Using a Gap Year to Explore Your Career Path

By Pat Brothwell - January 2, 2020

In the previous three posts, we’ve concluded that sending students to college to figure out a career path, something people have been doing for years, isn’t necessarily working anymore. College can 100% be worth it. There are many advantages in having a college education (we’ve also touched on other paths to career success that can also be 100% worth it), but with the rising costs of college and student debt in the trillions, it makes little financial sense for college to be the place where the discovery happens, which is why career exploration is so important for today’s students.


Despite the case we’ve built for using smart career exploration and strategic planning to map out a career path for students sooner than later, there will still be students who arrive at graduation with no set plan. You may be a legal adult at age 18, but some young people have little sense of themselves at that age. The phrase “finding oneself” is trite to the point of being twee, but in some cases is the best bet, and so an option for putting some time between oneself and that all important question of “what will I do when I grow up?” in a way that isn’t accruing debt or unnecessary schooling may be the smartest option.  


Enter the gap year.  

What’s a gap year? It’s traditionally a year taken off the year before college where a prospective student takes time to gain life experience of some sort. It could be used to volunteer. It could be used to work, train, or take an internship. It’s often used to travel and is a much more common practice in Europe than stateside, although it’s gaining more and more traction, and gained a significant spotlight when Malia Obama decided to take a gap year before enrolling at Harvard. 


A major draw of the gap year is that they allow young people a tremendous amount of growth and real-world experience that could help them make more informed decisions about their futures. A 2007 study of 280 gap year alumni found that 60% of participants said their gap year affected their majors and career paths. A 2015 study conducted by the Gap Year Association and Temple University showed 86% of gap year students surveyed were satisfied with their jobs.


The elephant in the room here is that most of us aren’t former first daughters. Malia could’ve taken three years off, did nothing, and Harvard would probably still be waiting. We're not picking on her specifically. Gap year students often come from affluent families who can afford to help them travel and volunteer between high school and college, although that’s also changing. There are programs like Americorps which will give students a living allowance while they volunteer. Other programs like GoAbroad provide scholarships for interested students. There’s always the option to find a career or internship, take certification courses geared towards your future major while working, and a popular option for Europeans from middle-class backgrounds is to travel and work in the service industry or hospitality jobs that help bolster their soft skills (a trend we'd love to see catch on here).


We spoke with Kayla Patterson, COO of the aforementioned GoAbroad about the changing trends and career exploration benefits of a gap year. She shared that they have data suggesting that more people well under the age of 18 are starting to research gap years, which is great, as it means they are creating plans earlier, and highlights our philosophy that career exploration should be a process that spans throughout the K-12 years. Patterson also shared that while traditionally gap years have been taken before the freshman year of college, they can also be taken the year after college graduation, and that more and more people are taking them later in life as a career break. 


We asked Kayla how a gap year could help a student determine their career path, and she had a very insightful answer. She said, "The one that immediately comes to mind is the benefit of taking your time. In today’s society, we are constantly being pushed to do more, be more efficient, get ahead, be better, and work harder. While these are all good things in moderation, the reality is that we don’t have to be anywhere by any certain age—we all get to decide and guide our own path in life.”


Kayla's thoughts echo much of what we’ve been discussing in the last couple of blog posts, and gets to the core of our mission here. Career exploration is not something that should happen just at the tail end of high school. The best decisions are not made on the drop of a dime. By starting the process early, it allows each individual to take their time and make the most informed, well-thought-out decision that works for them. 


Now we want to mention that Kayla was talking specifically about going abroad because that’s the type of gap year she helps set up, but taking a well-thought out year in the US is a completely legitimate option. You just want to ensure you have a plan in place. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to taking a gap year. There are a host of moving parts to consider that we don’t have the time to get into here, but it certainly could be a cost-effective option to give students who need some extra time before college to make a decision, and could certainly be an option for those older individuals who need to make a career pivot. Again, we’re not here to tell you the best decision for you. We’re here to help you become aware of all the options you have. 


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