College Detour: How to Make the Most of a Gap Year

a gap year is the perfect time to make sure your priorities are lined up

In a traditional sense, a gap year is when a high school student delays enrolling in college or college alternatives after graduation. Even students who are currently enrolled in college or college alternatives can take a gap year.

A gap year can be one of the most important investments in your higher education.  It provides a different perspective regarding what you want out of your life.

Be warned. This does NOT mean you can get away doing nothing. Doing nothing is a waste of time and can do more damage than good in the long run. Use it as a time to develop yourself professionally and/or personally. Here’s how to make the most of your gap year.

Personal Development

Taking a gap year to dedicate time to personal development is completely legitimate. Do you want to achieve fluency in a foreign language? Learn how to hotwire a car? Write a book or a screenplay? Investigate your genealogy? Enroll in flight school?

Taking time to explore your personal interests is an excellent way to make your gap year productive. Use this time to develop your character and add more to your personal narrative.

When you do decide on how you want to develop yourself, follow the SMART method to make your goals attainable. The SMART method is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely. Using the SMART method to keep track of your goals will keep you focused and help you translate your accomplishments to your resume.

For example, your ultimate goal could be to write a book, but “write a book” is not “SMART”. The “SMART” way to write a book is to write 500 words every day for the next 52 weeks. This goal is Specific (writing 500 words), Measurable (you either wrote 500 words or not), Actionable (500 words is about a page of text double spaced), Realistic (assuming this is within your ability), and Timely (for the next 52 weeks).

Full-time Community Service

Taking time to be a full-time public servant is another excellent way to make the most of a gap year. Community service is completely free and you are helping people in need. There are sites like justserve.org, volunteermatch.org, and createthegood.org that will match you with various volunteer opportunities in your area.

Serving other people takes the pressure off thinking about yourself. You’ll be amazed at the amount of clarity you’ll gain when you’re serving other people. Pursue service opportunities that challenge you in ways that are healthy and safe, but push you out of your comfort zone. Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone is how you grow.

Make it a goal to become a hallmark in your community. Be the change that pushes the needle forward. There is an abundance of community service opportunities waiting for eager hand and open hearts to help.

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a wonderful service opportunity that can take you around the world. Its mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals: help the people of interested train their people, help promote a better understanding of Americans abroad and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples to Americans.

Service time in the Peace Corps is about 2 years with 3 months of training. There are volunteers worldwide and is open to citizens at any stage of life so long as you’re over the age of 18. The Peace Corps is organized into 6 different sectors: agriculture, environment, community economic development, health, education, and youth development. The program provides a housing and living stipend, covers travel expenses, as well as student loan and continuing education opportunities.

If you want to make an impact outside of your community, enlisting in the Peace Corps is an excellent way to be the change you want to see.

AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps is essentially the domestic version of Peace Corps. You still have the opportunity to make an impact, but instead of going abroad, you’re making that impact at home. Anyone at any stage of life can volunteer in AmeriCorps (provided that they are over the age of 18.) Members commit their time to address critical community needs like increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks, preparing for disasters, and more.

There’s also more flexibility with respect to time in AmeriCorps. For example, members can commit to serving anywhere between 3 months to a year. The mission of AmeriCorps is to make our people safer, stronger and healthier; to strengthen our communities, and to Get Things Done for America. They also have various perks such as a living allowance and continuing education assistance.

Internship (Abroad)

Some students take a year or semester off to do a co-op or full-time internship. Obviously, doing an internship is a great way to spend your gap year, but I understand the struggle of finding the right opportunities. In addition to using your career services on campus, LinkedIn can help you pump up your internship search.

Have you ever considered doing an internship abroad but don’t know how? International Studies Abroad offer a variety internship programs abroad. The catch is that they are unpaid, but it can still be a worthwhile investment for your career.

A part-time/full-time job

A classic way to spend a gap year is to get a job. It’s so simple, I almost forgot to put it on the list. Whether it’s working at a bookstore, coffee shop or local library, getting a job will help you build in-demand soft skills like teamwork, time management, and organization. Of course, you can build these skills in a traditional academic setting as well, but getting a job without having to worry about school allows you to be reflective about your career and what you want out of life.

I encourage you to find a job (whether full time or part-time) that aligns with what you think you want to do long-term. For instance, if you’re pretty sure you want to work with veterans, then try to get a job that serves that population. If you think you want to go into marketing then try to get a desk job in that industry. This will help you build professional relationships with people in that industry.  It also gives you an inside look into what working in that industry or with a specific population might be like. Who knows, you may end up changing your mind (or become more resolute than ever to pursue that path).

Religious Mission

If you prescribe to a specific faith, then finding faith-based mission organizations is yet another way to spend a gap year. You have the opportunity to serve your God, community, and partake in faith-building experiences. There are established organizations that support missions for major faiths. Talk to your religious leader (or do a Google search) to find the right program for you.

 

However you decide to spend your gap year, one thing you should definitely NOT do is NOTHING. Doing nothing is a detriment to yourself. If you are not growing in some way (personally, professionally, religiously) you are falling behind and doing yourself a disservice. With so many ways to make the most of your time, you’ll have a hard time justifying to employers (as well as friends, family, and yourself) why lounged about doing nothing for a year.

Education is a lifestyle. It takes place both in and out of the classroom. Use a gap year as an opportunity to develop other skills that make you more competitive in the workforce and build your personal character. A gap year should be used to enrich yourself and can help you down the line.

How do you plan to spend your gap year? Please share in the comments section below. As always, if you need me, I’m only a click away!

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