Gap Semester or Gap Year?

Author name
Jennifer Agor, Assistant Director, Duke Career Center
Very funny 2020!

The world has thrown yet another wrench into 2020.  As you examine your options for the Fall semester, you may be thinking about taking a gap semester or gap year, until you can be back on campus.  We suggested many of these experiences for the Spring, so it may sound familiar, but there are lots of ways to make best use of a few months leave.

First of all, check out the process for Trinity or Pratt, as it pertains to your situation. Make sure you’ve considered impacts on visas, insurance, course planning and financial aid.

See this article on potential ideas for a meaningful gap year, despite the limitations of the COVID-19 world.

This excerpt from NBC News outlines thing to think about to make a meaningful experience:

Here are four steps to help students from all backgrounds and income levels design a meaningful gap year in the time of the coronavirus:

  1. Follow your heartbreak: There’s no shortage of pain and suffering in the world. Identify the cause that strikes a nerve you can’t ignore — it might be disparities in public health or education, structural racism or the climate crisis — and turn toward it. The thing that breaks your heart is the thing you must do something about. Today, there are more creative ways to engage virtually than ever before — whether you’re doing real-time translation to help refugees get medical support or making videos to drive voter registration. And as shelter-in-place orders ease in coming months, there will be ample ways to support relief and repair efforts in communities at home and around the world. If you let go of the daunting task of “finding a passion” and instead follow the thread of your curiosity, it may well lead to a calling.
  2. Define your questions: For the first time in your life, you have the chance to take the wheel and drive your own education. Get explicit about what you most want to learn. Make two lists of questions to answer. The first is about yourself: What gets you up in the morning when there’s no alarm clock? Who are you when you’re outside your comfort zone? What (truly) makes you happy? The second list has the questions you have about the world around you. Questions like: Why is inequality growing, despite unprecedented prosperity? What’s the role of the government in driving social change? How can we stop the next pandemic?
  3. Find your teachers. Based on the things you want to learn, identify what — and who — can help. Teachers take many forms. They might be old or young, traditionally “successful” or not. Follow the tug toward people whose wisdom and clarity awaken your sense of possibility, and help you become your best self. Make them a part of your curriculum, and invite them to help you answer your questions as mentors, guides and coaches.
  4. Recruit a crew. Identify peers you want to travel alongside and learn from on this journey. They may be kids you know from high school, or others who share your interests and convictions. Connect regularly to share your goals, triumphs and struggles, and to hold each other accountable. Commit to support each other from start to finish. You aren’t alone, you’ll be accompanied by more students than ever before who are facing a shared disruption.

Making the most of this year doesn’t require family connections or expensive travel; it requires intention, agency and commitment. None of the steps above need to cost money, and all of them leave time to find a paying job or internship for those who need to support themselves, or others, this year.
See the full article in

If you decide that time away from Duke is the way to go, we have tried to cover a wide range of experiences and majors below to give you some other ideas on how to gain experiences and skills.


  • Here is a pretty comprehensive list of ways to learn the basics of data science from Free Code Camp. While the options presented here might require payment, you might be able to find similar courses and information on LinkedIn Learning or Coursera through Duke OIT.


  • Practice your coding skills with online programs like Leetcode and Hackerrank or texts like Cracking the Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell. These resources help you practice (and learn) coding and will also help you prepare for interviews in the fall. 
  • Use Google’s Tech Dev Guide to grow your tech skills.  Walking through 4 separate paths of learning curated by Googlers and university faculty, you will find resources, practice problems and other ways to do some self-directed learning.
  • Learn how things work.  Build a computer, or take one apart and put it back together.  Learn how to troubleshoot issues.  Some of the foremost techies have said working at a HelpDesk was the most informative and important work they did in college.
  • Create an app or website to address a Duke community issue or a personal issue.  If you don’t know how to do this, take a LinkedIn Learning course (free to Duke students!) about Java, Python, website creation and user experience.
  • Reach out to local companies who might have app, database or website needs and see if you can be of assistance.  Particularly at non-profit organizations or start-ups, they may welcome the cheaper/free labor.
  • Work on early stage open source code where you can make a serious contribution to the project.  This looks great on a resume if you are able to show how you influenced and manipulated the code. Learn to document, especially so others can understand how to pick up from where you left off.
  • Clean up your Github (or create one!).  Make sure your history shows you working continuously on projects, not just one-off experiences that you rarely touch.  Make sure your projects work and that there are instructions for how to make it work that are easily understandable.
  • Another Git option is GitHub Pages  Essentially this is a really simple way to create your own portfolio web page.


  • If you have access to computer programs (and can potentially download many from Duke OIT), practice your design work in CAD or Solidworks.  Being able to show your experience with the design process, from inception to prototype, is critical. Learning to test, redesign and retest and being able to discuss these things in an interview can really help employers put your design skills into context.
  • Check out the I&E opportunities page and DukeList.  Often companies who need design work will post projects here to find students who can help.
  • Build something. Design furniture, a puzzle box, a musical instrument or some other project easily created with wood or other things you can get at the hardware store. Draw out plans (maybe using design software), create a budget and materials list, then build whatever it is.


You are living through a historical moment in time.  Obviously, this doesn’t have to be what you write about, but if you need inspiration, think about ways to document your experience, as well as others’.

  • Blog writing is a great way to keep your written communication skills sharp and practice story telling. Think about your interests and brainstorm blog themes. Check out Duke’s access to WordPress to get started.
  • Write a book or short story on things you care about or topics of interest to express your creativity and have something to show for it.
  • Become a freelance writer and find opportunities to contribute to blog posts, web content, social posts, videos, white papers, presentations and more. There are several websites that connect companies to freelance writers.
  • Create a personal website or online portfolio to showcase your experience and skills as well as illustrate your work using WordPress or Weebly.
  • Did you know you could publish articles on LinkedIn? Check the top of your home page news feed and click “write an article on LinkedIn.”


  • Create a documentary film about this unprecedented time in your life. Duke OIT offers
  • Locate online teaching or tutoring programs to share your expertise and help students succeed toward their academic goals.
  • Etsy allows you to start your own entrepreneurial, creative project and get experience running a business and selling your products online.
  • Parker Dewey offers micro-internships where companies post short term project work that can be completed virtually. In 20-40 hours, usually within 1 week, you can gain industry experience AND get paid for your work.
  • Research a topic of interest and create a presentation or report to show your findings.  Perhaps interview people about how they are thinking about COVID-19, how the world is changing, and how day-to-day life might shift from this experience.


  • Still trying to figure out what Business is? Dive in through LinkedIn Learning videos and explore not only the foundations of business, but the many areas that fall under this category. What career areas or skills will you pursue further from these trainings?
  • Read, read, read. All business divisions have news outlets, journals, and magazines that provide up to date information for the industry. Interested in Marketing? Read Adweek. Interested in Finance/Consulting/Business? Read the Business section of the Wall Street Journal. Look for publications and blogs on professional association websites too.
  • Have you always had an idea for your own business? Interested in taking on a side hustle? Go for it! Use tools such as LinkedIn Learning and mentors to help you build a plan.


  • Use this time to dive deep and practice case interviewingCase in Point by Marc P. Cosentino is the foremost handbook for case prep, and will give you test problems and walk you through the best ways to find solutions.  There are also numerous resources on firm websites and YouTube. Also, don’t forget to practice with your peers who are also working on this skill. Casing isn’t a solo activity, so practice with others is important!
  • Do you have a particular skill that could help a local business? You can be a consultant. Reach out to local businesses to offer your knowledge for particular projects that they may not have the bandwidth of expertise for.


  • Learn Excel.  Can’t state this strongly enough.  Again, LinkedIn Learning is a great educating tool.  And if you haven’t already got Microsoft Office 365, you can download it from Duke OIT.
  • While you’re probably already familiar, the Duke Financial Economics Center resources are your best friend right now. Check through their extensive list of learning opportunities to really make yourself a strong candidate.
  • Learn about the variety of finance areas. There’s more than just investment banking and sales and trading.
  • Follow the market and stay up to date on everything that’s happening and what it means.  The market is doing extraordinary things right now, records are being set and/or broken. You can gain amazing knowledge that companies will expect you to have thoughts on when things go “back to normal” again.
  • Want to begin investing and understanding the markets? Consider if an investing app is a good choice for you. Look for ones that have a teaching component.

For many, hands-on experience, skills development and time away may be the best answer to Fall 2020 (and maybe beyond). 

What will you do in your time away?