In a society obsessed with work and anxious about the “right” career path, these two words may be the ultimate guilty pleasure. They conjure up images of balmy tropical islands, hiking through waterfalls and jungles, or partying in exotic, warm locations. All too often, Americans believe that gap years are little more than a chance for students to blow off steam abroad, to take a foreign holiday before the advent of “real life,” be it university, work, or both.
Yet the negative connotations associated with gap years aren’t just inaccurate, but also harmful, as they discourage students from undertaking meaningful, potentially life-changing experiences. If anything, gap years are a net positive to students: not only can students experience a vast array of new flavors, tastes, and locations, but they’ll also learn crucial skills, including foreign languages, philanthropy, and of course, resilience.
What does a Gap Year look like?
Gap years often get a bad rap because of our perceptions: we picture young adults sitting around on a couch, playing video games, or surfing the web endlessly. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: a well-designed gap year has structure, general goals, and a definite end date.
While no two gap years are alike, students (and parents) can follow two general guidelines. First, students should have a plan (and end date) for their gap year; indeed, many students apply to colleges in advance and delay their start dates. Second, they should use the time to pursue their interests, whether it’s a foreign language, a country they’ve always wanted to visit, or an industry that they want to work in.
Perhaps the best example is Malia Obama, whose gap year provides a good template for others to follow. To begin, note that the former First Daughter had a clear plan for both her gap year and her time afterward. Before she left, she first applied (and was accepted) to Harvard; she then deferred her admission for one year. That way, she had a set period of time to work with, lest she be tempted to extend her gap year indefinitely.
Next, Malia also used her time to explore two of her passions: Latin American language and culture, as well as the entertainment industry. In 2016, Malia traveled to Bolivia, hiking the rugged Cordillera Real Mountains, practicing her Spanish, and spending time with a local family. This year, Malia is working at The Weinstein Company, the entertainment powerhouse that produced such titles as Lion, The Founder, and The King’s Speech.
What are the benefits of a gap year?
Clearly, Malia Obama is making the best of her time. Yet beyond the obvious advantages to her well-designed gap year, such as cultural immersion and internship, there are plenty of hidden gains that aren’t necessarily obvious at first glance.
Gap years can mold students for the better
During a major survey carried out over the course of many years, UCLA found that nearly 76% of students yearn for meaning and purpose in life. What better way to find it than by seeking it on your own terms?
This is especially important in face of society’s increasingly narrow definition of success, which has led to a very rigid, inflexible life and career path: students must perform well in school, go to a good college, graduate with a degree, find a good job, buy a house, and so forth. Needless to say, this model is outdated, and doesn’t take into account disruptive, real-world trends, like automation, recession, or other social, political, and economic changes–all of which require lifelong learning and adaptability.
Worse yet, by emphasizing the “right” course of action, we risk alienating students, especially those who seek meaning, engagement, and motivation in their work. Think about it: an aspiring pre-medicine major may be irritated and bored of organic chemistry, tired of grueling tests and a barrage of lab experiments with partners that they detest.
But after returning from a gap year spent in a developing nation or underserved rural area, the pre-med major may well have a renewed appreciation for their work; more importantly, they can develop some perspective, re-connecting with the reason that they entered the program in the first place. For this hypothetical student (and for other, real students), gap years can inject energy and meaning into their college experience. By plunging feet-first into new, challenging environments, they’re building their personality and character, shaping their worldviews, and taking another step on the path to adulthood.
This is supported by evidence, as well. In a 2015 survey, the American Gap Association found a host of ancillary benefits for gap year alumni: 85% of them reported being satisfied (or very satisfied) with their careers, 89% reported participating in community service in the previous month, and 63% reported voting in the 2014 elections (a surprisingly high percentage, given that 2014 was a midterm election and saw the lowest turnout in decades).
Use gap years to learn outside the classroom
For students who have never tasted independence before, a gap year is a rich, layered learning experience. After all, there’s no better way to learn than to live on your own for a year, whether it’s navigating a foreign country and immersing oneself in an outside culture, trying out an industry with internships to decide whether it’s the right fit, or doing both. At the very least, students will be able to build a certain comfort with uncertainty–a crucial skill to have, as most learning exists outside one’s comfort zone.
Furthermore, according to Jeff Selingo, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, employers often seek soft skills, or interpersonal abilities like problem-solving, communication, and flexible, positive attitudes, over hard skills, or technical abilities like subject matter knowledge such as coding or engineering. Given that Generations Y and Z have often been (unfairly) stereotyped as coddled, lazy, and narcissistic, what better way to demonstrate soft skills like independence, initiative, and resilience, than with a gap year?
In many ways, gap years may well be the most misunderstood, maligned trend today. Yet rather than simply going overseas for a bit of rest and enjoyment before beginning their careers, gap years, if done properly, are a valuable opportunity to not simply have fun, but also to learn and grow in the process.