What is a Gap Year? 3 Steps to Define “Gap Year” for Yourself

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Surfing in Costa Rica, visiting the Taj Mahal, or helping some remote village get clean water, who wouldn’t want to take a year off to travel the world and discover their interests and strengths? Some parents and administrators wonder how time away from college can actually help their child. Fact is, young people who take gap years are finishing higher education faster than their peers and finding it easier to secure successful and fulfilling careers. But what is a “Gap Year”? How you define “gap year” for yourself should be personalized to meet your individual needs. In this article, we’ll discuss ways you can define and plan YOUR gap year, including:

What is a Gap Year?

A gap year is defined as a few months, a semester, or a year of experiential learning away from formal education or full-time work in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, emotional, and personal awareness.

A gap year is an opportunity to step back from the “grind” of life. By taking a break from your formal education, career, and even social life, you are able to gain life skills, emotional intelligence, and a greater perspective that will empower you to succeed throughout the rest of your life.

The idea of a gap year has been around since at least the 1960s and is common practice in places like Europe and Australia. In the U.S., gap experiences have been growing in popularity, with the number of young people taking a gap year between high school and college increasing by 27% in recent years.

In fact, several colleges and universities, including Harvard University, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania now encourage their students to take a gap year to mitigate burnout and improve the college experience. Some even offer financial aid or scholarships to students who plan a gap year.

4 Parts of a Quality Gap Year

Ethan Knight, the executive director of The Gap Year Association, said, “By its very nature, a gap year needs to be significant to the individual and that means each individual’s experience won’t be significant to everyone.  The great strength of the gap year is that it allows each person to explore their individual issues, whatever they may be.”

He says a gap experience is one that gives you, “everything necessary to be successful…that you have at your disposal the network, the people, the relationships you need to be successful.  But what is success? But how could any human being be successful living someone else’s definition of success?  You can’t.”

“The real challenge then becomes, how do you take responsibility for yourself in that way.  How do you define success for yourself? Make sure to define your ‘success’ with your eyes wide open rather than choose the default.”

He goes on to outline the four parts of a quality gap year:

1. Volunteer or Service

Volunteering and service help young adults cultivate empathy. We live in a more interdependent world than ever before. As an emerging adult, you should cultivate a global view of your place on the planet. 

2. Career Exploration or Internship

It is important for young adults to “try before they buy” to avoid committing to a career you may end up hating.  A student who has a deeper sense of what they want to accomplish will perform better at college, qualify for more merit aid, take on more leadership roles, and will actually graduate faster and with better GPAs than their peers. 

3. Paid Work

It is important to realize that you reap what you sow.  If parents pay for the whole experience, many students do not take the gap year seriously.  You might show up, but it will be a struggle to actively participate and to get everything you can out of it.  It is important that you contribute financially to a portion of your gap year. 

4. Free Radical

Part of the idea of the gap year is that you might discover the thing that you want to get paid to do for the rest of your life.  Don’t over-structure your time, give yourself time to explore and experiment with the great opportunities that are out there, whether it be a new career, country, hobby, or relationship.

Take the time to build relationships and explore the world around you. A little bit of downtime is a very important part of your gap experience.

Gap Year Benefits

Students who take a thoughtful and planned gap year tend to:

The benefits of a gap year are so clear that Harvard has been encouraging their students to take a gap year for almost 50 years. They have found that their students who take a gap year “come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed in their year away.”

And if you are worried that a gap year will derail your academic and career path, research shows that 90% of students who take a gap year return to school within a year. College is not a four-year commitment any longer, “at most public universities, fewer than 20% of students graduate in four years.” In fact, many students take six years to finish a degree or never finish at all. “An investment in a gap year might be money saved later if a student is more focused when they return to college.”

When Do People Take Gap Years?

Gap years do not just happen between high school and college. You can take a gap year at any time during your post-secondary education, but the majority of people take a gap year

  • before their freshman year of college
  • during their undergraduate years
  • between their bachelor’s degree and graduate school
  • between college education and starting in the workforce

The best time for YOU to take a gap year depends on your individual needs and situation.  We recommend talking with an educational consultant to figure out if now is the best time for you to take a gap year.

Who Needs a Gap Year?

Students who may need a gap year are typically young adults who have worked very hard. They’re attending or have been accepted to college “yet they come out of high school [or college] depleted. They want to deepen themselves.”

Jason Sarouhan, a long-time champion of “gap years,” identified five types of young adults that can benefit from a gap year:

  • The worker, with high test scores and a high grade-point average. These are students who frequently suffer from academic burnout and can use a gap year to recharge and gain a greater perspective.
  • The meaning-seeker, generally with high test scores and a lower GPA. These bright and idealistic students can sometimes struggle with jumping through academic hoops. But when you give them a purpose and they understand the “why” behind their work, they excel. A gap experience helps them find their “why” so they can excel when they come back to campus.
  • The pragmatist, who wants to attend college with a clearer focus.
  • The struggler, whose academic experience has been clouded by emotional & social struggles, learning differences, or family problems. A non-traditional or therapeutic gap year gives these students a solid emotional foundation and the college readiness skills needed to thrive when they return to college.
  • The floater, who isn’t fully engaged with life and may be on the immature side. These students may lack a strong personal identity, social or life skills, or the self-confidence to succeed on their own. The correct gap program can give you all of these.

3 Steps to Define "Gap Year" For Yourself

Before you define what your gap year will look like, it is helpful to clarify your main purpose for going on a gap year. Ask yourself:

  • what experiences do you want to have?
  • what skills would you like to gain or improve?
  • who is the person you want to be at the end of the experience?

1. What Experiences Do You Want to Have?

 What adventures do you want to tell your friends about? What are the stories you are going to share with your children? And probably most importantly, what scares the hell out of you? We’re talking about LIFE-CHANGING experiences, and life-changing doesn’t happen while you’re camped in your comfort zone. Find experiences that both excite and terrify you. They will change your life.

2. What Skills Would You Like to Gain or Improve?

We’re not talking about academic skills. You are already at college or on your way there. And your academic skills got you there. Rather, what other areas in your life need work? These could include soft skills like:

  • Self-Advocacy
  • Taking Responsibility
  • Self-Management
  • Communication
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Relationship & Social Skills
  • Independent Living Skills
  • Comfort with Diversity
  • Innovation and creative thinking
  • Ability to Work Independently
  • Ability to Follow Directions
  • Setting and Achieving Personal Goals
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Or, you may struggle with a deeper issue like:

  • Academic Burnout
  • Lack of Identity
  • Low Self-confidence or Self-worth
  • Depression or Anxiety

Talk with your family and friends and ask for candid input on what you should work on. Then as you define your “gap year” make sure your experiences teach the skills you need to succeed in college, in a career, and in life.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to get guidance from an outside resource, like an educational consultant, who can help assess your needs and guide the gap year planning process.

3. Who is the Person You Want to Be at the End of the Experience?

Imagine yourself at the end of the gap time. How would you describe yourself? Are you confident, resilient, and high on life from your adventures? Are you humbled, enlightened and more altruistic from your service?

When you start with the end in mind, you can better craft your experience to match your desired outcome. Identify the person you want to be at the end of your gap year and choose experiences that will help turn you into that person. Make sure that you are choosing a program that will lead you towards your goals. Be intentional in defining the goals of your gap year so that you pick a program that is moving you towards your future endeavors.

Types of Gap Year Experiences

Once you have defined what your personal gap year looks like, it is time to look at the options. Here are different kinds of gap year options to consider:

1. Traditional gap year. This includes:

  • Service & volunteering gap years
  • Adventure & travel gap years
  • Cultural immersion gap years

2. Non-traditional gap year. This includes aspects of a traditional gap year and integrates therapy, developing life skills, and improving relationship skills.

Gap Year Ideas: What Can I Do On a Gap Year?

Here are just some of the activities to consider as part of your gap year planning.

Traditional Gap Year Activities

Gap Year Volunteering & Service Ideas
  • Volunteer Programs – help build houses & schools, dig wells, help in orphanages, help a non-profit organization, help feed the homeless, etc
  • Medical – help in health clinics, teach hygiene classes, etc
  • Teach Abroad – Teach English, computer literacy, coach sports, etc
Gap Year Travel & Adventure Ideas
  • Ski / Snowboard
  • Scuba Diving / Snorkeling
  • Surfing
  • Expedition to explore remote locations (jungle, mountains, etc)
  • River rafting
  • Rock Climbing & Rappelling
  • Sailing
  • Mountain Biking
Cultural Immersion Gap Year Ideas
  • Language Study

Non-traditional Gap Year Activities

Work Experience Gap Years Ideas

  • Camp Jobs
  • Au Pair
  • Journalism Experience
  • Work Abroad
  • Internship

Study Gap Years Ideas

  • Study Abroad
  • Experiential / Hands-on learning
  • Research Volunteer – Help at marine or turtle conservation park, wildlife refuge, etc
  • Therapeutic Gap Year Activities

Adventure or Wilderness Gap Programs – adventure activities listed above but with more guidance, personal growth, and emotional support

Unexpected or Unplanned Gap Years

Many students have their life trajectory planned out down to the smallest detail. It comes as a shock when they hit a roadblock in college and are forced to take a sudden detour. This could be in the form of an academic suspension, medical leave caused by physical, mental or emotional illness, disciplinary action, or simply the realization that they need a break. Whatever the reason for your unplanned break, reframing this period of time as an opportunity for a gap year can yield life-changing results.  Here are some ways to turn your unplanned break into a life-changing gap year:
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1. Be Kind With Yourself

An unplanned break from school usually indicates you have an unmet need.  Rather than see it as a failure, reframe it that life is trying to communicate with you.

Take some time to figure out what is missing in your life. What skills will you need to succeed when you return to college? How can you use this break as an opportunity to develop these?

As you evaluate your life, make sure you don’t only focus on the negative.  Do you have things you need to work on? Sure and you should address them.  But you also have many strengths and talents.  By finding ways to practice your individual strengths and passions as you work on your deficits, you’ll find greater meaning in life and be more energized when you return to college.

2. Give Your Break a Purpose

The last thing you want to do on an unplanned break is to drift aimlessly.  Don’t just sit on the couch in your parent’s basement playing video games for three months straight.  Don’t just hide in your bedroom endlessly scrolling through other people’s lives on social media.  This break is an opportunity.  Use it. Set goals. Give it meaning! 

You may need to get professional help.  Consider hiring a life coach or working with a therapist.  If you don’t know where to start, an educational consultant can help assess your needs and help plan your gap year.

3. Challenge Yourself

Once you’ve decided what you need to work on and what you want to accomplish, go after it with all your heart. Winston Churchill said, “Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”   But when you have experienced a setback, sometimes it is hard to exert any effort at all.  A non-traditional or therapeutic gap year program can provide the structure, accountability, and motivation you need to get your life back on track.

Whatever your situation, we are excited for you. By defining your own personal gap year, we know you’ll see huge benefits in college and in your career. Take the time for some self-reflection, identify your own personal needs, set specific goals that will meet your needs, and individualize your experience to meet your goals.

If you feel that you need a non-traditional or therapeutic gap year, we hope you will consider Pure Life Adventure in Costa Rica. Take a look below to see if our program is a good fit for you.

Is a Pure Life Gap Experience Right For You?

A gap year at Pure Life Adventure in Costa Rica is a non-traditional gap experience. Between adventures: rafting, hiking, surfing, climbing waterfalls, and serving local communities, you’ll work with a mental health therapist to discuss and resolve areas that are holding you back in life. When you leave, you’ll be better equipped to manage your time, prioritize your “to-dos,” maintain healthy relationships, and take stressful situations in stride.

When planning a gap year, the most important aspect to consider is how you’re going to challenge yourself and what you’d like to get out of it. Taking a gap year without this intentionality will only delay your future for a year. Pure Life offers you a structured and intentional gap that includes adventure, service, cultural immersion, and therapeutic support.

A gap semester at the Pure Life program challenges you in ways that are unique to you. Every five days, you will have different experiential learning activities. Your challenge in a surfing week may be pushing yourself out of your physical comfort zone, or it could be the solitude of being on the water with your board. Your challenge on a backpacking week might be remembering to pack the proper gear in your bag, or encountering unfamiliar places and experiences. Whatever the hard skills are that you develop, these real-life experiences will help you to internalize these skills and develop helpful habits. After returning home or to school, you’ll be able to adapt those skills to help you in your real life.

Pure Life's Gap Year Activities

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Surfing in Costa Rica’s amazing waves will be challenging, grounding, and fun! Pure Life’s surfing instructors will teach you the basics or advanced skills—depending on your experience level. You’ll learn a lot about yourself when it’s just you and the waves.

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Be prepared for life’s adventures with a wilderness first aid course. You’ll learn how to respond to emergencies in the field for safer journeys ahead.

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One of the best experiences young adults have at Pure Life is the week you’ll spend paddling Costa Rica’s “Gulfo Dulce.” Look for sea turtles and dolphins as you kayak around this enchanting coast.

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Enjoy the thrill of training to guide a raft through class II and III white water rapids in some of the best rafting in the world. If you can navigate your way through these rapids, you can certainly navigate your way through college and the workforce.

Do you know what’s dangerous and unforgiving? The sea. But with a swift water rescue course, you’ll be prepared to mitigate risk and perform water rescues in oceans and rivers. And when you can save someone out of the ocean or a quick-moving river, you can do anything.

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You never really know a place until you know the locals. During long hikes, you’ll have the opportunity to stay with the local Tico families. With them, you can practice speaking Spanish, learn about their traditions, and join in their day-to-day lifestyle. Stepping outside your comfort zone and immersing yourself in a different culture is a sure way to gain perspective.

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As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” You will greatly benefit the rural communities of Costa Rica through your service to them. Service projects could include improving schools, roadways, and orphanages.

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Rappel down waterfalls and other scenic mountainsides with your Pure Life community. Learn to trust others to keep you safe as you journey down; then be the safe, grounded person for others as they do the same.  

Climbing at Cachi Crag allows everyone from first-time climbers to pros to have a fun and challenging experience.

Refine your climbing skills and learn to belay and rescue others. By building your resume with internationally recognized certifications your skills at Pure Life can lead to careers at home.

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If you’re as obsessed with sloths, as you should be, you’ll be in your element during the one- to two-week backpacking trips. Push yourself physically and be rewarded with sights of toucans, monkeys, sloths, macaws, and other native wildlife.

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Get professional help in the areas that have been holding you back. Perhaps you need help with depression, anxiety, motivation, healthy relationships, self-esteem, or executive functioning. Working with a licensed Pure Life therapist will help you identify and overcome the areas in your life that you’d like to improve.

Interact with a tight-knit group of like-minded young adults who are working on many of the same issues as you. By committing to the group process, you will formally and informally develop skills in leadership and group dynamics.

Our life skills curriculum is designed to help students identify their interests, talents, and strengths. We explore how you can create a success plan for your life. We talk about personal development, career development, relationship development, and goal setting. Students will walk away from the program with a clear picture of what a meaningful life could look like for them, along with a very specific plan for how to achieve a future they can get excited about.

Pure Life continues to see more and more college students starting their gap year with a therapeutic gap semester, giving young adults the opportunities to work on their mental health and have adventure experiences at the same time. A gap year with Pure Life Adventure in Costa Rica can give you the opportunity to experience grand adventures, engage in service projects, and improve your mental health in the beauty of the jungle.

If you or someone you know could benefit from a therapeutic gap year, please contact us at 801-896-9490 or fill out our contact form and an admissions counselor will get back to you.

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