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What is a Gap Year?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2017
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A gap year is a term that was first applied by the British to define the year students might take off school between high school and college, or between college and graduate school. In the past only a small minority of upper class children from Western countries could take a gap year, such as the grand tour of Europe offered to American kids. More frequently, the gap year is taken by a number of students and may increase their chances of getting into better colleges.

The gap year can be taken for pleasure, only involving travel. Conversely many use the gap year to work jobs, usually low paid ones, in fields with the greatest need. Often students will spend a year traveling or working in third world countries. Africa is now a popular destination after Prince Harry spent a gap year working there in 2004.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormons, have led the way in the United States by encouraging their young adults to participate in two-year missions. The mission used to be required only of young men, but now many young women will also participate in an 18 month mission.

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There are gap year exchange programs in many countries, which include a small amount of pay for jobs, and housing. Some students opt out of travel and work from home in programs like City Year, which is dedicated to improving the conditions of urban dwellers. Some take a gap year to simply work and earn money toward college expenses, or to assess one’s goals or career options. If students don’t require money for college or living expenses, they may take a gap year to volunteer in some humanitarian effort.

Studies have shown that top colleges tend to want students who bring not only high academic standards, but who are also well-rounded and have some life experience. Often the gap year is used as a competitive edge for getting into Ivy League colleges. It also gives students the opportunity to mature, and to make up for the activities they could not participate in because of rigorous academic standards in high schools or prep schools.

Competition for Master’s and PhD. programs are also high for the best schools. Students may take a gap year after completing a Bachelor’s degree in order to use the skills they have acquired in a practical way, or to increase their chances of getting into a top school in a highly competitive field. Some students also use a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school to have a child, get married, or to work to save money for yet more educational costs.

While many in careers may take a sabbatical mid-career; quite often, people now take a gap year much sooner in their late 20s or early 30s. This can help the young professional make decisions about his or her career direction, or it can be a means for contributing more to the many needs of the impoverished. Many simply find they want to experience more prior to settling down into a specific career for life.

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