Attending college comes with the expectation that you know what you want to do. While that may be the case for a lucky few, for most of us, career exploration takes time. Completing different courses and engaging in diverse activities are ways to clarify your career goals, but if you seek to stretch yourself, consider taking a gap year working on organic farms, volunteering as a teacher, learning how to become a global health leader, mastering French cuisine or pursuing another opportunity.
Some US universities champion the gap year. For instance, “Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way.” While Harvard lets students determine the details, Princeton University offers a more structured option through its Bridge Year Program. Similarly, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers the Global Gap Year Fellowship Program, a college-sponsored opportunity allowing students to design their own experiences.
Traditionally, students complete a gap year before going to college, but a certain number also take time off during their studies or upon completion of their undergraduate degree. A 2015 National Alumni Survey report released by the Gap Year Association (GAP) indicates that two common components of a gap year are “experiential learning and challenging comfort zones/sacrifice,” and the value ranges from “improving academic outcomes” to “providing clarity and purpose” to “improving earning and business potential.”
Below, I’ve listed three benefits of taking a gap year.
“When you embark on a gap year, you are automatically forced out of your comfort zone and challenged to take on new languages, currencies, transit schedules and cultures, usually on a budget with limited resources,” reflects Anna Fitzgibbon, an experiential education expert and founder of OutGrowth, a venture that connects college students with immersive experiences on organic farms. “The world becomes your own living lab where you get to find out what you're made of, all while you swiftly and thoughtfully make a decision after decision.”
The biggest impact of a gap year is intangible, the skills you cannot necessarily show on a resume: maturity, adaptability, cross-cultural understanding. “For me, living in that space taught me that I am actually really adept at solving solutions creatively under pressure,” adds Fitzgibbon.
In Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, Joseph O'Shea interviews students who’ve taken gap years and identifies changes in their thinking as a significant impact. He confirms that “these experiences led them to develop more expanded conceptions about the world, visions more informed by the world’s complexity and diversity.” Exploring different cultures may help you realize that first impressions and assumptions you hold are not quite what they seem. Consequently, you develop an ability to see issues from different perspectives and become more open and understanding of diverse opinions and situations.
Career Validation, Clarification
In the oft-cited article “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, highlights that many students choose “their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work.” Years later, they find themselves “dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp” instead of being meaningfully employed. A gap year allows for the much-needed time to reflect on your career choice and validate or modify it.
In the 2015 GAP report, 77 percent of surveyed students indicated that the gap year helped them find purpose in life and 84 percent reported that the gap year helped them acquire skills to be successful in their jobs. These findings may explain why 86 percent reported to be satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, in contrast to the national average of less than 50 percent job satisfaction.
“When you are in charge of your stories and experiences, you get a unique opportunity to discover your purpose, and what makes you tick, which can alter the direction of your life and career forever,” says Fitzgibbon. Whether you have a vague idea of what you want to do or are still struggling to find your purpose, a gap year may be the path to career discovery. What’s even better, you may encounter an option you didn’t even know existed and muster the courage to actually pursue it. “I became such a strong advocate for immersive experience following my travels that I knew I would start a business that provides a platform for valuable experiential learning, one that enables others to create their own compelling life stories,” adds Fitzgibbon. “And I did just that.”
Interview Prep, Gainful Employment
At the most basic level, a gap year allows you to enhance your resume with diverse international experience or unique local opportunities. What truly prepares you for the job search process, however, are the stories you bring with you. Stories that reveal you are a round, not a flat character. During the gap year, “you become the writer and narrator of your own story,” says Fitzgibbon. “Taking charge of your life, without the structure of a class schedule or a set work day, is incredibly empowering.” Interview prep is a struggle for many students -- I see that every day in my work as a career coach -- and a gap year can arm you with stories that show employers your maturity, adaptability and passion.
Global Citizen Year (GCY), an organization that connects high school graduates with year-long immersive experiences in India, Brazil, Ecuador and Senegal, informs that top target employers look for candidates with experience living and working abroad. The GCY website highlights that “alumni are finding meaningful work with cross-sector organizations and 85 percent believe their work makes a difference.” GCY’s vision includes training young leaders whom “employers will clamor to hire,” and among the employers hiring GCY alumni are Tesla, JP Morgan, the UN and Google. The success stories of featured program alumni reveal the true power of a gap year.
As appealing as the above three benefits look, finances remain a major obstacle to taking a gap year. Exploring local opportunities may be one way to benefit from a gap year on a low budget, or you could also pursue paid gigs abroad. Some universities, such as Tufts Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and Oberlin, understand the challenge and provide need-based financial support. Also, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program supports undergraduate students who are US citizens and Pell Grant recipients.
If the idea of a gap year sounds appealing, check with your institution to learn about the logistics of taking a year off, especially if you are doing so while working on a degree. Prior to embarking on a gap year adventure, reflect on your motivation to do so. What is the main driver for your pursuit of a gap year? I recommend that you are intentional about the places you visit and the activities you pursue. Traveling can be a learning experience, but if you complement travel with community service or work, you may have a better chance of identifying what works for you.
2. Gap Year Association Accredited Organizations
3. Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), a study abroad nonprofit