Should You Take a Gap Year After College?

Gap year pros and cons for students graduating from college

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The years after college can be an uncertain time. You just spent the past 16 or so years with the structure of formal education to guide you. Now, however, that structure has suddenly disappeared, and it’s easy to feel directionless.

To cope with this uncertainty, many students pursue further education in the form of graduate school, law school, or medical school. Properly chosen and applied, this further education can pay huge dividends down the road. 

Increasingly, however, many students are choosing to take a gap year between college and further education. This approach has many benefits, both academic and personal, though it also has its potential drawbacks.

If you’re considering a gap year but aren’t sure if it’s the right move academically or professionally, then this guide is for you. Below, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of gap years so that you can decide if taking one is best for your situation.

What Is a Gap Year?

Gap years are becoming common enough that they don’t need a ton of explanation. But still, taking a gap year after college is somewhat of a novel concept, especially compared to a gap year after high school.

So what does a typical post-college gap year look like? There are no set rules, but a typical gap year is a planned break or “gap” between college and whatever comes next. During this time, a student will pursue activities to improve themselves academically, professionally, or personally (often all 3).

We should also note that while a year is the most common period of time, a gap “year” could also last a few years. The amount of time will depend on your goals, as well as your financial means for supporting yourself during the gap.

So what benefits do gap years offer? Let’s take a look.

5 Benefits of Taking a Gap Year After College

Many people view gap years as a “waste of time.” Why take off a year before pursuing further education? Isn’t it better to jump straight into more school rather than “fooling around” for a year?

Without proper planning, a gap year can very well turn into unproductive “fooling around.” But a well-executed gap year offers many benefits. Here are a few to consider:

1. A Break from Academia

If you’ve just spent the last four years excelling in college academics and extracurriculars, you’re likely exhausted. At this point, the prospect of spending another 2-8 years in school can feel overwhelming.

Rather than squashing these feelings and risking burnout, a gap year offers the chance to step away from the chaos and enjoy a different pace of life. This doesn’t mean sitting on the couch watching TV, but it could mean traveling, doing an internship, or even taking some classes while working a part-time job.

And once you’ve taken this break, you can return to your academic pursuits with a renewed energy and excitement, boosting both your performance and your mental health.

2. Time to Work on Grad School Applications

Applying to medical school, law school, or graduate school can feel like a full-time job in itself (and often requires as many hours). Attempting to do these applications while taking a full college course load can be a recipe for intense stress and lower application quality.

Therefore, a gap year can offer a valuable opportunity to focus your full attention on school applications. Not only do you have fewer demands on your attention, but you also have the time to reflect on your college experience and use it to craft the personal statements and application materials you need.

3. A Chance to Gain Real-World Experience

If you have the academic credentials to be a competitive med school, law school, or grad school applicant, then it’s possible that you neglected real-world experience while you were in college. This is understandable—getting top grades requires hard work and time! 

But a lack of real-world experience can create problems for you down the line. Top schools want to see that you didn’t just study material in a classroom. They also want to see that you applied this material in the real world.

So if you’re lacking in hands-on experience, you can use your gap year to get some. Classic examples include shadowing a physician, working as a medical scribe, or volunteering at a law firm. 

If possible, choose an experience that complements your classroom experience. For instance, if you did undergraduate research on cancer cells, you could spend your gap year before medical school assisting in an oncology lab.

4. Time to Boost Academic Credentials 

While most students are likely to be lacking in experience rather than credentials, it’s possible that you don’t have all the coursework necessary to apply to your preferred academic program. If this is the case, then your gap year is a chance to get the credentials you need. For instance, if you didn’t major in a science field but are interested in medical school, you could use your gap year to do a post-bacc and get the necessary science coursework.

In a similar vein, you can spend your gap year preparing for and taking any standardized tests you’ll need for admission into your program of choice. Whether it’s boosting your MCAT score, retaking the GRE, or sitting the LSAT again, the extra time you have during your gap year can help make sure you have your desired scores.

5. Opportunity to Travel

If you’re a highly motivated student, it’s possible you went through all of college without traveling. It can be challenging to fit in study abroad programs when you’re taking a demanding course load, and you likely spent your summers doing internships or additional coursework.

Therefore, a gap year offers a great chance to step out of the classroom (or country) and see some of the world. This doesn’t have to be a stereotypical backpacking trip through Europe, either. If you choose the right trip, you can gain additional experience that can look great to admissions committees. 

For instance, you could volunteer in a clinic abroad or travel to a conference in a different country. Pulling off this sort of travel is both impressive and great material to use in your personal statement or other supplemental essays.

4 Drawbacks to Taking a Gap Year

Gap years have a lot of benefits, but there are potential drawbacks as well. This list isn’t to discourage you from taking a gap year. Rather, keep each of these things in mind when deciding if a gap year makes sense for your situation.

1. Decreased Academic Momentum

While many students benefit from a break between college and further education, it won’t work for everyone. While college can be intense, it also builds academic momentum that can propel you into additional schooling.

For some students, a break after college will destroy this momentum and make it more difficult to get back on track with the demanding coursework of law school, med school, or graduate school.

Of course, you can mitigate this risk by spending your gap year studying or reviewing material. But if you know you’re the sort of person who would be better just continuing with school, a gap year may not be right for you.

2. Can Look Bad to Future Schools

Let’s be clear: taking a gap year will not hurt your chances of getting into the program you want. Properly spent, a gap year can actually boost your admissions odds. But it’s key that you spend the gap year properly.

If you take a year off to do nothing, then it can give the wrong impression to admissions committees. They want to admit highly motivated students who spend their time doing interesting things. So only take a gap year if you know you’ll spend it on activities that will boost your admissions odds. Otherwise, it could be better to just continue with school.

3. Some Students May Find Lack of Structure Distressing

Most students will enjoy a break from the structure of academic life. But if you’ve never had that amount of free time, then it can be an adjustment. Some students find themselves unsure of how to spend their time when it’s not divided into predictable lectures, labs, and club meetings. This can lead to distress or even depression.

Therefore, it’s key to have a plan for how you’ll spend your gap year. This way, you can create structure for yourself and avoid the ennui that can come with an open schedule.

4. Gap Years Can Be Expensive

Before you take a gap year, you need to be clear about how you’ll pay for your expenses during it. Usually, this means getting a job or working out an agreement with your parents. But make sure you have a plan in place, or your gap year could end up costing you lots of money with little benefit.

In particular, watch out for formal “gap year” programs. While these can be worth the cost in some cases, you’re often better off finding your own opportunities. Not only will these be cheaper, but they won’t be the same thing that every other applicant is doing.

Finally, if you plan to spend your gap year taking classes (either through a post-bacc or another method), know the costs upfront. Scholarships are rarely available in such cases, so you’ll have to rely either on your own means, your family’s, or loans.

Should You Take a Gap Year?

When all is said and done, should you take a gap year? Ultimately, that’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself, and it will depend on your situation.

In general, however, a gap year can be beneficial both for your current well-being and your future academic/career goals. Just be sure you plan what you’ll do during your gap year and know how you’ll pay for it. 

With the right plan in place, your gap year can propel you into a successful future.


About Our Guest Contributor

Ransom Patterson is the editor-in-chief at College Info Geek, a site that helps students study more effectively, become more productive, and get great jobs after graduation. You can learn more about how College Info Geek helps students here.