pay your own or your family's living expenses?

Think about how you'll meet any financial, family or other commitments during any time away.

Do you just need a break?

A properly planned gap year can be good for mental health if you're academically burned out or stressed. It can provide a sense of purpose, perspective and motivation. On the other hand, if stress and challenges are difficult for you, you should work with your health provider to determine what is best for your situation.

A gap year is generally not stress-free, but it can provide a different challenge.

What is the current situation?

If your goals for a gap year include international travel, finding a job in a specific market or living in a particular manner, the current economic, political and health environment can affect your success. In a market downturn, the job you're looking for may not be available. Social instability can make certain locations undesirable. Disease or viral outbreaks may make it difficult to travel or experience specific activities.

Consider whether now is the right time for you to take a gap year.

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