9 Things You Should Do If You Take A Gap Year

The White House announced Sunday that Malia Obama will be taking a gap year before attending Harvard in 2017. There’s no word yet about what President Obama’s eldest will do with that time, but, if you’re considering something similar, there are different things you can do during your gap year, from working, to volunteering, to traveling the world. The experiences you have during this year can help you gain independence and maturity, and they have the potential to make you a better, more assured student when you do finally get to college.

If this is the first time you’re hearing of this phenomenon, you should know that a gap year is a year-long break from school that a teen takes between graduating from high school and starting college. Already common in the UK, where approximately 200,000 students delay university for a year, the gap year is gaining popularity in the United States. A number of American colleges, including Harvard, are encouraging incoming freshmen to take gap years. Many are willing to defer enrollment for students, and some even have financial aid available to fund gap years, as well as their own gap year programs.

The rising popularity of gap years in the United States speaks to the fact that the college experience is not “one size fits all.” Some students are fully prepared by the time they graduate high school to begin college a few months later; they make the transition to freshman year — which likely involves a new, more rigorous academic workload and living away from home for the first time — without many problems. But other recent high school graduates simply aren’t ready to start college. They may not have a clear sense of what they’d like to study or the sort of career they’d like to prepare for; they may be burned out on academic work; or they may feel unprepared and overwhelmed by the prospect of living independently. Taking a year away from school can be a great way for these students to gain real-world experience, earn money, explore their options, clarify their goals, and simply grow up a little before entering college.

Every person’s gap year will look a little different, but, if you take one, you may find yourself doing some combination of these options:

1. Work.

Getting a job during your gap year can serve two important purposes: First, it can help you bulk up your C.V., so that when you’re applying for jobs during and after college, you already have a work history to draw upon. Second, it can help you build up some cold, hard cash before starting college. We all know that university is really expensive, and not only because of spiking tuition costs. There are also the costs of textbooks, housing, and general living expenses. Some would-be freshmen take their year off of school to live at home and earn money — something they’re no doubt thankful for after they’re called upon to spend 200 dollars on a physics textbook when they start school in the fall.

Working during your gap year can be especially helpful to your future if you can find a job that plays into the field you’re considering as a career, both because the job will help your C.V. and it will help you determine if you actually want that career. If, for example, you’re thinking about working with children, getting a job as a kid’s counselor might be a great idea: If you love it, that’s experience you can use in the future, and if you hate it, then you know that working with kids isn’t something you want to pursue after all.

2. Travel. (It might be more affordable than you think.)

Traveling, especially if you go overseas, can be a truly transformational experience. It will open you up to new experiences and new perspectives, and it will help you gain independence as you learn to cope in an unfamiliar environment. You may meet new and interesting people, learn about new cultures, or even learn an additional language.

The hard part, of course, is that traveling can be incredibly expensive, and going abroad — especially when you’re already looking ahead to the expenses of college — may seem totally out of reach. If you’d like to travel for your gap year but don’t think you can afford it, take the time to investigate volunteer programs and financial aid options that might make it possible. Some gap year programs subsidize travel costs in exchange for volunteering, while others connect students to jobs. AmericCorps, for example, has the City Year program, which pays students a stipend and education award in exchange for teaching in a variety of U.S. cities. Some schools are also beginning to offer gap year programs that may help to make the experience more affordable. Elon University in North Carolina, for example, has a 14-week gap program that allows students to earn course credits and costs the same as one semester’s tuition, room, and board. Florida State University has also recently begun offering scholarships to fund gap years.

3. Volunteer.

Volunteering during your gap year can take many forms. It might mean joining an international program and teaching children overseas for months, or it might mean volunteering at your local animal shelter a couple nights a week after work. Whichever route you go, volunteering can give you important work experience, help you to feel more engaged in your community, and it’ll look good on your future resume. And that’s all in addition to the real point: Helping people or causes you care about.

4. Learn to adult.

Everyone has different experiences growing up and different ways of handling change. One freshman may show up to his or her dorm room, fully able to take care or him or herself from here on out; another might show up with only the faintest idea of how to do laundry and no idea how to cook anything other than instant mac and cheese. If you’re in the latter category (no judgment!), use your gap year to learn some key skills you’ll need once you leave home. Learn to do laundry, cook a few simple meals, open and keep track of a bank account, and any other aspect of “adulting” that seems frighteningly mysterious. Doing so will help you to feel more confident when you do head to college.

5. Spend time with your family.

Your gap year can be a great opportunity to spend time with your loved ones before leaving the nest for college. You might even consider doing some kind of volunteer work with one of your parents or a sibling. You’ll help your community and get to bond with your family.

6. Spend time away from your family.

If you’ve never spent much time away from home, and are nervous about leaving for college, your gap year can be a time for you to dip your toes into the experience of living independently. Working or volunteering abroad are great possibilities, but you can also look for opportunities a little closer to home, like working as a camp counselor at a live-in summer camp.

7. Take a break from studying.

If you’ve just graduated from high school, that means you’ve spend most of the last dozen years in the same academic routine, and that the last year, with SAT exams, AP classes, and college applications, has been especially intense. If you’re feeling burned out, use your gap year as a time to give your brain a break from that kind of work. That doesn’t mean that you’re taking a break from everything — a gap shouldn’t just be a time for you to sleep late and catch up on your binge watching. Jeffrey Selingo, author of There Is Life After College, wrote in The Washington Post,

For a gap year to have a significant impact on success in college, and later in the working world, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything a student has experienced before—a meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world.

So while you may want to take a break from studying, you should engage your brain in a different way — by traveling to new and challenging places, working at a job you actually find interesting, or volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about.

8. Get a college credit or two out of the way.

If you’re ­not burned out on academics, consider taking a course or two at your local community college during your gap year. Doing so will allow you to get accustomed to the more rigorous, self-directed nature of college classes, without having to take on a full course load all at once. You’ll also get to start your freshman year a few credits ahead, which will give you a bit of extra wiggle room as you plan out your course schedules in the future.

9. Think about what you want to do with your life, and what you want to get out of college.

Your gap year will give you ample time to think seriously about what you want from college and what you want for your career in the future. The real-world experiences you gain during this time, through working, traveling, or volunteering, may help you to more clearly understand what you do and do not want from life. That clarity can translate into a smoother experience once you’re in college, as well as a more direct path to the right major for you.

Images: Giphy (5)