Let’s face it, the closer you get to senior year and graduation, the more you get bombarded with the question, “Where are you going to school next year?” While many students boast their future plans with pride, others dread this question.
If you’re one of the many students delaying or thinking about delaying college, here’s what you should know to have a productive and meaningful gap year or semester.
What Is a Gap Year?
A gap year is a year-long break from formal education, often between high school and college, but it can also be taken between college years or even after graduation before starting a graduate program or beginning your career. People typically use their gap year or semester to travel, volunteer or engage in other meaningful activities before taking their education to the next level.
While it’s very common for students to take a gap year in other parts of the world, like Europe and Australia, interest has significantly grown in the U.S. in recent years. A trend that has been dramatically accelerated by the global pandemic.
What Are the Benefits?
Taking a gap year is much more than taking a year off. You should enter your gap year with goals and a strong sense of what you want to explore and learn. What you do during your gap year will ultimately determine how meaningful it is in your life.
If you’re undecided about a career path, a gap year can help you discover your passion and gain real-world experience before committing to a major. Deferring enrollment for a year may also lead to higher grades later on by giving you time to gain clarity and reset your priorities.
A gap year will also test you in new ways and help you gain skills that you can’t learn in a classroom like financial responsibility, independence, cross-cultural communication and creative problem-solving.
What Are the Risks?
Disclaimer: Gap years are not for everyone! If you are solely motivated by a year off to sit at home and do nothing, then the risks likely outweigh the benefits. It could lead to lost wages due to entering the job market a year later, a lower chance of graduating on time or decreased motivation to transition back to college.
You also need a plan to finance your year, or you’ll risk running out of money. You may need to fundraise, spend half of the year working full-time or adopt a work-hard-play-hard model to split your time. Formal gap year programs and travel can also be expensive, so it’s worth considering how a gap year could affect your finances and whether it makes sense for you.
Before committing to a gap year, you must get approval from your college if you’ve already been accepted. Every college has its own deferral policy, so be sure to approach your college as soon as you’ve decided so there’s time to work through any potential roadblocks.
What Can I Do with My Time?
No matter what you choose to pursue, make your gap year intentional. This doesn’t mean you should plan every moment of the entire year—flexibility is one of the biggest benefits, but students who take a gap year often have at least one specific goal in mind. Do you want to gain professional skills, learn about new cultures or discover your passion? Maybe you even want to become an entrepreneur and bring your DECA project to life?
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach if you’re taking a breather from academics. Everyone’s situation and interests are different, which means certain activities may make sense for one person but not another.
Consider these five options, or combine them to fit your journey of discovery.
Traveling around the globe on a quest for self-discovery will likely not yet be a realistic option for 2021, but there are still many options to safely explore domestically. This is the time to explore and broaden your mind through observing new cultures. Some choose to move to a new city, include several road trips or explore one new city a month.
2. Get a Job and Save Up
Take advantage of your break from academics to find a job and save for your next steps! You might not land your dream job, but internships (hopefully paid), part-time jobs and freelance gigs will all provide you valuable experience that you can apply in your future. Don’t overlook temporary or remote opportunities. Project-based work and short-term projects can get your foot in the door at a company that may be hiring down the road or build your network. Use sites like LinkedIn and Handshake to start your search!
3. Learn a New Skill
A gap year is the perfect chance to learn a new skill or level-up a current one at your own pace. From coding and learning a new language to photography or mastering the TikTok algorithm, the possibilities are endless. If needed, many of these options can also be done from home or while social distancing. Sure, you won’t get course credit, but you can gain a clearer sense of what you do and don’t like, which may influence your future college and career plans.
4. Find Volunteer Opportunities
There are in-person and virtual volunteer opportunities for nearly every interest area and plenty of ways you can use your talents to make an impact. Choosing the right project can be incredibly rewarding as you learn new skills and boost your confidence. Volunteering not only helps others in need, but allows you to explore your passions, and feel great while doing it! You can tackle your own project, expand your DECA Community Awareness or Community Giving Project, find one-off opportunities through VolunteerMatch or take on a full year of service through programs like AmeriCorps, City Year and the Peace Corps.
5. Explore Community College Courses
If you’re looking to get a head start on college, consider taking a class or two through your local community college. Courses are typically significantly less expensive than at a four-year university and often have smaller class sizes. This is a great way to tackle general classes which can expose you to new career interest areas. Plus, you can usually transfer your credits to a four-year college when you’re ready to return.
There is no right or wrong way to spend your gap year, but don’t waste the opportunity! Future employers are bound to question how you spent your time. By setting goals and taking risks during your gap year, you’ll be sure to end up with one-of-a-kind experiences that will make you a stand-out candidate!