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What is a Gap Year Anyway?

By Alice Baines Hamblin
In Volunteering Advice
Jun 6th, 2014

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Don’t be bamboozled by ‘Gap’…it’s really all very simple!

A ‘gap’ or ‘interim’ year is the term used for structured time taken out of work or education. A gap is a break used for a purpose – be that to gain life skills, engage in experiential learning and more often or not expand your horizons. Essentially participants come out at the other end of their gap with knowledge or experiences that they didn’t have going in. Not like this guy.

Told you it was simple!

The American Gap Association give the following definition: “A Gap Year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the Junior year of their higher degree.”

As the AGA state, the concept of a gap or interim being a year long is misleading as a gap can really be any length of time. Some people take a full academic year out between high school and college, in which case their gap is actually a couple of months longer than a calendar year. Conversely other students (many of whom can’t bear to be parted from their calculator!) squeeze their gap into a their long Summer vacation, or a semester taken out with the blessing of their College tutors.

A gap can be taken at any stage of life and is open to high school leavers and beyond. Time out can be beneficial at any age, be it as a career break to reassess the direction you want to move in next, or a full life overhaul a la Julia Roberts in ‘Eat Love Pray’.

Who, What, Where?

Many ‘gappers’ (new word, write that down) choose to spend their gap year travelling abroad, taking the opportunity of an extended period of free time to explore far-flung places. It’s not the rule and if foreign shores don’t appeal then there are plenty of home-grown gap and interim programs available. But there are undeniable benefits to travelling whilst you’re still young!

Travelling is much more cost effective in terms of airfare to stay overseas for an extended period, plus you have time to acclimatise and overcome culture shock so that you blend in and feel like a local. Or near enough! From a financial perspective a high school graduate will typically be free from dependents, mortgage or debt repayments and therefore better able to both fundraise for a long trip and to afford to be out of earnings for a period of time.

It’s also worth remembering that as a young person you’re often more adaptable to strange new surroundings and (dare I say it!) flexible concepts of personal hygiene. The idea of using a squat style toilet in the jungle or sharing a dorm room with up to 12 other people may not appeal so much later in life!

Generally younger people are more open to new experiences and cultures than later in life when our beliefs and ideas are more concrete and less influenced by experience. The ability to view our lifestyle and behaviour from the perspective of another culture whilst still young is invaluable in helping to form balanced opinions and a more informed world view. By taking a gap year our sense of self stands to gain a huge amount. When answering the question ‘what is a gap year’ I often feel the need to respond with:

…‘a gap year is a vital experience to ensure the decision makers of tomorrow have a healthier and more balanced outlook on their own and America’s place within the world’

Many educators in America are also waking up to the benefits of structured experiential learning and time taken out of formal education. They now recognize that a gap can help students to overcome the ‘burn-out’ many feel following the high-pressure assessment of school and the college application system. Gappers return refreshed, motivated and demonstrate a greater maturity and independence, which is reflected in both their academic and pastoral life. Have a read of this if you want to learn more about how college admissions tutors view gap years.

Make it count

So if you have the opportunity to take a gap year, grab it with both hands and do something incredible. Help to conserve endangered Rhino in South Africa’s great game reserves, live and work alongside one of the few remaining Shaman tribes remaining in Ecuador’s lowland jungle, plant trees in Venezuela, teach kids in Cambodia…just make it count!


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