Before Starting College, Consider the Benefits of Taking a Gap Year

Before Starting College, Consider the Benefits of Taking a Gap Year

Does the thought of going to college right after high school seem overwhelming? Do you feel pressured to start a degree program but haven’t really decided what you want to study? Students who are unprepared to begin college or do not have a reason that is tied to specific career goals, often lack the focus and motivation necessary to be successful. There is another alternative to consider and that’s taking a gap year – a year away from school that allows you to work, explore your interests, and possibly “find” yourself and discover your life’s purpose in the process. You can make the most of a gap year when you’ve defined the reason for pursuing this option, established a clearly articulated plan, and explored the resources available to find something that matches your interests.

Why You Might Consider a Gap

A gap year is not about taking time for a long awaited vacation. Most gap year programs involve some form of work, even if you travel to international locations. Throughout the process you will develop skills as you experience hands-on learning. Instead of studying theory about the “real” world in college, you’ll be working in that “real” world.

Gain Maturity and Insight

You will likely find that you mature throughout the year and some educators have also discovered that your performance in college will be stronger as a result of this experience. Robert Clagett, former dean of admissions at Middlebury College, said that many high school students have a feeling of “˜now what?’ after graduation, which “can lead to lower achievement and self-esteem” – and gap year programs transform that uncertainty by creating a productive time period.

Meet New People from Diverse Backgrounds

Another reason why you may choose a gap year program is that it will likely broaden your worldview. Throughout high school you may have maintained a close circle of friends and viewed societal or global issues from a narrow point of reference, especially if you had limited travel. Whether you work at home or abroad in a gap year program, you will get to work with individuals who have diverse backgrounds. If you travel overseas you’ll learn another language and culture, which allows you to add multicultural experience to your resume. This expanded, hands-on perspective of a global environment may be transformative as it challenges you to reflect on what you know and the belief systems you hold. By the time you are finished with the gap year and go to college, you’ll have a “big picture” view of society and the world.

What to do During your Gap Year

As part of the planning process there are three options you can choose from and include a volunteer program, an internship, and a gap year program.

1. Become a volunteer

One of the choices you have is volunteer work, including international volunteer programs. Projects Abroad, one of many gap year organizations, has opportunities available in 27 worldwide locations. These supervised projects range from “building work to conservation and are ideal for those who have not yet decided on their future career.” Lattitude Global Volunteering indicates that gap year volunteering is about “helping people, meeting people, learning about people and another culture,” and it is “not about seeing as much as they can in a short period of time.” Some of the volunteer positions listed on their website include care assistant, community outreach worker, teacher, medical assistant, and environment volunteer.

2. Find an Intern Position

An internship can either be paid or unpaid, and offers the opportunity to gain hands-on experience while developing connections within your chosen industry. In my post, In Today’s Economy, Internships Provide a Competitive Edge, I discussed the need for developing a plan of action or general strategy before searching for an internship opening. Start by considering what your ultimate career goal is, what skills you have and the skills you need to acquire as a means of developing a competitive advantage, and the industries or job markets that are related to your goals. You don’t want to accept an intern position just to gain experience; you want it to further your career development plans.

3. Select a Gap Year Program

You also have the option of finding a specialized gap year program. The Year Out Group notes that the most popular program in the United States in terms of placement numbers is the summer camp programs. You can search for programs online and also attend one of the 30 nationwide USA Gap Year Fairs. There is also a list of Gap Year Programs available that provides a profile and link to the associated website.

If a gap year program seems like it might be a good match for you, it is important to consider what’s involved before you jump in and begin. Don’t start a program just because it sounds as if it would be fun or allow you to get you away from home.

A gap year program is really about determining the direction you want to take with your life as you make a transition from high school to adulthood.

You will be expected to complete specific duties in most of these programs and many charge a fee, depending upon the type of program. As noted in the article, What You Need to Know About Taking a Gap Year, gap year program fees can add up. There were two examples provided:

The following is a list of other organizations that offer gap year programs:

4. Apply for College

Another consideration for involvement in a program is the college admissions process. If you have already applied for admissions, check with the advisor as some schools will grant a deferral and others will require you to re-apply after completion of the program. Also keep in mind that if you are overseas and want to apply or re-apply for admissions, that process may become more complex. It is possible you may need help gathering transcripts and completing other required admissions paperwork. That’s why it is necessary to plan ahead, so you can make this experience as enjoyable as possible and be prepared for the next phase once you have finished the gap year.

Will You Be a Gapper?

If you have decided that you are not ready for college, even if your friends are starting and moving forward or your family tells you that this what you are supposed to do, you may need an option that will allow you to work and learn more about your skills and career interests. This is when a gap year program may be helpful. One of the natural fears that may come up (either by students or their families) is that they will not continue on to college once the gap year is completed. While that is rarely the case, if it does happen it will be the result of developing a clear vision of the future.

Through involvement in a volunteer program, internship, or paid gap year program, you’ll expand your thinking beyond your present circumstances and gain a broader perspective of the “real” world. Depending upon the program you select, you will also gain multicultural experience that will benefit your career in the long run. Regardless of what you choose, a gap year program can provide a hands-on learning experience that will help you decide when and if you are ready to go to college.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

Photo © Don Hammond/Design Pics/Corbis

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