7 Ways to Make the Most of Your Gap Year

A gap year is an opportunity to travel, work, volunteer or even just grow up a little. . (Photo: Ser Borakovskyy/Shutterstock)

When I was growing up, if you could afford to go to college, the expectation was that you'd head there immediately after high school. Any delay increased the likelihood that you wouldn't go to college at all.

At the time, I'd never heard of a gap year. I certainly wasn't encouraged to take a year off to figure out what I really wanted to do.

Though it's still a relatively new concept here in the United States, the gap year has been around Europe for decades. It's just what you'd guess; a year-long break between high school and college in which young adults learn new skills, save money, volunteer, travel or just grow up a little before they switch into high gear for college.

My daughter still has a few more years of high school left, but I've already begun encouraging her to think about what to do when she's finished — and that includes taking a gap year if it fits in with her plans.

Gap years are becoming so common now that many colleges and universities encourage them. Harvard, Princeton and Tufts have their own service gap-year programs or are willing to defer enrollment and provide financial packages that include gap-year funding.

Of course, there's a big difference between taking a gap year in which students gain knowledge and experience about the world and their place in it, and a gap year that's less goal-oriented.

Mary Grace Gardner is a former admissions team member at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder of The Young Professionista, a college admissions consultancy. She recommends that young adults who take a gap year dedicate their time to some sort of growth. "The main thing the student should demonstrate is how they challenged themselves during that gap year," said Gardner, adding that students should aim to verbalize what they learned about themselves, the world and their impact on the future.

Want to make the most of your gap year? Here are some helpful tips and resources.

1. Teach English

Surprisingly enough, you don't need a teaching degree or fluency in another language to teach English abroad. And doing so can help you earn money — or pay for room and board — while you immerse yourself in another culture. Check out this post for more information on teaching English during your gap year.

2. Work

You will have plenty of time after college to pursue a career, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look for a job during your gap year to help you sock away a little extra cash. Ideally, you could try a paid internship in the field of your choice. If that isn't possible, any job that helps you learn a skill, make extra money and make connections will help you in the long run.

3. Volunteer

You don't have to be paid for your work for it to add value to your life (and boost your college admissions application). In fact, a gap year is the perfect time to volunteer for a cause that's close to your heart in a field you're interested in.

4. Be a camp counselor

Working at a camp during the summer months of your gap year helps cover your room and board while you learn leadership skills, practice time management and enjoy nature. At some camps, you'll also earn a little extra cash that might help see you through the rest of your year.

5. Travel

If your budget allows, a gap year is the perfect time to see the world. Cultural experiences add to your life and help shape you as a person. But "beware of a gap year that reeks of privilege," says Erin Goodnow, founder and CEO of Going Ivy, a college admissions consulting group. Don't use your gap year as an extended spring break vacation or you'll find yourself a year down the road with nothing to show for it.

6. Start a company

Do you have an idea for a website, a product or a service that you think might take the world by storm? There's no better time than a gap year to take a chance and see what happens. At best, you will have a new focus and the funds to support yourself through college. At worst, you may gain skills and experience in the business world that will help you as you work toward your degree.

7. Learn a new skill

Want to learn how to build an app? Make a stained glass mosaic? Communicate in sign language? Do it during your gap year. Bonus points if your new skill will be useful in your field of interest.