Photo by David Morgan
Taking a gap year is a big decision, and figuring out how to do it can be overwhelming.
If you’re struggling to make a plan for your gap year, take a look at these guidelines to get ideas for how to plan (financially, academically, and personally), a successful gap year.
1. Figure out why you’re taking a gap year
If your mind goes completely blank when someone asks “Why are you taking a year off?”, then perhaps a gap year isn’t a good fit for you—at least, not an unstructured gap year.
Think about why you’re taking the time off and the goals you want to accomplish. Are you saving a certain amount of money for college? Are you hoping to develop language fluency or learn some skills necessary to the career you may want to pursue? How about working that self-exploration angle in a completely new environment? Deciding what exactly you want to accomplish is a huge step to narrowing your options from infinity to five or six actionable steps.
2. Choose whether you want a structured program or an independent gap year
A worthwhile gap year requires careful, thoughtful planning. Sure, you can go country-hopping around the world in a yacht, but then you’ve just taken an expensive vacation—you haven’t taken a gap year.
Structured programs have the advantage of streamlined logistics, an easier approval process for colleges (and family), and a support system if you run into issues (especially when traveling abroad). On the other hand, these programs may be more expensive, and if they aren’t a good fit then you may find yourself frustrated with your experience. Often, a combination of both structured programs and independent time is a great gap year plan.
Again, consider your goals and the tools you need to accomplish them, then decide which format is the best fit for you.
3. Talk to your university’s admission office about financial aid and enrollment
If you’re considering a gap year and are enrolled in a university, talk to your university’s admission office before getting too far in your planning, particularly if you are receiving financial aid.
Some university programs discontinue financial aid or do not guarantee spots to students who defer a year. Other universities, like Tufts, Princeton, and St. Norbert College, offer financial aid designed for students taking gap years. If you’re curious about your university’s options, the American Gap Association has a whole list of universities that support gap years in various ways.
If you’re seeking financial aid outside of your university, you may be able to find independent gap year programs that offer financial aid or cover living expenses once you arrive on location, such as Omprakash EdGE (founded by NOLS instructor Willy Oppenheim), and NOLS (we offer over $1.9 million in financial aid each year).
4. Show your gap year plan to your university or college
If your university is unsure about approving a gap year, showing them a thoughtful plan is a good way to convince them of the value of the time away. According to Bob Laird, former director of undergraduate admissions at UC Berkeley, counselors need “to see a tangible plan to consider the request.”
We’re in a time where gap years are winning more acceptance in the United States, and each year more universities accommodate students taking a gap year. It may take some persistence if your university hasn’t worked with gap year students before, but showing them your plan can set you up for success. For example, if you choose to take a NOLS semester, you can tell them that we’ve been offering outdoor semester and year courses since 1974.
5. Aim for programs that offer academic credit
If you’re heading to college after your gap year, earning academic credit is a good way to leverage your gap year to move toward your goals. Even if your university won’t offer financial aid, earning academic credit, as you can on a NOLS semester, is a tangible benefit you can gain from your gap year.
6. Our final advice
Ultimately, the best way to make a gap year happen, even if it’s a nontraditional program (like getting outside for the year), is to do your homework. Plan ahead, consider all the pieces, and choose the plan that’s the best fit for you.
Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber