Many students choose to take a gap year between high school and college to see the world and, often, lend support to worthy causes while they’re at it.
As everyone else was heading to Bed, Bath & Beyond to stock up on dorm room supplies last year, Palmer Skudneski was packing his bags for an epic trip across 22 countries. As soon as he graduated from high school, the Denver, Colorado, man took off to climb the mountains of China, search for the Milky Way in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and watch the sun set in Ecuador.
Skudneski is one of a growing number of students in the United States choosing to take a year off before college — AKA a gap year — to travel the world, work or have a life experience.
Malia Obama made the gap year conversation mainstream when she announced last year she’d be taking a year away from the classroom before attending Harvard. She wasn’t the only one. About 35,000 people in the United States currently take a gap year, and 22% more people took a gap year in 2015 than in 2014, according to the Gap Year Association (formerly branded American Gap Association), based in Portland, Oregon. The number had already grown 23% from 2013 to 2014. Attendance at gap year fairs have risen 294% since 2010, the association says.
“I think when people hear about these, it just makes sense for the student, for the planet and for humanity,” says Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association. “Of course, there are some logistical concerns, but I’ve never heard of a student who, when hearing they have an opportunity to explore some previously dreamed-of future in some significant way, doesn’t brighten at the idea.”
Gap year dreams differ from student to student, according to a 2015 survey from the association, and most students have multiple reasons for taking a gap year. Of the people surveyed, 92% chose to take a gap year for personal growth, 85% wanted to travel and experience other cultures, and 82% wanted a break from academics.
People take a gap year to pursue many goals, Knight says. Students’ reasons for taking the year off have included hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, teaching English to monks in India, volunteering with rehabilitated animals in Bolivia, interning with marine biologists in Hawaii, studying art in Europe or taking care of a sick family member.
Skudneski wanted to travel and decided the timing was right. He started in Southeast Asia, then moved to South America and made his last stop in Europe before returning to the United States to work long hours with a company called Southwestern Advantage. “This was monumental in preparing me for my future,” Skudneski says, referencing his job going door to door selling children’s educational books. “I could never have done the job without having backpacked during the months prior. It all just seemed to flow together.”
In England, gap years have long been part of the natural educational trajectory. Nearly 30% of students across the pond take them, according to the Gap Year Association. Many Americans, however, think that if you don’t go directly on to college, your chances of returning to earn a degree drop dramatically, Knight says. “By contrast, when taken as an intentional gap year, students are back in college to the tune of 90% and they’re outperforming academically from their non-gap-year selves,” he says.
When Skudneski finished his gap year, he entered High Point University in North Carolina. But he’s a changed person and can’t imagine his life without his gap year. “It creates independence and almost guarantees emotional and mental growth,” Skudneski says. “It might be from the fact that you are doing something so many people would be too afraid to do, the skills you develop from learning to create your own path, or not letting people discourage you from your dreams.”
Skudneski says he had to develop problem-solving skills due to issues that naturally arose during his travels. He had to plan out months of his life on his own and research what to do and where to live. Once, he was left in Peru and had to work with immigration to sort out the dilemma. Most importantly, Skudneski sorted out what he wanted to do with his life. “I have been so motivated to inspire people to become their true selves and not worry what the world or others think of them,” he says. “But most of all, I want to assist kids who are in need of help, whether it’s clean water, food, shelter or anything.” In the future, he wants to work to open an orphanage, possibly in Africa.
Last year Abby Fournier also had a life-changing gap year. The Natick, Massachusetts, woman, who is currently a freshman at Williams College, decided to take a year away from the classroom after an extremely busy high school experience. She’d taken AP classes, volunteered, competed in varsity and club gymnastics and diving teams, while performing in the chamber, all-state and community choirs.
Fournier took her gap year to travel for both personal enrichment and to assist with a number of charitable causes. She went to East Africa for three months through an educational volunteer program, visited family in London, went to Nepal solo for six weeks for a Tibetan medicine internship, volunteered at two women’s shelters in Boston, traveled to South Korea and Japan for a family reunion, and took an internship in Peru for two weeks.
“I learned so much through volunteering and seeing important issues firsthand,” Fournier says. “For example, I’m taking Intro to Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Williams right now, and all I can think about is volunteering at a disadvantaged women’s shelter in Tanzania, meeting girls who were previously abused, homeless or abandoned, and how they were learning to support themselves.”
While the gap year may help at college, students should be ready to explain that year off when applying for jobs. “When someone has a gap year, it causes the interviewer to wonder what they were doing for that time,” says Laura Handrick, an HR analyst with FitSmallBusiness. “It’s not a showstopper, but that missing time needs to be addressed in a cover letter or other communication with the recruiter.” Handrick suggests noting on the résumé the skills accomplished during the gap year, making it relevant to the job.
Regardless of the explanations students may have to provide after the fact, Handrick says taking a gap year is a good idea. “My advice is: do it,” she says. “Traveling expands your horizons, makes you more tolerant of people’s differences and cultures, and ensures you have life experience and perspective.”
A gap year can be pricey, but there’s a wide range of costs. Many students who decide to travel or volunteer through a travel program do so through a gap year program like Thinking Beyond Borders or ARCC Gap Year.
Some options can cost as much as $55,000 for a two-semester program, says Robin Pendoley, founder and president at San Francisco–based Thinking Beyond Borders. “When considering costs, it’s important to consider what they’re offering,” Pendoley says. “Are they offering a real focus program? Staff support?”
Independent experiences can cost less than a program, but sometimes independent travel can be expensive too, Pendoley says. Many students assume they can find work or an internship abroad, but often it’s harder than expected.
Thankfully, a growing number of scholarships can be found, Knight says. When he took his year away from the classroom, he traveled independently through India, Nepal and Tibet and spent about $2,000 to hire a gap year counselor, plus $3,000 for expenses over seven months. He returned to the United States to work and saved $5,000, so overall he ended up saving money during his gap year. And his experience was priceless.