Taking a Gap Year During COVID? Here’s How to Make The Most of It

Photo to accompany story about taking a gap year due to the pandemic.
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Hannah Turner wasn’t planning to take a break from college in 2020.

Then the coronavirus pandemic happened. Colleges reversed their fall reopening plans or went online-only, and suddenly Turner’s semester was no longer what she envisioned it would be.

So Turner, a rising sophomore at Yale University, made the difficult decision to sit this semester out. She’s even considering taking a whole gap year, depending on her college’s reopening plans for the spring semester. 

“One of the main reasons I didn’t want to go back to school this semester,” Turner says, “was because my home situation doesn’t facilitate a good learning environment and I don’t get that same independence that I get in college. I also realized that I did not like online learning.”

With the majority of campuses closed across the nation, Turner, an aspiring lawyer who’s double majoring in Spanish and political science, is far from alone in wanting to take time off from higher education. Twenty-two percent of college students across all four years say they’re not attending school this fall, according to a recent College Reaction and Axios poll.

“The fact is that they’re not getting the education and experience they’re paying for because of COVID-19,” says Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor

Data from Davidson College and The Chronicle of Higher Education shows only 2.5% of colleges are holding classes fully in person this semester, and 15% are going with a hybrid of online and in-person classes. That is not what most students dreamt their college experience would be. And many colleges are still taking full tuition, including ones that are online only. The price tag has made students and families who were already not thrilled about virtual learning even more opposed to returning to college this year. 

“I feel like a lot of people I know did take an unexpected gap year or semester and decided really last minute. I definitely had conversations with my close friends on how we’re going to find jobs and just expressing concern to them,” Turner says. “A lot of people were scrambling and resorting to Instagram polls to decide.”

If you’re one of the many students delaying or thinking of delaying college, here’s what you should know to have a productive and meaningful gap year or semester amid the coronavirus chaos. 

What Is a Gap Year?

A gap year is a year-long break from formal education, often between high school and college, but it can be taken in between college years or even after college, before starting a graduate program or entering the workforce. A gap semester is similar, except shorter. Typically, people taking a gap year or semester use their time off to travel, volunteer, or work before continuing their education. 

While it’s very common for students to do a gap year in other parts of the world, like Europe and Australia, interest has only started growing in the U.S. in more recent years. Given the current circumstances, that interest has accelerated dramatically, Knight says.

“Broadly speaking, I’ve seen data that says we might expect 400,000 youth taking a gap year this year. And normally, we see close to 40,000,” says Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that focuses on gap year advice, opportunities, and research. 

Studies show there are a lot of positives that can come out of taking a gap year. 

According to a 2015 alumni survey conducted by the Gap Year Association and Temple University, people who took a gap year on average said the time off helped them develop as a person and acquire skills to be successful in their careers. They also said it gave them a greater understanding of other cultures, and made them see themselves as global citizens. 

(While gap years can have those positive effects, it should be noted that they tend to be available more easily to people with privileged backgrounds. For example, a majority of survey participants were white and from families where the estimated household income was over $100,000 a year.)

Deferring enrollment for a year may also lead to higher grades later on. According to a study of GPA results by Robert Clagett, the former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, undergraduates who had taken a gap year on average outperformed in college by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale.

How Will the COVID-19 Gap Year Be Different From Previous Gap Years?

Typically, students pursuing gap years don’t yet know what they want to study and want to do some self-discovery to figure out their interests.

Now, on top of campus closures and the lack of in-person learning, there are also economic uncertainties at play. For some students, attending college this year is no longer an option; the recession caused by the pandemic has affected their ability to afford tuition, a recent OneClass survey found.

That shouldn’t diminish the value of taking a gap year or semester, Knight says: “How you arrive at your decision doesn’t necessarily relate to whether it’s going to be a great experience or not. It seems pretty universal that a student who actually leans into taking a gap year will have some great benefits.” 

Should I Take a Gap Year During COVID?

Before committing to a gap year, there is at least one obstacle students and parents must consider: Approval from their colleges. Every college has its own deferral policy; some grant one automatically, while others review and approve each request based on its merits.

Marion Taylor, a professional gap year advisor, recommends approaching your college with your plans as soon as you’ve made a decision on deferring. That way there’s time to work through any roadblocks with your college.

Another challenge during the coronavirus pandemic: limited gap year opportunities. Many popular options, like international travel or an internship in an office, have been affected by the spread of the coronavirus. But this is where you have room to get creative about how you spend your gap time.

How To Stay Productive During Your Gap Year

Traveling around the world on a quest for self-discovery may not be a viable choice in 2020, but there are still solid options available for those taking time off from college. 

For example, Turner has secured two part-time jobs, plans to stay active in her college clubs, and has been steadily applying to legal research positions to fill any remaining time.

The best thing to do, according to Marion, is establish a gap year plan that has a purpose, which can take many forms.

“Know what is your ‘why?’ and what you hope to get out of this. Make your gap year intentional. I encourage students to get out of their comfort zone, to challenge themselves a little bit,” Marion says. “Being open-minded and willing just pays off tenfold.”

If your motive to skip out on a semester or two is to sit at home and do nothing, then the risks of taking a gap year likely outweigh the benefits. It could lead to lost wages due to entering the job market a year later, a lower chance of graduating on time, or decreased motivation to transition back to college, Marion says. 

If you don’t know where to start with planning a gap year, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Be proactive and talk about your options with your college advisor, friends, family, and mentors.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach if you’re taking a breather from college. Everyone’s situation and interests are different, which means a certain program or activity may make sense for one person but not another. Here are a few more ideas to have a productive gap year or semester during the pandemic:

Consider a Structured Gap Year Program

There are several gap year programs you can apply to, including some that offer financial aid. A useful listing of gap year programs can be found on the Gap Year Association’s website

“There are still international opportunities out there, but they’re much more diamonds in the rough,” Knight says. “Luckily, there’s a whole host of really cool, innovative new domestic programs coming out, both in response to COVID-19, but also summer programs that have adjusted course in order to adapt to a gap year market.”

Knight says that he also expects increased interest in AmeriCorps service programs and gap year programs with small cohorts. The idea behind that is to provide a small group of students with mentorship and in-person opportunities outside of their families’ homes, while still following social distancing rules.

While a highly structured program can be a great option, it’s not necessary in order to benefit from taking a gap year or semester.

Get a Job and Save Money

Like Turner, you could find a job during your gap semester or year. While the coronavirus economy has made the job market pretty bleak, many companies are hiring right now. Try to be flexible when it comes to finding work during this time, and apply to companies you may not be familiar with.

Learn a Valuable Skill

There are plenty of skills you can learn from home — coding, languages, photography or digital marketing, for example. Many online resources are free, and you can tackle any topic at your own pace. You won’t get a course credit, but you can get a clearer sense of what you do and don’t like, which could influence what you study in college and help you develop skills to be successful after you graduate. 

Find Volunteer Opportunities

There are volunteer opportunities for nearly every interest area, and plenty of ways you can use your skills to give back. Volunteering not only helps others in need, but it can also expand your horizons, even if it is as simple as buying groceries for your elderly neighbors or organizing a virtual donation campaign for a local animal shelter. If you aren’t comfortable volunteering in person, there are thousands of virtual opportunities available through VolunteerMatch.

Get a Remote Research Position or Internship

Don’t overlook temporary remote or at-home learning opportunities. Project-based work and short-term internships (ideally paid) can get your foot in the door at a company that may be hiring down the road. Sites like LinkedIn and Handshake are a great place to start looking for an internship.

Participating in an online research program that matches your interests is another good way to occupy your time and gain valuable skills, especially if you plan to attend graduate school. Universities typically have an online page dedicated to finding research opportunities, so be sure to check it often to see if any interest you. 

Take Classes at Your Local Community College

You could take a few classes at a local community college, which are typically significantly less expensive than a four-year college. It’s a way to knock out some 101-level classes, and you can usually transfer the credit to a four-year college.

Start a Passion Project

Many people have been a lot less busy during the pandemic. So what better time to start that project that’s been stuck in your head? A passion project can help you learn about a subject—one you might want to pursue later, too. Turner is taking advantage of her spare time this semester to grow her YouTube channel, with the hope of creating an extra income source.

“Broadly speaking, youth are under the impression that gap years have to be a program and expensive, and that’s just not true,” Knight says. “I like to describe the gap year as much more of a recipe than a program. Each student can go out there and build their own meal.”