College is a lot of hard work. Once you’re approaching the finish line, the idea of taking some time off to recharge, travel, and reflect on what’s next can be highly appealing. That’s why many new grads opt to take a gap year between graduation and the start of their first full-time job.
Wondering whether a gap year is a good choice for you? We’ll break down the pros and cons of taking a gap year and share some tips for making the best use of the time if you do decide to take it.
What is a gap year?
A gap year is a year-long break taken between college graduation and the start of professional employment. Many young people use this time to see new parts of the world, volunteer, pursue their passions, or take some time to recalibrate after four or more years of rigorous study.
Taking a gap year is a common practice in places like Europe and Australia, but it’s also become more prevalent in the U.S. in recent years.
Pros of taking a gap year after college
Gives yourself a mental break
Between academics, extracurriculars, and social activities, college can be one of the busiest periods of a person’s life, not to mention mentally draining. A gap year is a chance to take a much-needed break, enjoying a slower pace and a flexible schedule before entering the highly structured routine of professional life.
Take time to consider your career path
Your first job after college will play a big role in your career trajectory. It makes sense to spend some time considering what that job will be, researching different opportunities, and learning more from people who hold various jobs in your desired field(s) by conducting informational interviews.
If you plan on continuing your education, a gap year is a chance to review your different programs and begin working on your grad school applications.
Broaden your cultural horizons
If you use your gap year to travel, it’s an opportunity to gain exposure to new people, ways of thinking, ideas, and lifestyles, all of which can make you a more well-rounded person. You might pick up a new language, which can expand your future career opportunities.
See the world
Once you start working full-time, travel will be constrained by your available vacation days. A gap year allows you to visit new places more freely on an extended timeline, which is a chance you may not get at any other point until you retire.
Build lasting connections
The individuals you meet during your gap year may be people you keep in touch with your whole life. These connections will no doubt benefit you on an intrinsic level, but they may also offer the practical upside of opening doors professionally later on.
Pair it with a resume-building experience
Though a gap year is a chance to take a break, it doesn’t need to be filled with lazy, directionless days. Many internship programs are geared toward participants taking gap years, allowing them to learn useful skills while also experiencing a new place and culture.
Many other activities can build your resume during a gap year, too, like doing gig work while you travel, volunteering for a cause that interests you, or working as an au pair.
Pick up a new skill
You no doubt picked up countless new skills in college, but there were probably many things you didn’t get the chance to learn because they weren’t part of any syllabus. You can use a gap year to try your hand at something you’re passionate about, like art or writing, or pursue an independent business idea.
Many employers value it
Employers as a whole have become less rigid about professional “norms” in recent years, and that includes gap years. In fact, some hiring managers view gap years as a valuable professional asset, provided you can demonstrate how it helped you grow as a person or gain relevant skills.
Bridge the gap to the ‘real world’
Until now, you’ve spent most of your life living with family members and roommates. A gap year offers the chance to be truly “on your own” for the first time, fully responsible for your own budget, schedule, and priorities.
If you spend the time wisely, it can go a long way toward building your confidence and gaining a sense of who you are when the boxes of K-12 and college do not constrain you.
Cons of taking a gap year after college
It costs money to take a gap year. Even if you plan on living cheaply while backpacking, you’ll still need money for the basics like food, shelter, and transportation. And if you do plan on working, you likely won’t be earning the same income you would if you dove straight into full-time employment.
If you don’t have a lump sum already saved up or family members helping you out financially, taking a full year off might not be feasible.
Loss of motivation
When you graduate college, you have a lot of momentum. It’s one of the easiest times to find a job because all of your academic connections are fresh, and employers are ready to hire recent grads. Some people who take a gap year may find it hard to regain this momentum and get back into the swing of “real life” after a year without strict responsibilities.
Sometimes, you’ll be forced to choose between taking a gap year and pursuing a great opportunity, like an internship that offers you a job that starts right away. These post-grad opportunities often won’t wait, so taking a gap year may mean turning them down.
For those who thrive with structure, the sudden freedom and drastic change of routine during a gap year can be a source of anxiety.
Your college years are spent largely surrounded by other people. A gap year is pretty much the opposite. Even if you plan to travel with others, you’ll spend much time alone, which can be isolating.
You may also experience FOMO seeing friends who have entered the workforce successfully building their new lives as young professionals.
The skills you’ve worked hard to master during school may get rusty during a year off. It can be challenging to pick up where you left off, especially if you plan on doing a highly technical job.
Delayed career start
While a year isn’t that much time to lose in the grand scheme of your whole career, you may experience frustration if your peers are already getting promoted when you’re just starting your first entry-level position. This may be especially true if you’re planning on additional education, and it will be several more years before you start working.
Some employers frown upon it
While more employers are willing to see the benefits of a gap year, there’s still a bit of a stigma around them that can limit your job prospects. If you aren’t careful with how you present your gap year on your resume, it could be cause for getting disqualified by an applicant tracking system.
Tips for taking a successful gap year
Go in with a plan
A year is a long time. If you don’t have some plan for how you’ll spend your days, it can be easy for them to slip by without accomplishing anything.
Set some expectations for the year ahead as you approach graduation to prevent this. What are you hoping to gain from taking a gap year? What are the three biggest things you want to see or do? With these things in mind, outline a rough plan (monthly or bi-monthly works well) of the activities you plan to do. This way, at the end of the year, you’ll be able to look back and feel the time spent was worthwhile.
Stick to a budget
If you have a lump sum of money, like savings, you need a plan to make the money last throughout your gap year. A good starting point is dividing the sum by 12 to get a monthly budget.
If you don’t have a lump sum, you need a plan to have money coming in the door and an idea of what your expenses will be each month. A free app like Mint makes it easy to track how much cash you have on hand and how you’re spending it.
Allow for a reintroduction period
To ease the transition out of your gap year, build four to six weeks into your schedule to get reacclimated. This will give you time to unpack, find a place to live, start applying for jobs, and do whatever other activities are necessary to begin the next exciting phase of your life.
One thing is for sure: a gap year is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you do decide to take one, it will be an unforgettable period that can empower you with valuable life experience and make you a more appealing candidate once you enter the job market.