Should Your Students Take a Gap Year in 2021?

For years, many students have chosen to take a gap year, but 2021 brings new questions alongside the usual considerations when it comes to planning the year following high school graduation.

gap year 2021

Giving advice about a gap year in 2021 can be challenging. Questions have been swirling about the role of a gap year since universities started operating remotely and travel restrictions were announced. Would gap years dwindle in popularity as students could no longer jet off on adventures? Or would more students opt to delay their studies until it was clearer what form they would take?

The second option seems to have come true. In fact, Nina Hoe Gallagher, director of research and evaluation of ImpactED at the University of Pennsylvania, said that at her university the number of students deferring their enrolment in favour of a gap year went up a massive 300%. Research from Foundry10 found that 20% of students took a gap year for 2020-2021, compared to just 3% in 2018. And in what might come as a surprise, a third of them plan to travel abroad.

With many students experiencing frustration or disappointment with online education, it makes sense to consider taking a break until it’s safer to return to on-campus learning and all the experiences it brings.

Plus, industries are changing rapidly and the job market has become fiercely competitive. Gap years give students a chance to think carefully about their career plans, and gain skills and experiences that will give them a professional edge.

With all of these factors at play, you’ve probably been fielding some gap year-related questions this semester. If you want to get clued up on all the pros and cons of taking a gap year in 2021, as well as how students can make their gap year productive and stimulating, read on!

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What should students think about before committing to a gap year for 2021?

Taking a gap year is a big decision, and there are lots of important considerations to be made. Here are some of the factors you should encourage your students to think about.

What do they hope to gain from their gap year?

As we mentioned, if the answer is along the lines of ‘a holiday’ or ‘to see the world’, students might want to reconsider whether a gap year is for them, or at least adjust their expectations.

Ideally, students’ answers will include valuable skills or experiences which will benefit them later on. They might say they hope to earn a teaching qualification while volunteering in Peru and perfecting their Spanish. Already, that’s a range of soft and hard skills that will serve them well! If they hope to work in education, study Spanish, or have any international component in their professional or academic lives, the benefits are particularly direct.

This year, you might hear some answers less fuelled by ambition. If students are simply apprehensive or anxious about starting higher education during such uncertain times, then that’s a very valid reason to delay! The benefit here would be that they’ll begin their degree feeling more comfortable and confident, and probably happier to get involved in learning, socialising and extracurriculars.

Will they apply to college or university before their gap year?

This is a really important question. For many students, having their application submitted (and hopefully accepted), is crucial if they’re going to enjoy their gap year and focus on the goals they’ve set for it.

But if that’s the case, students will need to do their university research with a gap year in mind. While some institutions allow students to apply for deferred entry, and others might let students defer once they’ve been accepted, there are some universities which are hugely reluctant to allow deferral. In fact, many will only do so in exceptional circumstances.

Still, many students would prefer to apply after leaving high school. Aside from the fact that it’s usually easier because of these roadblocks universities place to deferred entries, for lots of students a gap year is an opportunity to think more deeply about their next steps. As we’ll discuss later, it can shape what they want to study and where, as well as smaller details like their preferred methods of learning or the types of campus they’d enjoy.

If in doubt, students should get in touch with colleges and universities as soon as possible. Keeping open channels of communication and casting out any uncertainty is always a good idea! That way, they’ll avoid an unpleasant surprise further down the line.

How will they structure their gap year?

This could mean keeping busy with lots of different things throughout the year, or dividing their year up into separate sections. For example, some students might take a part-time job, dedicate some time to honing a skill like photography, and take some pre-college courses all at once. Others choose to work full-time for some months to earn some money, then spend blocks of time travelling, volunteering or learning a language.

Rather than having an abstract notion of what can feel like a really long break, students should have concrete ideas about how they’ll fill their time, and what they can realistically expect to fit into a 12 month period.

What are their travel plans?

The big topic that’s likely to come up as you discuss 2021 gap years with students is their travel plans - after all, travel is a huge part of many students’ gap years!

But as you’ll know, this year travel has been massively fluid and inconsistent. Rules vary not just between departure countries, but also between different destinations, and these rules can change with little or no notice.

So, it’s crucial that students don’t pin all their hopes on having a carefree overseas adventure. In fact, unlike in other years, it’s probably unwise to allow travel to be the sole - or even main - motivation for taking a gap year. Students should be mindful of the fact that travel plans could get cancelled at the last minute.

It’s also more important than ever to consider how easy it would be to get home, and what resources they might have in their destination should travel be delayed, forcing them to prolong their stay.

The main thing to emphasise is that the uncertainty surrounding travel doesn’t need to deter students from taking a gap year. Firstly, there’s a good chance that some form of travel will be possible in 2021 and 2022. But aside from that, there are lots of great ways to have a fun and rewarding gap year in their own country - as we’ll see!

Note: Many gap year programmes are advertising full refunds if COVID-19 forces students to cancel. If losing their money is a big worry, students should look for these kinds of options.

How much time and money do they have available?

Budgetary considerations and other commitments can’t be forgotten in the excitement of planning a gap year! Students need to fit their plans into their pre-existing circumstances - something easily forgotten when mapping out such unfamiliar territory.

This is their first real break from education, and often the first time they’re able to opt out of schooling at all, so it can feel like a brand new world. Help them keep their feet on the ground!

What are the pros of taking a gap year in 2021?

When facing any big decision, it’s a good idea to weigh up the pros and cons. For different people, different criteria will carry varying levels of importance, so it’s not just a case of totting up each column!

As students ponder whether to take a gap year in 2021, encourage them to take into account these points, and how much they matter to them.

Gap years can be great preparation

When used wisely, a gap year can be a tremendous addition to a CV. Students’ experiences can develop practical skills, independence, time-management, adaptability - all kinds of qualities that prepare them well for the world of work.

Of course, students can even use gap years to directly learn about their chosen profession through courses, training, and internships.

For students who choose to take their gap year before submitting their university applications, there can also be massive benefits. Thoughtful gap years can be wonderful material for application essays, personal statements and recommendation letters. They showcase lots of skills and characteristics that would impress admissions officers.

Taking a break increases motivation and focus

After pausing formal, full-time education, many students feel more motivated and energised when they begin their degrees. In fact, gap year students tend to graduate more quickly: in the US, they average 4 years or less, while only 59% of all students graduate in 6 years! That suggests after a year off, students can really knuckle down. That’s pretty much what they say themselves, too: 84% of gap year takers think it increased their academic motivation!

Gap years can help students make the right decisions

For students who are willing and able to delay their applications until during or after their gap year, the break might be instrumental in deciding their next steps.

It offers the chance to think carefully about their options and make sure they are making the right choice. Students can also explore areas and careers they might not have known much about before. Maybe during their gap year they’ll find their calling!

“[Gap year] participants acquire confidence and independence, begin to develop a sense of purpose, and find out that there’s life outside of school. Kids turn into young adults.”

William Deresiewicz: Political, cultural, and higher education author

Cons of taking a gap year in 2021

Of course, taking a gap year won't be the right decision for everyone. Before getting swept up in fantastical adventures, or heaving a sigh of relief at the thought of a year off, students should consider these points too. 

Expense

Gap years can be very expensive. For students planning overseas adventures, travel, accommodation and living expenses can tot up quickly.

Even for those who aren’t focusing on exploring new countries, a gap year can prove costly. Many courses and placements charge students high tuition fees. If they complete an internship, even domestically, there might be accommodation costs, as well as the day-to-day expenses of getting to and from the office, and buying lunches and refreshments nearby.

Ultimately, students who are keen to use their gap year to save money for further education might find their options a little limited - although in a year, there can be time for different activities!

But for students who are budgeting, there are plenty of options which cost nothing or very little, and which can be slotted in alongside paid jobs - which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

Unfocused gap years can work against applicants

If not properly focused, gap years can make admissions tutors and employers apprehensive. If students decide to treat their whole gap year as a holiday, they need to be prepared to defend the decision in interviews.

Delaying their university applications can cause difficulties

Taking a gap year can make it harder to apply to universities. A full year after leaving high school, students might slip out of the habit of composing application documents, and won’t be as mindful of the extracurricular activities they might have participated in and how they benefited them.

What’s more, some students may not be in close contact with teachers and advisors anymore. That means the people writing students’ recommendations might have a harder time remembering exactly where that particular student shone. It can also cause delays in getting hold of the letters students need to send off their applications.

The verdict: should students take a gap year in 2021?

While there’s no single answer that’s right for everyone, the key takeaway is that students shouldn’t not take a gap year just because of the changed circumstances 2020 and 2021 have brought. There are still a staggering amount of incredible opportunities. With a bit of planning, and by asking themselves the questions we outlined, students can have the experience of a lifetime, gain skills and grow in all kinds of ways.

Of course, whether they're taking a break or not, the best way to ensure students are motivated about their next steps is for them to find their perfect course. If you're looking to organise students' university research and guide them towards a tailor-made shortlist of courses, download our free eBook by clicking the button below!

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