Gap years are a bit foreign to us as Americans. Traditionally, we go from high school to college to employment. Perhaps we’ll switch career paths, moving laterally instead of up the ladder. Maybe we’ll decide to start a family, giving up work to raise children until we feel we’re ready to return.
Or, we’ll love our first job so much we stay there until we retire -- a “lifer,” as they’re called, and as far as millenials go, a near extinct species.
But elsewhere, it’s customary for young adults to be offered a bit more flexibility when it comes to moving between milestones. In Europe and Australia, a gap year is an exploratory year (or more often, less than a year -- 70 percent of “gappers” only take one semester off) where you’re encouraged to travel, dabble in your proposed career direction through an internship, volunteer, or, simply delay university.
After 12 years of curricula, a year on your own provides valuable experience to get your head out of the academic game and into a real life arena. You’ll get to know yourself a bit better, determine whether those likes, interests and potential professional pursuits are indeed your own (or those bestowed on you), and think more seriously (or not so seriously) about what your next step will be. If you’ve used your gap year wisely, throwing yourself into a variety of experiences to both shape who you are or bring clarity to who that is, then you can emerge from the 12-month pseudo-sabbatical with clearer direction.
It makes sense.
But Stateside, less so. The idea of delaying college by a year, or taking a year off in the midst of pursuing a degree, is fearsome AF. We’ve been nurtured as a society to emphasize professional success (spend some time examining why, or just blame our Protestant work ethic roots). Either way, joining the workforce as a skilled, highly paid intellectual is top priority.
It’s no surprise few students take the leap and take the gap year. But, if you’ve been throwing around the idea of traveling the world or volunteering abroad before you become enmeshed in the corporate sphere, consider these counter arguments.
You’re scared you’ll lose your edge, ability to write research papers, test-take or more.
If you’re sitting in your parents basement for a year binging on Netflix, you bet. But if you’re actively engaged in personal growth, traveling, developing skill sets, trying on a variety of occupations for size through internships, shadowing, and informational interviews, you’re keeping your brain in the game. In fact, you’re doing more for your mental health -- by experiencing new learning situations and growing in unfamiliar circumstances, your brain creates and strengthens new neural synapses (in a sense making you smarter, more resilient and more versatile).
You’ll lose the momentum to continue your education.
If you think it’s a possibility you’ll flake out on college if you don’t enter immediately, defer entry. While applying for schools, check to see if after admission you’ll be able to delay your entry. Here’s a list of schools considered gap-friendly that allow you to do so either after admittance or while applying. Go through the usual hoops of visiting schools, applying to several, and gaining and accepting admittance -- but then mark your calendar for when you’d like to kick off classes, and stick to it.
You’re near graduation and concerned you’ve missed the boat.
While gap year in the traditional sense is the year between high school and college, it can be anytime (and anything) you want. Post-grad, try planning your travel or alternative year for as long as your budget allows -- and then some, leaving at least 3 months on return to apply and interview for jobs. Or, focus on finances first: after graduation, work for a couple of years before taking some time between occupations to explore other interests or go traveling. And if you’re keen to simply stay on schedule, hit the usual milestones and meet graduation, try looking at each three-month summer break or one-month winter vacay as an opportunity to do a mini gap experience.
That’s fair. If looming student debt and your measly pay stub from your part-time gig have you thinking you’ll never afford time not spent working (or in continuing education), you’ll have to think creatively and start saving. Opportunities exist that cost little or less than what you’d pay to simply travel through volunteering internationally (try VolunteerAbroad, TeachAbroad or WOOFing) or consider giving a dedicated, longer amount of time to an organization (try the PeaceCorps, TeachAmerica or City Year). Or, see what’s available within a drivable radius from home or school. Zeros in the bank account and you’re surrounded by cornfields and small towns? Find opportunities at your desk and on your laptop, doing remote work or learning digital languages. Code camps and free online classes in software, SEO and more mean you can set yourself up to earn money flexibly, while developing highly sought after digital skill sets.
You’re scared you’ll end up aimless.
Easy. Give yourself a deadline and put a plan in place for your return or academic re-entry. Whether or not you think you’ll end up wanting to pursue an MBA after four months of living in hostels, aim to pursue that track until you’re certain it doesn’t fit. Make your plans concrete and insert accountability, so your mind can’t play tricks on you halfway through your backpacking trip through Central America where you find yourself convinced that you’re better off dedicating your life to slinging drinks at a beach bar in Costa Rica. Set goals for your gap break as well, creating expectations for what you hope to accomplish and holding yourself to it.
If you’re still having doubts, check out the Gap Year Association, an organization dedicated to encouraging gap years, chock full of resources to help you plan your best experience.