A yearlong break from your education, especially between high school and college but possible at any point in life, often to serve and gain practical experience.

  • GAP year introduction
  • How do I take a gap year?
  • Student perspectives
  • A parent's perspective
  • An educator's perspective
  • Read more

“So, what are you going to do when you graduate?”
If you’re a high school senior, you’ll probably have heard that question 882 times by your graduation day. (3 times a day from September to May, and 15 times at every family gathering.) Guess you’d better have a good answer.

What if you took a gap year?

Why take a gap year?

Gain perspective and confidence

"... getting involved in different types of learning experiences, such as international volunteering, gives young people the opportunity to gain perspective and confidence, develop foreign language skills and, at the same time, give back to the world. The benefit of a gap year is that students tend to begin the next step in their education determined to tackle their studies with greater focus and maturity." — "Time Out: The Value of a Gap Year," Northwestern MutualVoice Team

"My first day of college classes! I admit to feeling quite unprepared for returning to school. But this morning I realized, 'Psh, I've lived in another country. This is nothing!'" — Emily Good, 2015–2016 Kenya YES team member
Gain understanding and skills

In a 2013 study of 280 gap-year students done by Ethan Knight, the students were asked about the benefits of taking a year off. Three responses showed up most frequently:

  • Gaining a better sense of who I am as a person and what is important to me
  • Gaining a better understanding of other countries, people, cultures and ways of living
  • Gaining additional skills and knowledge that contributed to my career or academic major

Gain spiritual depth and life direction

For followers of Jesus, taking a gap year for discipleship in mission can be a great way to simultaneously go deeper with Jesus and serve the world in ways that extend the kingdom of God. Taking an intentional year off from school can actually propel you into solidifying your identity in Christ and set you up to make the most of your college experience. It's a time to risk asking who God wants you to be and what God wants you to do with your one precious life.

 

 

Fears that a gap year will interfere with attending the college of your choice are understandable but unfounded. Many colleges and universities believe that gap year experiences are valuable!

 


 
Follow these easy steps:

  • Apply to colleges.
  • Once admitted, call the college to request a deferment (putting something off until a later time, usually one year later in the case of college admission). Most admissions offices gladly grant deferment.
  • Identify your goals and find a gap year option that matches your personal interests.
  • Check out EMM's short-term programs here. They are strong gap year options.

Katie Rutt

serves on a short-term assignment to Honduras.

Q: Why did you decide to take a gap year?
A: It was a combination of things, really. I pushed myself very hard in high school and I was feeling a little academically burned out, so I wanted to take a break from the books for a bit. I also really wanted to work on my relationship with God. Some things had happened in the past couple years that I needed space to process and to really seek God’s will for me in those areas.

Q: What do you hope to gain from the experience?
A: I hope to gain a deeper understanding of God and his love. I also want to become as fluent as possible in Spanish and to have a new appreciation for life and different cultures.

Q: How is the experience changing you?
A: I’ve realized how self-centered I am without knowing it. When I first got here, I assumed that everyone who spoke English thought in English. I have no idea why, but I did. I’m also learning how to process things on the fly and to be able to make games out of nothing, when we need to keep the children occupied but don’t have any supplies.

Q: What new ideas and skills do you hope to take into your next stage of life? How will these help you in the future?
A: When I return, I’ll be studying occupational therapy and I’m really hoping to work with kids one day. I’m very thankful for the chance to learn about how a different culture views children, and I hope to apply that to my work in the future. The language will also help since there are many Spanish-speaking families in the U.S. I’m also learning how to be more flexible. I love routine, and so not always knowing what is going to happen each day can be stressful to me, but I’m learning how to roll with the punches. That will help me later because I’ll be able to think more quickly about things and respond to changes differently than I would have before.

Q: How do you hope learning Spanish will affect your future?
A: I hope I’m able to connect with people on a different level using my Spanish. There really is nothing like hearing your mother tongue in a foreign country. I hope to work with a lot of Spanish speakers in my job and to help them feel more comfortable.

Quentin Clapper

took a 2014 – 2015 gap year with EMM in Kenya.

Q: Why did you decide to take a gap year?
A: I was planning to attend university this past fall, but during my K-team experience with EMM last summer, God spoke to me through my youth leader and an EMM intern about taking a gap year. I talked with God and my parents about the opportunity and decided to delay college.

Q: How has your gap year experience changed you?
A: I know more clearly when God is talking to me. I have learned patience and trusting God. I am better at valuing people and connecting with them.

Q: What new ideas or skills will you take with you into college as a result of your gap year experience?
A: I will take the skill of listening to God for His will in my life and use it to the best of my ability. I now understand the difference between being a disciple and just a Christian. With this, I hope to influence my generation to leave the domesticated church and live out their faith in a way more like the original followers of Jesus did.

Hadassah Stoltzfus

took a 2014 – 2015 gap year with EMM in Chile.

Q: Why did you decide to take a gap year?
A: As I was graduating from high school, I had a pretty good idea of what and where I wanted to study. However, I decided to take a gap year to “expand my horizons” a bit and experience a different culture. I saw an EMM opportunity to teach English in Chile, and I hoped to get some real-life experience before getting a degree. I was also hoping the experience would give me an idea of whether or not long-term missions would be for me.

Q: How has your gap year experience changed you?
A: At the start of my gap year, I did not think I had many expectations. I thought I was simply doing the program to serve God and learn whatever it was He wanted to teach me. I realize now that I subconsciously thought going to a different country would be a bit more of a dramatic, exciting experience than it was, and that I would surely feel fulfilled and joyful, as I would be dedicating almost a year to “service.” In reality, we did not have as much to do as I expected, and I spent long periods of time examining my life and my relationship with God. I realized I was not as open to what He had for me as I had thought, and that surrender is a hard pill to swallow. I learned that serving God can look different than doing work with tangible results and does not necessarily lead to always feeling fulfilled and joyful. Sometimes you cannot see the results of what you are doing or what God’s plan is in all of it, and God is silent. It’s hard. But God is still good, Jesus is still worth it, and I am learning to believe that God’s plan is bigger than what I am capable of seeing.

Q: What new ideas or skills will you take with you into college as a result of your gap year experience?
A: Due to constantly being surrounded by Spanish, I now know what it is like to feel completely isolated because of a language barrier, to feel left out because no one will talk slowly enough for me to understand. After experiencing this, I hope to be more inclusive of people for whom English might be a second language, or who simply have a hard time fitting in.

Daryl and Gina Beiler reflect on their experience of walking with three of their daughters who decided to take gap years.

My wife, Gina, and I try very hard to stay connected with each of our children. We knew that our daughters Mallory, Allison, and Sadie had all taken very heavy course loads in high school and had worked very hard, and we felt it was important for each of them to have a break from school. None of the three really knew what they wanted to do next; they were looking at colleges but weren’t finding great fits. Each of them individually then came up with the idea of doing missions for a year, and they came to us saying that this was what they felt God calling them to.

When they presented their ideas to us, my gut reaction was, “Why do you want to do this?!” But I caught myself immediately and recognized that they were seeking to do God’s will, and that this is a good thing. I particularly hate saying goodbye, so it’s very hard to send our children out. I have many mixed emotions. To other parents in this situation: I’ll cry with you and pray with you! But it’s also a gift to welcome them home again. God has been good. Our hope as parents is that they will be able to reflect on these experiences for the rest of their lives.

It was especially hard to send Allison, because she was headed to Nairobi, Kenya, just at the time of the Westgate Mall attacks there. Mallory had come home from Kenya just two days prior, and in fact she regularly went to a café at the Westgate Mall for her downtime. We had to trust God for our children’s safety in new ways.

It’s important to know your child well, and work to stay connected. We tried our best to be there with and for them, and to not force our way on them. We feel especially glad that our children were able to make these decisions on their own; missions wasn’t an idea we pushed them into, but they came to us and said they felt a need to do it. God has answered our prayers that they would take their spiritual lives seriously. It wasn’t easy for us to allow them to go overseas, but we felt it was best for these three. Every family, and every child, is different. I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that this is best for every child; I’m not sure if it’ll be the right thing for all six of our children. But for these three, it fit with who they are and what they needed.

After Mallory came home from Kenya, Lancaster Bible College’s missions classes drew her. She’s focusing on the missions curriculum, and she’s preparing to go to Macedonia with a group on spring break. I believe she’ll be involved with missions in one way or another for the rest of her life. Our fourth daughter, Natalie, is also considering how to combine missions with her medical pursuits.

Their time in missions gave our daughters space from schoolwork, and it gave them real-life experience. It didn’t force them to make immediate decisions about the rest of their lives. We encouraged them to take the time and be present, see what it’s really like in these other places, get to know themselves, and expand their horizons. After they came home and went through re-entry, then they could start to make decisions about the future and discern where God was leading.

Daryl and Gina Beiler are the parents of Ross, Mallory, Allison, Sadie, Natalie, and Heidi. Mallory, Allison, and Sadie have served on gap year assignments with EMM in Kenya and Southeast Asia.

High School administrator, J. Richard Thomas, discovers the strengths of students who take a gap year.

“A wise person changes his/her mind, but a fool never does.” This is one of many sayings that I recall from my parents. It continues to guide me and helps me better understand life. Not all mind changes indicate wisdom, but neither is it wise to refuse to be open to the spirit, conversations with others, or personal observation.

A recent mind change for me has been my move from opposing a gap year between high school and college to supporting a gap year for many students. This break between high school and college has long been a tradition in Europe, and there has been a 20% increase in the number of students in the U.S. taking a gap year between 2006 and 2014.

Gap year benefits

Data is showing that “gap year students” demonstrate improved academic performance and experience easier job placement upon graduation. In addition, they:

  • Overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs after college
  • Have a better sense of who they are as persons
  • Have a better understanding of other countries, people, and ways of living
  • Have additional skills and knowledge that contribute to their academic major and career
  • Report that a gap year had an impact on their academic major and career

Forbes Magazine says that “many of the benefits of taking a gap year are difficult to quantify: maturity, confidence, and a refined sense of direction.” Ethan Knight of the American Gap Association says that a gap year helps students to answer questions about themselves and to define what success looks like to them.

I began to rethink the gap year as I worked with international students at Lancaster Mennonite High School, and also as I observed other students for many years. I realized that an extra year before college can be beneficial for success in college and beyond.

More than just a year off

A gap year needs to be more than just a year off between high school and college. It needs to be planned to take the student beyond his/her comfort zone, to include time away from home (often in another country), and to involve service and spiritual growth. EMM offers a faith-based gap year experience that includes holistic personal growth and being a witness to the way of Jesus Christ in our world. It is gratifying to see our church agencies provide Anabaptist faith-infused gap year programs that lead to self-understanding, adventure, and growth in maturity and in the way of Jesus.

During the past 10 years, 29 LMH graduates have spent a gap year serving through short-term EMM programs. Other graduates have served in programs such as Radical Journey (Mennonite Mission Network), SALT (Mennonite Central Committee), and YWAM (Youth With a Mission) discipleship training schools.

Katie Rutt, a member of the LMH class of 2015, is taking a gap year serving with EMM in Honduras. I believe this will build on her LMH experience and equip her for success in college and career because of the proven benefits of the gap year experience.

So — although 15 years ago I discouraged a gap year, now I encourage students and parents to consider this experience through one of our church agencies’ programs.

Dick Thomas serves as superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School. He enjoys observing the transformation of lives brought about by a Christ-centered educational community.

A Biblical perspective

“ ... immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (Matthew 4:22)

Although taking a gap year is becoming more common, it might still be considered an unconventional next step. But if you feel called to spend a year outside the usual cycles of work and formal education, don’t worry! Sometimes God’s calling in our lives takes us beyond the “normal,” and that’s okay. For some examples of disciples being called to serve outside the boundaries of regular life, read Matthew 4:12-25, Matthew 25:35-40, Mark 10:17-31, James 2:14-17, and Acts 13.

Advice from colleges

“We attempt to be flexible and supportive, and we regularly have students who take a gap year before beginning their studies. We encourage them to go through the admissions and financial aid process prior to their gap year so that they know these details and don’t have to handle all of the paperwork during their gap year (especially when they are living internationally). We also work with students who choose to take a gap year during their four years (instead of beforehand).”
— Jason Good, director of admissions at Eastern Mennonite University

Hesston is “so supportive of gap years that we are willing to hold scholarships for persons choosing to take a gap year. Many of our students have taken a gap year either prior to Hesston or between Hesston and their bachelor’s degree institution. Students can defer their financial aid package (institutional aid) for one year. Their acceptance is also held for a year.” 
— Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, vice president of admissions and financial aid at Hesston College

“We will defer a student’s enrollment for up to two years without him needing to reapply, should he choose not to head directly to college after high school. For students who pursue a gap year mission opportunity that will take them away from home, we recommend that they complete as much of the college application process as possible before they go. It is just logistically easier to navigate the admissions process when a student is still plugged into his high school guidance office.”
— Michael Dziedziak, undergraduate admissions at Eastern University

To defer enrollment at Messiah College, a student “needs to notify her admissions counselor and we can code her for deferment. Everything then freezes and stays the same for her for the next fall as long as she doesn’t take any college credits after high school.”
— Shayna Reichert, admissions counselor at Messiah College

Find out what educators and others have to say about taking a gap year.