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The Gap Year Advantage: Preparing for Master’s Success

Taking a gap year can be a transformative experience that sets you up for long-term success in your academic and professional life. Discover how to make the most of your time off and use your gap year to enhance your resume.

Author: Mikala Lugen

Editor: Staff Editor

A woman with a backpack looks up happily in a sunlit forest with a male companion walking ahead.

You just powered through four years of earning your bachelor’s degree and feel the pressure of deciding between jumping right into your career field or applying to graduate school. Did you know there’s actually no reason to rush into a decision? Instead, a gap year could help you refine your academic and career goals while also giving yourself time to process your undergraduate studies and prepare for the next steps in achieving your goals.

Although the name implies a gap of time and may seem untraditional, a gap year is pretty common among recent undergraduate students. According to UC Davis, most undergraduate students take a gap year before enrolling in graduate school. If you’re debating whether a gap year is the best choice for you, you’re in the right place. This guide walks you through the benefits and common pitfalls of taking a gap year, provides strategies and actions to take to maximize your time, tells you how to fund your gap year, and more.

What are the Benefits of a Gap Year?

Just because it’s a gap year doesn’t mean that there must be a gap in honing your skills and laying down the groundwork for your career. There are many benefits to taking a gap year that allow you to learn and grow outside of the classroom.

Build Your Resume

While in school, time isn’t always on your side when it comes to earning real-world experience outside of the classroom. A gap year allows you the time to build your resume through different avenues of work and volunteer experiences that help you strengthen your graduate application. Consider an internship program in your desired career field or find a mentor that you can volunteer and get hands-on experience with, for example.

Get Clear on Your Goals

According to the University of Minnesota, 86% of gap year participants were satisfied or partially satisfied with their eventual career choice. Taking a gap year allows you to process all you learned in your undergraduate degree and gives you clarity on goals both within your professional and personal arenas. UC Davis pre-graduate/law advisor Cloe Le Gall-Scoville says that taking the time to narrow your interests and discover what you truly want to do can help clarify your next steps.

Do Things that Inspire You

With a year available, it’s time to get inspired! Those years spent focused on earning your bachelor’s degree were hard work, and you might feel a little burned out. Regain some of the passion you once had towards your career field and goals by traveling to a place you’ve always wanted to visit, discovering new interests, and networking within your field. You’ll gain a fresh perspective when you take time outside of the classroom before taking on graduate school in another year or two.

Learn New Skills

When you’re not bogged down with multiple courses and deadlines, taking the time to learn new skills during your gap year can help set you up for success when you enroll in graduate school. In a study of pre-college gap year experiences by the Gap Year Association, 84% of gap year respondents stated they acquired relevant career skills. Whether honing your research or time management skills, earning relevant work experience, or practicing your interpersonal communication, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn and excel in a new skill.

Establish a Routine

A huge benefit that comes with taking a gap year includes establishing a new routine that works well for you. You likely couldn’t be as flexible with your routine when taking your undergraduate courses and had to spread your productivity throughout the day and night. With a gap year on your hands, you can create a schedule that optimizes your time and develop a good sense of what work-life balance looks like for you.

Replenish Energy to Avoid Burnout

When Jamelle Watson-Daniels finished her undergraduate degree, she felt burnt out. After four years of rigorous and demanding courses, she graduated exhausted. A gap year allowed her to process all the development she experienced during her undergraduate years and helped her regain inspiration and strength to take on graduate school. Taking the time for mental rejuvenation can help you be even more successful since you’ll have renewed energy and motivation to continue your academic journey.

Have Some Fun

After years of an academic routine full of classes, studying, writing papers, deadlines, exams, late nights, and early mornings, you might feel like you missed out on some fun opportunities. Taking a gap year allows you to overcome feelings of missing out (FOMO), a struggle many who immediately jump into graduate school have. Life doesn’t have to be all serious all the time; you deserve to have some fun, whether it’s catching up with old friends, taking a vacation, or simply watching TV at home.

Save Money

One of the biggest benefits of taking a gap year before jumping into graduate school is the option of saving money. According to Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a master’s degree is about $63,000. Tacking that onto the loans you may already have from your undergraduate degree can be overwhelming. Taking a year off school to work part or full-time while saving money can better your chance of completing your education with less financial burden.

Best Laid Plans: Mapping Out Your Gap Year

Once you’ve decided to take a gap year after earning your undergraduate degree, you need to think about how to maximize your time. There are many options for making the best use of your gap year and setting yourself up for success before you enroll in graduate school. The experiences you choose depend on your personal goals and interests as well as your academic and career plans, so the options are endless and can all be tailored to what works best for you.

Internships

Accepting and working within an internship during your gap year can propel you forward in your career field. Internships provide real work experience within your targeted career that can’t be obtained in the classroom. Additionally, internships naturally place you within your desired field and allow you to get your foot in the door for networking and working alongside prospective employers. Including boosting your resume, developing professional connections, obtaining new skills, refining career goals, and more, internships are a highly proactive strategy for your gap year.

Work Experience

Similar to obtaining an internship, using your gap year to gain real work experience in your career field is a highly beneficial way to maximize your time. It allows you to test out what you learned in your undergraduate years and apply it in the workforce. For example, gaining teaching skills and experience for a year before you decide to enroll in graduate school for your master’s in education will help you stand out on your grad school applications and earn you a better understanding of your graduate course material.

Volunteering

Did you know there are plenty of domestic and international volunteer opportunities to take part in? Along with becoming immersed in a new city and culture, you’ll also make a positive impact while developing professional and communication skills. Many programs, like volunteering to teach English abroad or to help preserve and research a region’s biodiversity, can also go hand-in-hand with your desired career field as well.

Study Abroad

Although you’re not in the classroom, it doesn’t mean you have to stop learning. According to a large-scale survey by IES Abroad, 87% of respondents cited that studying abroad influenced their educational experience, 63% claimed it influenced their decision to expand or change their academic major, and 64% reported it influenced their decision to attend graduate school. A gap year studying abroad can expand your knowledge in your desired career field while also positively impacting your worldview, personal growth, intercultural development, and self-confidence as a student.

Travel

If the thought of taking some classes in another country doesn’t appeal to you, why not just take a trip? It’s easy to get stuck in a daily routine, especially if you find yourself in the same environment. Taking in a fresh view – whether in a new city, state, or country – can help bring a fresh perspective and clear your mind. With a year of free time on your hands, the world is your oyster!

Grad School Prep

Graduate school does require a decent amount of prep, including filling out applications, writing a personal statement, and submitting letters of recommendation and test scores. Using your gap year affords you plenty of time to prepare for graduate school by focusing on researching the best graduate program for you, taking any necessary exams, and updating and organizing any necessary paperwork for your application process.

A Combination of the Above

With 365 days up for grabs, why not do a mix of it all? There’s no blueprint that shows the best way to spend a gap year. Once you’re clear on what you want to achieve for the year ahead, why not try out a little bit of everything? Internships, volunteer opportunities, and study abroad programs usually span weeks to a couple of months and afford you more time to earn work experience, travel, and start your preparation for grad school.

Paying for It: Financing Your Gap Year

Although you’ll avoid the high cost of immediately jumping into graduate school, you still need to make sure you can fund your gap year. The amount you’ll need to fund your gap year depends on your exact goals, including if you plan on traveling internationally, volunteering, or enrolling in a study abroad program. Fortunately, there are several options available to help you afford a year off school.

Work or Paid Internship

One of the most common ways to help finance and earn money during your gap year is by finding a job or paid internship. According to a 2021 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), at least 60% of internships are paid. This widens your chance of finding a beneficial paid working or internship position in your prospective career field, granting you the time to earn real experience while also earning money. It also increases your chances of enrolling in and funding your graduate program the following year.

Grants or Fellowships

Applying for and receiving a grant or fellowship can be a great way to source funding for your gap year. While you’re not enrolled in classes, why not take a year to focus on an area of interest in your field to research? Fellowships are funded, short-term opportunities that allow individuals to focus and study specific areas surrounding professional, academic, or personal development. Research grants are often awarded by academic institutions to support research efforts by a student. Both options can assist your exploration of your passions and inspire your next level of academic learning in graduate school.

Volunteer Programs

Enrolling in a volunteer program is another common method to help fund your gap year. While most volunteer programs don’t provide direct monetary compensation, a lot include housing, living stipends, medical insurance and benefits, education and tuition assistance, and more. In addition to making a difference – whether it’s through mentoring youth, fighting poverty, or sustaining and protecting wildlife – many programs also incorporate academic interests and courses. This allows you to still maintain and develop professional skills while immersing yourself in new enriching learning environments with like-minded students.

Savings

Of course, using any amount of savings to help fund your gap year can be deemed beneficial. Maybe you were able to squeeze in a couple of shifts at a part-time job throughout your undergraduate years and saved up some cash. Since you won’t have the burden of paying for graduate school right away, you can use your savings from a previous job or internship to take a much-deserved rest period. Strategically planning your savings to stretch for a year lets you enroll and start graduate school without the worry of the burden of debt.

Beware These Gap Year Pitfalls

While taking a gap year has many benefits, it’s ultimately up to you to use the time wisely. Although there can be many advantages to taking a year off, you can also become easily distracted and fall into a place where you don’t feel motivated to go back to school. Let’s discuss some of the most common pitfalls to watch out for and how you can avoid them.

Loss of Momentum or Motivation

One of the most common pitfalls of taking a gap year is losing momentum or motivation in your academic career. It can be easy to get caught up in your year-long break and then struggle to find the motivation to get started in the demanding hours and time of starting a whole new program. While this is a common challenge among students who take a gap year, the Gap Year Association states that approximately 90% of students who took a gap year returned to college within a year. If you focus on your goals and use the year to prepare your enrollment for graduate school, getting back into the swing of academic life shouldn’t be too hard. Staying on a routine and taking proactive steps ensures that you don’t lose your motivation or spark in your academic journey.

You Might Lose Your Place in Grad School

A common pitfall surrounding a gap year is the thought of getting behind in your academic journey. If you were proactive in your final undergraduate year and applied for graduate school, taking a gap year could make you lose your admission if you’ve been accepted. Thankfully, a lot of higher education institutions work with students to offer deferred enrollment. This allows students to delay enrollment for a year or a semester, the time you’d take for a gap year. Each graduate program is different, so you may have to reapply and get admitted later or submit a deposit to hold your place in the next class.

Not Taking Care of Your Burnout

Taking a year off from the demanding hours and time of courses, exams, and study routines is only beneficial if you actually take care of your burnout. Jamelle Watson-Daniels advises you to “be intentional about how you spend your gap year” but found that listening to your body and making up for any chronic exhaustion or burnout takes priority. After four years of hard work, it’s okay to spend time recharging yourself before taking on a new educational chapter of graduate school. Students who took a gap year tend to outperform in college by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale due to the opportunity to rest and regain motivation.

Wasting Your Gap Year Time

“I’ll do it tomorrow” is a dangerous phrase. With 365 days up for grabs, it’s easy to waste away a whole year. While taking the time to refresh and rejuvenate after completing your undergraduate degree is a part of the process, it’s important to remember the intention behind your gap year. Focusing on your goals and career path throughout your gap year keeps you engaged in seeking out opportunities to help you stay connected to your academic journey and excel in your skills in the months ahead.

Taking on Too Many New Financial Obligations

Unfortunately, a gap year can easily get filled with new financial obligations. Maybe you’ve decided to rent an apartment in a new city, buy a car, or take a bucket list-worthy trip somewhere around the world. Regardless of what exactly you do, everything costs money. Getting a paid job and earning experience in your desired field is a great way to spend your gap year, but don’t let that get in the way of returning to school. According to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 76% of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week. Talk with your employer to negotiate a flexible working schedule around your graduate courses. Additionally, a lot of employers offer partial or full tuition assistance to current employees to further their education and obtain a master’s degree.

Lack of Planning

While taking a year off from academics sounds easy on paper, there’s a lot of planning that needs to be done. With the many different ways to spend your time and personalize your gap year experience, planning is crucial for ensuring you maximize your time. Consider taking some time during the end of your senior year in undergraduate school to focus on your goals. Prioritize what is important to you – whether it’s taking on an internship, applying for a study abroad or volunteer program, or finally checking off your dream backpacking trip – and look at the year ahead. Start scheduling what you’ll do and make a general plan of how you’ll spend your time.

Gap Year Resources

Thinking about possibly taking a gap year but you’re unsure where to start? We’ve compiled a list of useful resources where you can find more information and opportunities for your gap year. Remember, no gap year is the same, so research the available opportunities and resources to help alleviate any feelings of stress or overwhelming sensations surrounding the idea.

  • AmeriCorps: Enrolls more than 200,000 individuals to serve organizations making a difference by volunteering in communities across America.
  • Au Pair Jobs Abroad: Pairs qualifying students with a host family abroad to provide childcare services in exchange for room, board, and a stipend.
  • Carpe Diem Education: Provides students and expertly designed gap year programs with educational curriculums to challenge perspectives, enrich cross-cultural understanding, and inspire personal growth.
  • Chegg Internships: A student-focused internship marketplace searchable by city, college major, job category, or company.
  • Cool Works: Connects people with “cool” jobs in some cool places like national parks, various resorts, ranches, camps, ski resorts, and water-based locations.
  • EnRoute Consulting: A social enterprise dedicated to fueling the gap year movement and developing a generation of compassionate, driven, and resourceful global citizens. Provides unique and personalized programs, budgeting tips, and more to post-high school and post-undergraduate students.
  • Find Spark: A community dedicated to setting up every young professional for career success and connecting employers to top, diverse early career talent.
  • Gap Year Association: A nonprofit membership community for educators, students, gap year programs, consultants, counselors, and post-secondary institutions with a shared vision of making at least a semester of quality gap year time accessible.
  • Global Experiences: A part of the American Institute for Foreign Studies (AIFS) family of programs offering highly customized and credit-based international internship and study abroad programs.
  • Go Abroad: Leading online search engine for thousands of study, volunteer, internship, and teaching program opportunities with real-life participant reviews, expert travel articles, and scholarships.
  • Idealist: A non-profit organization that allows students to search for both internships and jobs in the non-profit sector throughout the world.
  • National Outdoor Leadership School: Nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help students step forward boldly as leaders through immersive wilderness expeditions and classroom-based wilderness medicine courses.
  • Oyster Worldwide: An international gap and travel organization that specializes in sending volunteers and paid workers to diverse and exciting destinations around the world.
  • Pacific Discovery: Offers experiential gap year semester and summer programs abroad for an authentic immersion in diverse cultures, meaningful service-learning projects, rewarding adventures, wilderness exploration, and personal development.
  • Paid Summer Research Experiences: A webinar with the basics of how undergraduates can find and apply to paid summer research and paid internships.
  • Pathwaystoscience.org: Connects underrepresented students with STEM funding and research opportunities to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce.
  • Peace Corps: Brings together skilled, committed volunteers with welcoming host communities for service opportunities in more than 60 countries.
  • ProFellow: A free database of more than 2,400 funding awards for graduate study and professional development.
  • Service Year: Offers over 65,000 paid, full-time service programs to young Americans and students varying in lengths of commitment, issue areas, and geographic locations.
  • StudyAbroad.com: Offers a wide range of internship, volunteer, teaching, and study abroad programs for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students.
  • Teach Away: Offers TEFL certification with a world-class course to teach English abroad.
  • Teach For America: A coalition of students, educators, and community members supporting the academic and personal growth of students through programs in underserved schools throughout the U.S.
  • The Leap: Offers specialized gap year travel and volunteer programs across Asia, Africa, and Central and South America that combine adventure and social responsibility.
  • The Gap Year: Between Undergrad and Grad School: Jamelle Watson-Daniels recaps her personal experience of taking a gap year before enrolling in graduate school and how it helped gain her clarity on her career goals and much-needed rest.
  • Volunteers Of America: Founded in 1896, this faith-based nonprofit is one of the nation’s largest, established comprehensive human services organizations that offers volunteer programs in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

A Grad Student Shares Their Gap Year Experience

Tenayah Jade

To gain more perspective on the benefits of a gap year, we sat down with Tenayah Jade, an MBA student at Southern New Hampshire University. Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Tenayah moved to Toledo, OH in 2013. She graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital and Photographic Arts from the University of Toledo in 2020, a degree that allowed her to explore themes of storytelling, escapism, and the pursuit of curiosity. Tenayah’s work has been included in the University of Toledo’s’ Student Juried Exhibition by Alli Hoag, “When + Where,” Society for Photographic Education Midwest Juried Student Juried Exhibition, and the American Frame Student Showcase. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Walbridge Sinclair Scholarship and the Jurors’ Award, and earned second place for the University of Toledo’s’ Juried Student Exhibition by Alli Hoag.

1) What are some of the potential downsides and challenges of taking a gap year before starting graduate school, and how can students prepare for these challenges? Did you find it hard to start going back to school again after taking time off?

In choosing to go to grad school, I experienced a few challenges. After making my decision to start a program, I did not feel certain I had selected the right degree for me. Aside from it being a challenge to get back into the headspace of allowing time for schoolwork, it was certainly difficult at first to feel confident in my decision to return.

2) How can a student determine if taking a gap year is the right decision for them, and what factors should they consider when making this decision? How did you know that taking time before going to graduate school was right for you?

In Australia, it is a really common thing for students to take a gap year between high school and their undergrad. So for me, this didn’t feel out of the ordinary. In my opinion, if you are unsure whether going to grad school will further your career or serve your journey positively, it is wise to wait. When making the decision to go back, questions you could consider are:

  • Does this align with my career goals?
  • Would the knowledge I gained through my prospective degree support research that I am already interested in?
  • Can I financially afford to make this commitment?
  • Aside from gaining another diploma, what significance does this degree have for me?

3) How can a student explain to potential graduate schools the value of taking a gap year and how it has prepared them for graduate studies?

From my own experience in Australia, some people who opt to embark on a gap year might pay to be in a gap year program. This includes board, excursions, and other activities. Since moving to America, I did not participate in such a program. However, the value of doing something so community centered was really appealing. I found value in taking a gap year as it gave me time to apply some of the knowledge I gained in my undergrad degree to my career. It also gave me time to really delve deeper into discovering what I want out of a graduate program. Taking this time away from the education environment also allowed me to tie in what I’m learning in my current graduate program to my everyday practices.

4) What are some potential funding options for a gap year, and where can students research and apply for these funding opportunities?

In my own gap year, I funded my time away from school through my jobs. I had several jobs relating to my selected field (fine arts) and a few jobs that were side hustles. If you were to go the route of embarking on a gap year abroad, there are many resources online that can give you access to funding. There are government organizations, scholarships, and private loans all available as potential funding options.

5) How can a student ensure that taking a gap year does not negatively impact their academic progress or delay their graduation timeline?

In taking a gap year, you may continue your own academic progress by continuing any research that you began in your undergrad. I found I was able to keep myself in practice by staying committed to retaining the knowledge I already gained and improving my skills in my own time.

Luckily, taking a gap year will not delay your undergraduate graduation timeline as you will already have completed your degree. As for your graduate degree timeline, this parameter is entirely up to you! Of course, when you begin your course, you have a certain amount of time to complete your degree. However, the choice is yours as to when you may continue your education journey.

6) How can a student maintain connections with their academic and professional network during a gap year, and how can they use these connections to help in future studies?

After completing my undergraduate degree, I truly felt it important to maintain connections with my mentors. Through my program, they always gave me great support in my research and my work, so I felt it important to maintain these relationships. Because we’re no longer meeting at school, I make the point to get coffee with them and catch up, share with them any successes I may achieve, and ask them about theirs. Taking time to share resources and events with each other has also been a big part of sustaining our connection now that I am outside of my undergraduate program.

7) What do you think are the biggest benefits you personally gained from taking a gap year before going to grad school?

Upon taking my gap year, I had the opportunity to travel a little bit, continue the research I started in my undergraduate program, and really got to understand myself a little better outside of my undergraduate program. While I was completing my bachelor’s degree, I took a lot of time to invest myself in my art and learn as much as I could. Having time away from this environment allowed me the time to take what I learned and start to form my own path and create new bodies of work.

8) Were you planning on taking a gap year before going to grad school or was it something that kind of came naturally to you?

When I was in my undergraduate program, I was very determined to go straight from that program onto my graduate program. The pandemic actually happened as I was graduating, a lot of personal changes happened, and it soon became a bit of an overwhelming idea to go straight from one degree to the next. Taking the time before continuing my education really allowed me that moment of necessary respite before throwing myself back into my research.

9) What did you do during your gap years that helped prepare you to then enroll in grad school later?

Before enrolling in my graduate degree, I took the time to determine my goals in all areas of my life from my career to my education to my relationships and even to my finances. Taking the time to do this was one of the most useful things I could do before enrolling again. This process was not one I just did quickly either; it was a process that I began and constantly re-evaluated over my gap year.