A Gap Year: How to Choose the Right Program

Holly Bull, president of Interim, an independent gap year counseling service, joins us today to talk more about the value of a gap year and how to choose the right program. Join her here for more information about cost, safety and outcomes, including resources for further research. 

I took two gap years -- one before and one during college. So I am, admittedly, biased in favor of taking gap time. And for the past twenty-three years, I have counseled over a thousand students through the gap-year process at the Center for Interim Programs. From a personal and professional vantage point, I am convinced that the gap-year option needs to be woven more universally into the formal educational process.

When Interim was founded in 1980, it was the first gap-year counseling organization of its kind and there was very little awareness of the gap year or much support for it as an option. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, it was in full swing and it has been gratifying to witness what started as a novel idea for Americans become a trend and now a solid movement over the past thirty-three years. We are at a point where many colleges are recognizing that gap-year students are highly desirable to have on campus given their maturity, focus, and leadership skills. And future employers value the practical job skills these students already have in place.

Here are eight compelling reasons, among many, for students to pursue a gap year:

  1. Learn how to choose and create one’s life and fully own the process (probably the most important core element of a gap year)
  2. Take time to explore the world when one is freer to do so
  3. Rest and rejuvenate before four more years of schooling
  4. Find a passion or determine what isn’t of interest
  5. Gain independence and self-confidence
  6. Explore potential careers in the field
  7. Accrue practical job skills and build a resume before college
  8. Experience a half-step into the world and make the college-to-career transition much easier

Recent Chronicle of Higher Education research found that employers across the board are looking for internship experience in college graduates and that these job skills are more important than one’s GPA or college. You can see that research here.

Gap year programs run the gamut from structured group opportunities with other gap year students, to specific skill-based opportunities, to internships, apprenticeships or job options. They can involve classroom study, service projects, the arts, music, politics, really anything one can think of. And they are located worldwide. They can be as short as a weekend or as long as a full year, with variations in between.

In choosing the right program, it helps to first pinpoint general areas of interest (e.g. conservation, kids, business, outdoors, fashion, animals, etc.) as well as geographic locations of interest. It is also helpful to consider basic things like being with one’s peers or not. In general, having a peer group for at least part of a gap year can head off the possibility of feeling isolated. Degrees of structure and independence, even favorite types of weather, are also worth considering. And focusing on a potential career interest is a very practical way of choosing a program. There isn’t necessarily a perfect program or gap year. As long as students head toward areas of interest and choose solid, safe placements, they will learn no matter what.

Safety is a big concern and it is helpful to find out how long a program has been in existence and if it has a good track record. One of the best ways to learn about a program, aside from speaking with its representatives, is to ask to speak with recent alumni. And a good specific question to ask alumni is “What was the worst aspect of this program experience?”

Cost is another common concern and gap years can vary tremendously based on the program or combination of programs one chooses. There are low-cost options that provide housing and food for one’s labor (e.g. working on farms, with children, on boats), options where one pays for basic housing and food expenses (e.g. service programs), skill-based options with a fee (e.g. filmmaking courses, medical certifications), and options with an over-arching program fee (e.g. many of the group programs that attend gap year fairs). The latter usually provide the most structure and support, with leaders and a group of peers, and are well worth weaving into a gap year if one’s budget allows.

For parents, it is helpful to outline a reasonable budget for the year and include the student in that process; learning how to budget is a great lesson during a gap year. If finances are tight, students might pick one “splurge” and then choose options that are more low cost. Students can also work during summers and in between programs to help pay for a gap year. A number of programs offer scholarship or financial aid and it is always worth asking them about this even if it is not outlined in their material. 

A gap year is a jewel of a period of time in one's life. Most every student appreciates this chance to explore interests and the world and I can't tell you how many parents wish they had done so! It is a year of extraordinary possibilities and often pivotal in terms of defining one's sense of self and future.


Helpful gap-year resources:





The Gap Year Advantage by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson

Gap Year: American Style  by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson (based on the only statistical research done thus far on American gap year students) ebook available later in 2013

The Complete Guide to the Gap Year by Kristin White


 You can see an earlier post from Bill Clagett, former dean of Middlebury College, here.


Holly Bull is president of Interim, an independent gap year counseling service. She took a gap year before and during college, volunteering at an aquaculture research institute in Hawaii, attending two academic cultural study semesters in Greece, traveling in India and Nepal, and doing service work in Appalachia. Holly has placed more than a thousand students in gap year programs worldwide. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and holds a Masters in Education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.


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