Blog 🍎 School 25th May 2021

The Four Key Pillars of Gap Year Activities

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

Gap years can be a great option for many reasons, but how can students ensure theirs are an asset not an aside? Here, we look at the key pillars of truly valuable gap years.

There are lots of different great gap year activities. It makes sense, because students can have many different motivations for taking a gap year. Some might want to develop professional skills, or save up money for their living costs at university. Others know they’ll benefit from a break in education, and be able start their degrees refreshed and raring to go. For some, it’s simply a chance to give some serious thought to what they’d like to do next.

Whatever their reasonings, gap years can have a huge range of benefits. But they carry some risks too: if not properly and thoughtfully planned, gap years can soon seem like extended holidays.

And what’s wrong with that? After all, we all love a good holiday! But the problem is twofold. Firstly, it can make students lose focus and motivation. A year without purpose or direction can have long-lasting effects. Secondly, it’s going to be difficult to justify in any university or job applications.

The good news is that gap years don’t need to be something to justify or conceal. They can actually be a real asset! If students think carefully about their motivations for taking a gap year and plan their activities with these four pillars in mind, they can have a really productive break. They’ll learn skills and develop characteristics which employers and admissions tutors alike value highly, and create wonderful memories to boot!

Free eBook:  Helping Students Find Their University Match

Help focus students’ gap years by ensuring they’ll be headed to their perfect courses after their break with in-class activities and actionable advice.

What are the four key pillars of a gap year?

Before making a decision about whether or not to take a gap year, students should ask themselves these important questions, and weigh up the pros and cons.

Once they’re sure they’re making an informed decision – for the right reasons – it’s time to think about what they’ll do during their gap years.

Of course, this year the options might be a little different. But don’t worry! There are still lots of beneficial activities students can pack into a 2021 gap year.

For the most part, a truly valuable gap year will have at least one of these pillars at its core:

  1. Earning money and/or professional development
  2. Education/self-development
  3. Philanthropy
  4. Travel

By focusing on one or more of these areas, students will have something really compelling to talk about in university or job applications.

Before making any decisions about what they’ll do, students should map out which of these four pillars will be most important (it can be all four!). They should then note down some definable goals for each, and practical ways they’ll work towards them.

For example, it might be perfecting the pluperfect in French. Or maybe they want to produce an hour-long documentary on local butterflies, exhibiting certain videography techniques. Whatever their ambitions, having them organised and recorded will multiply their chances of success.

Gap year activities to earn money and/or professional development

Before embarking on (often expensive) higher education, many students hope to save a little money. Some students might choose to simply get a job and save up for the duration of their gap year. Others might focus on developing skills specifically related to their industry of choice to increase their employability after graduation.


One popular gap year option is interning. While an internship in a field related to students’ chosen subject or profession will impart the specific hard skills and experiences required, all internships teach students transferable – and valuable – soft skills, and demonstrate a strong work ethic and a desire to learn and grow. These are impressive qualities for admissions officers and employers!

What’s more, internships can be a great opportunity to learn more about an industry, giving students the chance to explore whether it’s the right fit for them. Plus, they’re a chance to network and form valuable connections.

Still, there are a few things students should be aware of. Firstly, not all internships are made equal: some employers use them as a chance to get menial tasks done. Students should look for internships which focus on the intern’s development and education.

Secondly, the geographic concentration of some internships can be an obstacle. For example, most publishing internships in the UK are in London. That could mean students have to pay to travel to and from the city, and consider the expense of renting accommodation.

Virtual internships

It’s worth noting that any students hoping to carry out an internship in their 2021 gap year will have more virtual opportunities than ever. In fact, there are whole organisations dedicated to providing these, like Virtual Internships.

Virtual internships share the benefits of in-person ones, while avoiding the obstacles of cost and geography, so they can be a good option for many students.

However, as we’ve learnt this past year, it can also be quite difficult to work remotely! Especially for students who have never worked in a professional environment, they might find it challenging to complete their training, volunteer their opinions, or make meaningful connections with peers and supervisors.

Passion projects

Gap years can be a wonderful opportunity for students to explore things they’ve always been passionate about, but not had the time to commit to fully. For students who want to develop professionally, but don’t want the rigid timetable or predetermined focus of an internship, a passion project is a great option.

Some things examples of potential projects include:

  • Starting a jewellery line
  • Writing a literary blog
  • Launching a YouTube channel
  • Creating a photography portfolio
  • Founding a communal allotment in their local community

Aside from hard skills, focusing on one project demonstrates entrepreneurship, dedication, self-motivation, creativity and many other desirable qualities. Plus, university and job applications can sometimes become generic to those reading them day in day out. A passion project is a great way to stand out from the crowd and show students’ individuality!

However, if making money is an important part of their gap year plans, a passion project won’t necessarily promise a steady income.

Gap year activities focusing on education

Avid learners can dedicate their 2021 gap year to education! There are so many different approaches, it needn’t feel like a continuation of school.

Subject-specific programmes

One route students can take is to embark on educational programmes related to their subject of interest. From medicine to journalism, there are plenty of opportunities for students to get stuck into their chosen discipline.

Another option for international students could be taking a foreign language programme, either in their home country or in the country they are hoping to study in after their gap year.

Pre-college training

There are also courses dedicated to training students in the practical skills which higher education will demand. Many are online, so students can take part from anywhere. They’re also typically shorter – around 3-6 weeks, and as little as 3 hours per week. That makes them a good option for students with a spare month or two in their gap years, or who want to fit them in alongside part-time or full-time work or internships.

As they’re shorter, these programmes are often more affordable, especially as
accommodation and travel don’t need to be budgeted.


Free online courses

If your students want to study without the cost, there are countless options for free online learning – Harvard University alone offers over 600 free online courses.

The huge number and variety means every student is bound to find something interesting, and might even discover fields they had never considered! A free course could genuinely shape their next steps. Plus, the academic curiosity they’ll demonstrate is appealing to admissions officers.

Because many of these courses are self-paced, they can be fitted in alongside other gap year activities. Best of all, they’re free and online – so no budgetary concerns!

However, this comes at the cost of interaction with instructors and fellow students.


Philanthropic gap year activities

One very popular option for gap year students is volunteering. Of course, volunteering can take many different forms, for the most part, there are benefits which any philanthropic effort offers.

Usually, volunteering involves developing some kind of skill. It could be manual labour, like building (which also demonstrates endurance, perseverance, teamwork…). Or it might be more intellectual, such as teaching. There are plenty of things in the middle too – learning first aid is both hands-on and theoretical.

Volunteering also often involves travel. But for students contemplating 2021 gap years, it’s important to note that there are plenty of volunteering opportunities in their home countries.

In fact, for students who might be clinically vulnerable or particularly anxious about COVID-19, there are even voluntary schemes which can be done remotely. Check out our examples below…


  • Conservation and/or animal welfare (at home or abroad)
  • Teaching (at home, abroad or virtually)
  • Telephone companionship for the elderly or vulnerable (a remote opportunity!)
  • Become an ambassador or campaigner for a cause close to their hearts. Again, this could be done entirely virtually!

Organisations where students can begin their search for volunteering opportunities include BUNAC (which advertises 100% refunds if COVID-19 restrictions force cancellations) and Go Overseas, which offers virtual volunteering. Obviously, there are countless causes and organisations, so students have no lack of options!

The classic gap year pursuit: travel

Obviously, travel this year will be a little different. But it’s still a viable option! And while simply taking a holiday might not be the most compelling addition to an application, most travel does involve self-development. It can show independence, curiosity, teamwork – all kinds of useful qualities.

And, of course, lots of the examples we covered above can also incorporate travel, giving students a double whammy.

The key takeaway: students have options

The most important thing to bear in mind is that gap years come in all kinds of different shapes. Any knee-jerk reactions about whether a gap year is right for a particular student should be quieted – at least until they’ve had a chance to consider their plans.

Even with the slightly different circumstances students face this year, there are countless way that they can make their gap year productive, valuable and enjoyable!

And for students who are still undecided about their next steps – whether they’ll take a gap year or dive straight into higher education – we have loads of useful tools. Finding their perfect university course can really focus students’ gap years. It might even get them so excited they can’t wait to get stuck in!

To make sure every student finds their best fit, download the guide by clicking the button below.

Free eBook:  Helping Students Find Their University Match

Help focus students’ gap years by ensuring they’ll be headed to their perfect courses after their break with in-class activities and actionable advice.