A college degree can be the stepping-stone to wider, more satisfying career choices and higher earning potential. At least, that’s the parental party line these days, backed by data from the US Census Bureau. The message is that going to college is mandatory in American culture. Everyone is suppose to go to college, right?
But what if you aren’t ready? What of you need to take a breath between your senior year of high school and your freshman year of college? What if you just need time to figure things out?
That’s where the Gap Year comes into play.
But First, Defer Enrollment
While a gap year can do a lot of good things for you, it can also be an easy way to fall off track if your eventual goal is to earn a college degree. You can avoid the “what now?” situation many gappers find themselves in by applying to college just as you normally would if you had no intention of “gapping.” Then, once you’ve received your acceptance letter, confirm that you will attend, and then send a letter to the college’s director of admissions and outline what you plan to do on your gap year. Your letter will be evaluated by the admissions committee and ultimately granted or denied. This general process varies by school, so be sure to get specific details ahead of time. (And also details about financial aid! Because even if you’re offered financial assistance with your initial acceptance, you aren’t necessarily guaranteed that same package when you return a year later.)
Now, in order to write that letter to the director of admissions, you need to determine what you will do (and why) during your gap here. Here are some ideas:
Get a job, get an apartment, pay bills, feed yourself. Sounds simple, but you will be surprised what you can learn from taking twelve months to act as a non-student grown-up. You will learn to recognize the value of a paycheck, negotiate the murky waters of landlord/tenant relations, and feel the power of shopping with a grocery list in hand. Plus, learning how to live within a budget and how credit scores work will help you not only in your post-college life but also during those college years. You’ll be the one suggesting that maybe you and your roommates don’t need to order a third pizza that week, and perhaps that three-day weekend in Tampa isn’t the smartest financial choice.
In fact, a Gap Year is a great time to educate yourself on financial information and skills you will need for years to come. A quick Google search will cough up a plethora of websites such as Mint.com that offer advice on budgeting, wealth building, and ways to improve your credit scores. Adulting 101 for your 365 can put you ahead of your peers financially, and make that potentially crushing amount of school debt feel manageable when it’s time to graduate.
Be a Do-Gooder
While America graduates more than 60% of high school students directly into college, the Gap Year has become more common—common enough that an industry has sprung up around it to help Gappers figure out what to do with their 365 days sans lectures, homework, or quad life. Gap year fairs and organizations such as GO Overseas link students with travel and volunteer programs across the world, making what to do with the next year of your life a click away. But beware: although many of these programs are both exciting and enriching, they can also cost thousands of dollars. Therefore, you may not only wind up volunteering your time for free, but you’ll also be paying the program to participate.
Fortunately, you can also work for free for free. If altruism is your Gap Year goal, the American Red Cross, United Way, and Volunteer Match can hook you up for volunteer opportunities in your community. And if your are politically minded, several organizations would gladly sign you on to help spread their messages.
A year of volunteering can bolster your resume and give you real world experience for a variety of skills. Whether you are volunteering at a retirement home, working with special needs adults, or volunteering for a cause, you will gain all sorts of valuable experiences, from event planning to community organizing.
Learn a Skill . . . or Five
A year away from writing term papers and pulling all-nighters for exams offers a nice chunk of time to hone a skill or throw yourself into a hobby. You could opt to indulge completely in fun stuff like racking up experience points in League of Legends or learning all of the dance routines in Beyoncé videos by heart. In the long run, however, you’re probably better off developing a skill or hobby that will upgrade your life.
In self-teaching, online learning is your friend—your free friend. Khan Academy offers courses in everything from algebra to art history, giving you a chance to “try out” a major before you declare one. Coursera.org, OpenCulture.com, and AcademicEarth.org also offer free courses from top-tier universities, so why not learn Python or the nuances of digital photography? Learn a new language, start a blog, or build a robot. A hobby might turn into a passion, and that passion can ultimately direct your college career—and the rest of your life.
No matter what your reasons are for taking a break from the rigors of school, be sure to use your time wisely and set realistic goals. And make sure you have a roadmap for where you’re headed when that Gap Year is over, because the last thing you want is for Gap Year to turn into Gap Decade.