To gap or not to gap…that is the question. The decision of whether or not to take a gap year after finishing High School is a big one. Everyone has opinions on it, and how best to fill the time. Ultimately it needs to be a well thought out, practical and personal decision for the learner. As the saying goes, ‘adulting is hard’, and this may be a learner’s first major adult decision. While progressing to tertiary education has historically been the ‘default’ for many finishing school, in the current climate and generation, this is no longer necessarily the case.

What is a gap year?

A gap year is typically considered to be when, after finishing secondary education (high school), the progression to tertiary education is delayed (by a year). This is particularly the case if further study is intended. A gap year, however, can also relate to taking a break in between any stage of study (i.e. between undergrad and postgrad) or even sometimes employment (such as switching jobs or careers).

Why take a gap year?

The reasons why people choose to take a gap year are numerous and varied. I personally took a gap year because I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to study. I wanted to use the time to investigate my options a bit and look into courses as I chose not to do this during the stresses of the matric year. On top of that I was a bit jaded from all the studying and wanted to experience something different from the school routine of being in class, doing homework, studying and then being examined. That being said, there was always an understanding that I would, after a year, return for some kind of further education and get a qualification. I know plenty of people who simply wanted to continue studying or were sure that they wouldn’t be able to return to a ‘schooling’ routine after a year off. Below are for reason why people may decide to take a gap year.


  • Many take a gap year because they didn’t get into their desired degree. This could be because they applied too late or the course was full before they had their appropriate results. Maybe they didn’t take the NBT or SAT seriously enough and failed to attain the results they needed. Sometimes people use the time to retake a particular exam in an effort to better their mark to achieve a specific entry requirement.
  • Some learners are unsure if they wish to continue onto tertiary education. These people may use a gap year to see if a dream they want to pursue without fsmartphone on a map showing evolution of navigationurther study is achievable.
  • Many school leavers want to pursue their wanderlust and travel a bit and experience different things, places, and cultures. This is, however, heavily finance dependent.
  • Linked to then previous point is the fact that some people take gap years in order to work and make money to finance their desire to study further. Most people cannot afford to just attend tertiary education without financial assistance. A gap year can be used to generate finances to contribute to fees, or to provide an ‘allowance’ to live off of while studying if your tuition is covered. the money made on a gap year can also be used to fund a long desired travel adventure that would have been impossible if you had gone straight into further education

We move on now to look at some of the pros and cons of ‘gapping it’, as well as some considerations for if you are planning on studying further

Gap year opportunities

There are many benefits to taking a gap year. You can use the year to work (in some way) in the field you are thinking of studying towards or just gain solid experience in the general workspace. This will allow you to generate an income. An income can be used to simply fund your lifestyle or holidays during your gap year, or it can be saved to be used to assist with fees or even just as an investment. This will obviously be dependent upon your particular circumstances.

A gap year allows you to experience the world in a very different way to what you would have during your years of schooling. The time can be used for self-discovery, and trying things that the school lifestyle did not accommodate.

Ways to fill the gap in SA

It is generally considered dangerous to take a gap year without a clear plan for the year. A constructively planned year is vital to a gap year being worthwhile. There are many local options to fill the year, as well as common international ones.

Local options

One can use some of the time to volunteer with various charities or organisations (especially if making money isn’t vital). Many people use the year to take extra short courses such as CELTA (or any accredited TEFL course), learning a language or dance, or just learning skills associated with your desired field of study. Open source resources such as Coursera offer free university courses, many of which come with some type of certification. One could also use the time to learn a skill or trade (such as carpentry or leather-working) that the pressure of a school schedule doesn’t allow.

You could also choose to find some type of temporary employment in the field that you are attracted to. This could be through part-time work, but more and more internships are being offered. An internship is usually unpaid but offers valuable insight into the world you may be entering. The South African government has ordered local governments to increase the internship opportunities offered to young South Africans. More details can be found here.

International options

Many learners choose to apply for programs that place them as an Au pair, camp counselor or sends them to work on yachts around the world. I have personally known people who have done all of these. These programs usually require applicants to have some skills or qualifications, so a period of training or gaining experience may be required

One last thing to remember if you are looking at gap year opportunities in the northern hemisphere is that unlike ours, their academic year runs from September to September. Thus programs may only start in the September of your first year out of school and would only end towards the end of the following year. Thus you would effectively need to be prepared to take 2 gap years.

Gap year warningsrailway sign to mind the gap

There are many traps to be careful you do not fall into on a gap year. As already mentioned,

it is vital to make sure your year is productive and structured. There is nothing to be gained by lounging around at home or the beach all year (besides a tan).

It is also important to be sure that your parents are on board with your gap year plans – especially if it requires them funding you. If you are going to be earning money you must chat with them about things like paying rent or contributing to expenses in some way. A gap year isn’t about delaying the responsibilities of tertiary education and graduating into the world. It’s about learning who you are and learning the responsibilities associated with your new ‘adult’ status.

You should also consider the fact that your friends (if not taking a gap year) will be ahead of you in their studies, and that those you are studying with will be – for the most part – a year younger than you.

To be honest, once you leave school, age distinctions become less important.

Some people in your year might be many years older than you. Many may have done a year in another degree first and then switched. Life outside of school is not as clear cut and regimented as schooling can be. It is something to consider though if you think it will bother you being behind your friends.

Gap years and returning to study

If you choose to gap it, and you are planning on returning to study further, there are a few things you must do first. You must check if your particular course or department accepts deferred placements (i.e, you apply in 2016 but tell them you only want to start studying in 2018). If they are happy with deferred placements, then you must make it clear in your application that your intention is to take a gap year and to only take up your place a year later.

It is important to check if your chosen course is biased against those who may lose skills (such as mathematics/science) over a year. Those not taking a gap year still have all their matric studying crammed into their heads. After a gap year, your trigonometry or organic chemistry may be a bit rusty. It always helps to visit your chosen department (if possible – if not use email) and speak to them about the implications of a gap year and what you may need to do to ensure your acceptance or to prepare yourself for the course.

If you are not deferring your placement but rather planning on applying during your gap year, make sure you know when the application dates are for universities and funding.

With all this being said remember that the decision about taking a gap year if first and foremost about you. Don’t be influenced by what your friends are doing.So much changes once you leave school, and you need to feel comfortable and happy with the path you choose.

Listen to advice, talk to your parents, older siblings and family friends.

However, ultimately make sure that a decision to take a gap year is well researched and informed, and right for you. It’s your future – embrace it.

This article was originally published on 08 Nov 2016

About the author
Jax Heilgendorff

I have watched the development of for years and marveled at the ingenuity and passion shown from the start. As a Linguistics major, university lecturer and burgeoning copywriter, the Advantage Learn story is one close to my heart. I hope to add to the development of educational thinking in South Africa by helping to relate topics and create spaces for thought on the challenges and opportunities facing South African learners, students, and parents.

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