What you need to know if you’re thinking of taking a gap year

Published: July 11, 2017 / 0 Comments

Taking a Gap Year

For students straight out of school, a gap year can be a daunting experience. Consider these things before taking yours

If you plan it well, a gap year can be a highly beneficial experience. In fact, delaying further study by a few months or even a year can actually facilitate the next step in your education – so much so that universities such as Princeton actually offer scholarships and financial assistance to students who take a gap year in order to travel, volunteer or complete an internship.

A study conducted by researchers at Birbeck, University of London, found that those who take a gap year gain a wide range of life skills and other more specialised attributes. “These skills are often the ones employers identify as lacking in new recruits and are valued by universities,” says the study’s lead, Dr Andrew Jones. “Gap-year participation also benefits wider society both in terms of the activities young people undertake and the wider impact of facilitating their integration into society as functioning citizens,” he adds.

Intangibles such as growth in maturity and life purpose aside, the study also showed that students who take “time off” before starting college or university perform better academically when they resume their studies and find it easier to get a job after graduation.

However, unless you approach it with a well-considered plan, taking a gap year will amount to little more than 365 days of sleeping in and watching TV. If you’re thinking of taking time out before starting your tertiary studies, these are the things you need to first consider:


What are your motivations for taking a gap year? Give real thought to the rationale behind delaying your further studies. Many of the best benefits of taking a gap year are difficult to quantify: maturity, confidence and a refined sense of direction for instance. As a result, the questions you need to ask yourself should be deep and broad.

“The intention for the gap year is a more general direction than goals are. The student should be saying, ‘I want to answer these questions about myself and I want to answer these questions about life,’” explains Ethan Knight, Executive Director and Founder at the American Gap Association. “One of the things I see students frequently asking and coming up with is what success looks like to them. We’re handed definitions of success by our peers, by culture, by media, by school, by parents, and we’re not asked what it looks like for us. A gap year asks you to consider that question.”

Before bullet-point questions such as specific programmes, internships or short courses, finances and even safety enter the discussion, the bigger question about the direction you want your life to take needs to be answered so your gap year can be a meaningful step in that direction. Often you don’t know where you are headed in your career and in life, which is why your gap year may be a needed interlude between high school and higher education. It’s important to voice that, so the gap-year activities you pursue allow you to do some exploring.


The ways of best using your valuable “time off” after matric are many and varied. The activities you might consider pursuing can be domestic or internationally based, individual or group oriented, field or industry specific. This is the time to explore potential careers – and gap “years” don’t necessarily have to be a whole year, either. A few months’ breather may be all you need to set your course for the years ahead.

“I encourage students to use their gap year as an invested period of time for career experimentation. If you still need to pick your degree or even choose a career, this is a great way to go out and do that,” says Knight.

If you’re thinking of taking up a specific gap-year programme (and there are many available), finding the right fit is the most important preparation you can do for the trip. Knight recommends asking these questions of the potential gap-year programme you’re thinking of pursuing:

  1. Who are your typical students?
  2. What safety structures do you have in place in case of an emergency?
  3. Do you have any references I can talk to?
  4. What does a typical day look like on your programme?
  5. How much does it cost? Are there any extras like airfare, insurance, or activities?
  6. What do you suggest I do to best prepare? Are there books, movies, or articles I can access?


Before making the decision to defer your studies it’s important to check that the college or university you want to enter afterwards is accommodating of this choice. Most will be (in fact, many even welcome studying later in life), but, on occasion, it does not fit into their paradigm. You might have to do a bit of explaining to illustrate the value of a gap year – the answers to the “why” discussed above will be crucial for this.

While, more often than not permission or explaining will not be required, it is prudent to make sure your acceptance, financial package, etc won’t be affected by taking a gap year. Most South African colleges and universities don’t have a formalised deferral process, so you may have to make special arrangements directly. Be sure to have a good dialogue with your admissions officer, and to keep records of your communication.


Spending 12 months on your parents’ couch won’t cut it. To get the most from your gap year, there are three key steps you’ll need to action:

1. Establish structure

Without a defined structure, your time out will be nothing more than time off. You’ll need to make sure your gap year has a defined structure, be it self-imposed or externally set. If, for instance, you’re entering a voluntary programme that involves travel, check that this has a built-in agenda: training before you leave, mentors and guides on location so you’re safe and able to take care of yourself, certificates or reference letters when you leave.

If you’re not entering a specific gap-year programme, you might consider undertaking a structured experience within a local community group, some of which even offer the opportunity to stay with a host family or organisation.

“A gap year should not just be a period that students take off from school, do whatever they want and then come back. It’s a serious structured time in your lives … so it’s important to be really intentional about the experience and have the right guiding principles about how you’re going to develop, and challenge yourself,” advises Joe O’Shea, the director of Florida State University’s Office of Undergraduate Research and author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People In Ways the World Needs.

2. Check your finances

While you may be lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship or acquire a loan, your gap year will not be cheap. If you’re cash-strapped, consider a combination of work, fundraising and financial aid to pay for your gap year. Some community associations and large corporates offer scholarships that help fund relevant work experience. And, of course, a good way to keep things affordable is to stay domestic – the airfare savings alone will feed you for the year.

3. Consider your safety

For students straight out of school, going it alone in the big, wide world can be a daunting experience. Slipping on your backpack and sticking out your thumb is not the way to do it. Good planning will ensure that every step of your journey is accounted for – and that any surprises are welcome ones. If you’re taking a short course or entering a voluntary programme, make sure it’s an accredited one and that there is appropriate training and supervision. You can also explore gap-year opportunities through your chosen college or university.

Like most things in life, you get out of the gap year what you put into it. So it’s important to find a pursuit that suits you and your goals. “Do some research, talk to people, see if anything excites you. If nothing does then take a pass,” advises Knight.

He adds, however: “I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and I have never heard of a student who regretted their gap year, no matter how troublesome, no matter how many trials and tribulations there were. Give it a shot!”

When the time comes to pursue your studies, you may decide that a career in psychology is well suited to your particular interests and skillsets. The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a wide range of courses, including the Bachelor of Applied Social Science and the Bachelor of Psychology. For more information, enquire now.

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