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All About Gap and Service Years

Craig Zelizer

June 14, 2017

While gap and service years are becoming more and more common for students who are in between high school and college, they are also becoming more popular with graduating undergraduate students and – in some cases – even with advanced degree graduates.

What Is A Gap Year?

A “gap year” is a year in which students or recent graduates deliberately take a year (give or take a few months) in between life stages and spend that time traveling, volunteering, or pursuing any other number of activities that enhance personal and/or professional development.

Some students find that by the time the complete their degree, they are still unsure as to what types of jobs they want to pursue, and a gap year can be a great way to develop professional skills and interests without hard committing to a particular career path. Alternatively, those who did not get the chance to study abroad while in school might want to take the time to obtain that international experience before settling down into a more traditional work schedule.

What Can I Do During a Gap Year?

A gap year will look different from person to person but should ultimately depend on your personal goals and interests. You can choose to spend the time traveling, interning, volunteering, or pursuing other opportunities that let you develop personal skills (such as language fluency). You have complete control over what your gap year looks like, although smart students will understand that a gap year is not an excuse to spend money lavishly and without a plan.

More and more structured “Gap Year” programs have popped up in the last couple of years, often administered by private or nonprofit organizations. These types of programs often cost a decent amount of money but can provide much-needed structure to a gap year. Many debate the value of these programs, however, and some even make a strong case for specifically avoiding international volunteer opportunities as part of a gap year plan.

Is a Gap Year Right for You?

There are pros and cons to taking a post-college gap year. The most effective gap years are those that are taken strategically and with clearly articulated goals and purpose. The decision to take a gap year is one that should be made after considering a number of factors, such as:

  • Personal Goals - What are you hoping to gain from your gap year experience? Is a gap year a better way to reach these goals versus pursuing full time work? 
  • Career Goals - What professional skills or experiences are you hoping to gain from your gap year experience? How comfortable are you with representing this time on a resume, and how will you talk about it to future employers? 
  • Finances - What is the gap year realistically going to cost? Do you have the funds to support it? What are the financial trade-offs of not working for pay for a whole year?

Learn More About Gap Years:


What is a Service Year?

A “service year” can be considered a type of gap year, although many students choose to pare operative word in the phrase: service. Service years are most often sponsored through government programs (i.e., AmeriCorps, Peace Corps) or can be run through faith-based organizations (i.e., Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services).

Service years can be used as a way for a graduating student to take some time for personal development (as with a more standard “gap year”), or they can be used strategically as a step in building out a career working in international relations, philanthropy, or community-building. Some students may not view their service year as either of these things, however, and merely want to use this time in their lives to contribute to society in a positive or meaningful way.

What Types of Service Year Programs Exist?

Numerous organizations now offer service year programs, from small community-based programs to larger, international programs. Some are run through government agencies while others are run through charitable and/or faith-based organizations. Some of the more popular service year programs are listed below:

Is a Service Year Right for You?

Again, the key word being “service,” your decision to participate in a service year will most likely come down to how much you value the mission of the program and whether the experience that you will gain from participating aligns with your personal and professional development goals. While service year programs do not tend to offer much in regards to financial compensation, they can be ways to get hands-on experience working in new communities or with vulnerable populations, and some programs will provide modest stipends or offer room and board as a form of compensation.

Unlike gap years, which are still a relatively new concept, service year programs (such as the Peace Corps) have a longer-standing reputations as professional development opportunities to pursue, so it is likely that future employers would count the work that you do while serving on one of these programs as work experience. Some employers even have their own or hiring preferences or pipelines for individuals who complete certain government-sponsored service programs.

Learn More About Service Years:

Are there gap or service year programs that you would recommend or that I missed? Let me know in the comments!

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on June 7, 2016

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