Tips for Planning a Successful Gap Year

I absolutely love the concept of a gap year. Though I didn’t take a gap year between high school and my undergraduate studies, I did have the opportunity to take a gap year before I started my doctoral studies. And, I am very grateful that I did. Taking time off provided me with the opportunity to think about and discover my true passion.

After I graduated from high school I went straight to university and then I started graduate school for my master’s degree once I completed my undergraduate studies. I changed my major several times throughout the course of my undergraduate and graduate career. I was a very focused student so I always got good grades, but I didn’t fully enjoy my studies because I was simply doing what I needed to do in order to pass my courses.

After completing my master’s degree my plan was to start my doctoral studies in the upcoming fall semester. However, I experienced some family issues that delayed my plans to start my doctorate degree at the conclusion of that summer. So, I decided to take a year off so that I could focus on my personal situation.

And I am very grateful that I did. After taking time off I had more time to self-reflect and truly examine my career goals. Though I was working as a professor at the time I had never really thought about what direction I wanted my career to go in or how to achieve my long-term career goals.

After taking a brief hiatus from my studies, I started my doctoral studies full force. I ended up changing my major after having the opportunity to travel to and live in Africa at the beginning of my gap year. I changed my major from information technology to public health and ended up completing my degree in four years.

When I re-started my studies I was truly focused on what I was learning. I no longer went through the motions just to get a good grade. I was wholeheartedly engaged in my educational experiences. I went over and above on almost every assignment because I wanted to know more about the subject that I was engaged in.

What is a Gap Year?

A gap year(s) is when a student takes a period of time away from his or her studies with the intention to continue studies at a later time. Gap years are usually intentional and are often taken between the transition from high school to college. However, a student may end up taking a gap year for a number of reasons including health concerns, personal/family emergencies, funding issues, mandatory military service, etc. Likewise, a student can take a gap year(s) in between undergraduate and graduate studies or during any other interval of their educational journey.

What is a Successful Gap Year

I define a successful gap year(s) as time spent defining and refining one’s career goals and objectives for maximum effectiveness. This means that when an individual enters or re-enters college or university they are focused and are able to efficiently achieve their career goals. Efficient goal achievement ultimately means that the individual is able to finish college in a timely manner and acquire effective career skills without taking too many twists and turns along the way.

What You Should Do During a Gap Year?

In order to have a successful gap year, it is important to plan and execute your plan of action properly. An intentional gap year should be about exploration and adventure on many levels. It should not be an afterthought or just another year of doing mundane things. So in order for your gap year to be successful, you should do the following:

Set Goals

If you have already made up your mind to take a gap year then you should set solid and realistic goals about what you wish to accomplish during this time. Don’t let life just happen. Determine your purpose for taking a gap year and build your goals around that mission.

For instance, if you plan to discover your true career passion, make plans to explore different career paths that interest you. This could be in the form of doing internships or apprenticeships, interviewing professionals working in fields that interest you, or simply reading books and articles and watching videos about the career field. If you have a list of 2-3 more potential careers make a plan for exploring each career field over a given period of time.

Even if your purpose is simply to take a break from the educational environment for a while, make plans for that as well. Loafing around on the sofa for a year is probably not going to be helpful for you when you return to your studies. In fact, being apathetic during this time will probably cause you to change your mind about your studies altogether. So your break can and should be filled with exploration even if you don’t want to focus on your career during your gap year.


Traveling has traditionally been at the cornerstone of gap year experiences. In fact, this is what the average person thinks of when they hear the phrase gap year experience. While travel is not a mandatory part of a gap year, it is probably one of the most effective ways to have a successful gap year experience.

Travel is an educator in and of itself. There is something about exploring new cultures and meeting people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds that has the ability to change you at your core. Travel experiences help you grow at a much faster pace than you normally would in your day-to-day life.

Gap year travel experiences don’t have to involve extensive international trips to Africa, Asia, or Europe, but such destinations can certainly help broaden your perspective in tremendous ways. You can have a successful gap year experience by traveling within your state or throughout the U.S. as there are plenty of culturally diverse experiences to be had right in your own backyard. So whatever the size of your budget or your courage, you should make plans to travel at some point during your gap year.


Take time to journal your gap year experiences throughout the year. You can maintain a written or video journal in which you catalog your experiences and check in with yourself. A year can go by quickly and if you are not careful you can easily forget about some of the more transformative parts of your journey.

You can set a journaling schedule to make this process easier and more intuitive. You can also strategically plan journal categories to help you keep your thoughts more organized. You can even mix and match the type of journaling that you engage in. For instance, writing tends to be a more intimate process that allows you to think deeply. But it can also be tedious and time-consuming especially when you have a lot of thoughts to catalog.

So you can also create vlogs of your journey. This may be done to record your private innermost thoughts about something or it could be done to capture integral parts of your career exploration or travel experiences. There is no need to publish your vlogs to an online video-sharing platform like YouTube. You can simply keep them stored away for your own personal use.

Journaling helps you self-reflect. You will obviously be self-reflecting in the moment that you record your thoughts or experiences, but journaling is also a vital part of long-term self-reflection processes. For instance, you can read your journal or watch your vlogs at the conclusion of your gap year experience to get a better sense of how you have changed and who you have become. This information will be instrumental to you as you continue your academic studies.