Taking a Gap Year to Get Ahead: 4 Alumni Share Their Stories
In June, Malia Obama announced to the world that she would be attending Harvard University, but not before deferring for a year and taking a gap year in the interim. The decision to take a year off from school has historically been more of a tradition in Europe and Australia, though it’s steadily become more popular in the learning trajectories of young people in the United States. Arguments in favour of the option come not only from gap year alumni themselves, but from post-secondary institutions looking to attract and retain students who truly are college-ready. For example, leading universities such as Harvard and Yale now encourage high school seniors to consider taking a gap year, as they have seen the positive impact among entering freshmen who have taken one.
For parents, educators, and students who are considering whether this option is best for them on their learning pathway, one of the best ways to analyse the potential benefits of a gap year is to ask gap year alumni about their experience and its impact. When given the chance to reflect on how the decision to take time away from school affected their lives—academically, professionally, and personally—gap year alums consistently speak in favour of the option.
Re-Invigoration of Learning
By the time students reach college age, they have typically been in the school system for over thirteen years of their lives. While classroom-based learning offers various positive benefits, after the lengthy amount of time spent writing essays, taking tests, and generally working to achieve passing grades, it’s no surprise that students may lose their passion and drive to study in an academic setting.
In an American Psychological Association survey cited by USA Today in 2014, 59% of teens reported that “managing their time to balance all activities is a somewhat or very significant stressor.” Students who have the time to process and focus on high school adequately before beginning post-secondary education will have the advantage of feeling like they’ve pressed a reset button and refreshed their motivation to learn.
On the other hand, students who start out their freshman year of college feeling burnt-out may not take full advantage of the opportunity to study in a higher education setting—and at a considerable cost. With college tuition on the rise (the average annual increase in college tuition in the US from 1980-2014 grew by nearly 260%), some students are taking more time to consider what they would like to study and whether it’s worth the investment.
Clarification of What to Study
Sarah Mackay, a 19-year-old from the suburbs of New York City who completed a gap year before starting her freshman year at the College of Charleston this past August, reflects, “It was nice to have time at home to process high school and be proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve learned.” Sarah also believes that taking the gap year made her senior year experience in high school a lot more relaxing because she wasn’t “focusing on four things at once.” She was able to excel in her academics and AP classes, extracurricular activities, and social life during her senior year while she subsequently spent the first half of her gap year visiting and applying to colleges for the following fall.
Sarah described feeling the need for time to reflect on post-college possibilities. “I didn’t want to go in not knowing what major I wanted to pursue. I had a lot of interests and wanted to learn more about them. If I was going into college not knowing what I really wanted, I wasn’t going to be happy.”
She ended up choosing to spend the second half of her gap year living with a cousin in Portland, Oregon while interning for a chiropractic office as well as an art therapy studio. These decisions helped her feel more confident in pursuing Exercise Science, Psychology, and Studio Art upon arrival to college. She also wanted to make sure that in addition to deciding what she wanted to study in university, where she would study would be the right place for her. “I feel like some kids are rushed in that process and apply to the ‘best’ schools without wondering much about what they want—because they don’t even know what they want!”
Elijah Tucker, a 35-year-old musician and music teacher in Brooklyn, New York had similar sentiments. After travelling to Costa Rica for his gap year in 2000, he began his freshman year at Bard College and signed up for a Spanish class his first semester.
“That Spanish class was my favourite class. I had an immediate visceral connection to the language and therefore a desire to apply myself and do well in the class.” Generally speaking, Elijah believes that a gap year gave him “a fierce appreciation for what college was. It wasn’t the first time that I’d had freedom and independence and tried things out. Having that time helped me to hone my focus and vision for what I wanted to do in college.”
Supported Passage into Adulthood
Many Eastern and Indigenous cultures have traditionally held “Rites of Passage” activities and ceremonies for their youth to enter into adulthood in a mindful and supported manner. In the Western world, gap years can provide young people with the time and space needed to explore, experiment, and reflect on who they are and who they want to become.
For example, Elijah describes several profound experiences that came about when he took the leap to be more independent and travelled to Costa Rica:
“I wanted to go somewhere where I could get lost. Getting lost and being lonely and not speaking the language forced me out of emotional necessity to really get to know myself. I learned how to pray while I was there. I got inside myself and learned how to be really honest with myself.”
Naomi Naidoo, a 24-year-old woman who resides in London, took a gap year in which she travelled to multiple countries, including a 3-month stint in India where she interned for 6 weeks with an educational charity, partly working in their office and partly teaching in a school.
“It made me a lot more confident and independent. Prior to that year, I would feel pretty awkward or nervous doing things alone (even small things, for example going shopping alone), but in India I did a lot of things alone, including travelling for 2 weeks, which really enabled me not only to feel confident doing things independently but also to enjoy it. Also, meeting people from lots of different countries and of different ages whilst travelling made me confident of my ability to make friends in any situation, which made me a lot more confident when it came to start university.”
Tayler Kost, another young professional living in New York City and working as a Site Merchandising Associate for Ralph Lauren, took a gap year before studying Economics and German at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She traveled to Cologne, Germany to intern for the same exchange organisation through which she had studied abroad for her junior year of high school. The internship lasted for the first four months, after which she went on to work for an international office at a local university for an additional four months.
“You mature very quickly when you go abroad, and you become this older soul,” says Kost. “You see things, you meet people, and you know a lot more.” Though some parents and educators may worry that young people may wander “off track” when taking a gap year, Tayler believes it’s quite the opposite. “By taking a year abroad, you’re forced into this independent lifestyle and it’s almost even better prep for going to school. You’ve had the opportunity to be by yourself.” Things like partying and personal experimentation may have been explored outside of an academic context, so students may have the increased focus and maturity needed to fully appreciate and excel in a school context.
These days, many employers expect job applicants to have both the academic qualifications as well as real-world work experience when hiring even entry-level employees. Although many students manage to secure internships and part-time jobs during college, having the time and focus during a gap year to work intensively for a company or organisation (or start a business) significantly helps with future career prospects and success. From resume-building to honing hard and soft skills, to expanding one’s network, work experience during a gap year has many valuable advantages.
Elijah took the route of starting his own business for the first half of his gap year in order to save money for his travels to Costa Rica. He reflects that his gap year “involved a lot of self-determination. I created my own landscaping business and even hired a friend to work with me.” The landscaping business ended up sustaining itself for the subsequent summers between college as well. Now, as a musician and independent contractor, “what I do is totally self determined. I’ve created my own life and my own career. I figured out what I wanted to do and am doing it.”
Testing out one’s entrepreneurial abilities is one way of gaining work experience, but working for an existing organisation or company has its own benefits for young learners to experience the working world and gain knowledge for their future professional endeavors.
For example, Sarah’s internships with the chiropractic office and art therapy studio helped to build her resume and give her a sense of the differences in existing work environments. “Even though I haven’t started any long term jobs, I now have some job experience with my internships and I know what it means to work in an office. Having that knowledge will help in what I want to do later on. It was definitely a plus to build my resume and be competitive in a competitive job market.”
Expanding Professional Networks
When Tayler landed back in Germany for her gap year, she realised the importance of utilising her existing network as well as growing her network to help her find work. Although she found an initial internship for the first half of her time there, she had to figure out what she was doing work-wise for the rest of her gap year—otherwise her visa would expire and she would have to go home.
“That’s the first time that I learned about how important it was to have a network and build out your network and keep contacts close. So I had to lean on a very limited network of people in Germany at the time.”
By mid-April, Tayler was successful in securing her second internship and thus able to remain in Germany, where she picked up vital skills: “I got really good at cold-calling and figuring out how to make that connection with people and not sound so random. If you can do that in German, you can do that in English. The fact that the first time I was doing that was in German definitely helped when I got out of college and wanted to get a real job.”
The trajectories of young people today are shifting as the job landscape tightens and learning pathways evolve. The benefits of a gap year are clear, from learning more about oneself, to exploring various fields for learning and working, to building up one’s resume and experience. Though many people assume gap years are only for those who can afford to go abroad, there are many ways to make a gap year meaningful, from starting a business, to interning, to teaching oneself a new skill utilising free online learning tools. As educators, parents, and students become more informed about the impact of a gap year, we will surely see the trend continue to proliferate.