Today, many students defer their post-secondary applications or acceptances to participate in gap year programs that emphasize personal growth and provide meaningful experiences. Barack and Michelle Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, brought credibility to the idea when she took time off before attending Harvard. Likewise, Prince William, tech giant Elon Musk, and supermodel Karlie Kloss have all taken a gap year before pursuing higher education.
Traditionally, as students finish high school, they’re expected to head off to post-secondary, or make their way straight into the workforce. The fact is, not all youth have the tools or the finances to do that successfully.
At the end of thirteen or fourteen years of continuous education, many still need awareness of their strengths, value systems, and career aspirations. Additionally, our current democratic approach to knowledge might include the option to learn from social media or an abundance of education platforms like Coursera, EdX, and Khan Academy. With so many available learning opportunities, students may feel incredibly overwhelmed. Even after a year or two of college, many young people still feel unprepared for the future.
Now, more than ever, students from all backgrounds need support to discover their potential and develop the soft skills employers seek. A gap year can be an important step on the journey for many who are unsure of their options even if they don’t have the desire or financial support for international travel.
According to the Gap Year Association, students who take advantage of gap year programs tend to return to school feeling more focused. In addition, they’re more likely to graduate with higher grades and be more satisfied with their careers than peers who study straight through after high school. At the same time, some students may find the path to a fulfilling career without attending college at all.
5 Benefits of a Gap Year
- Avoiding or Minimizing Student Debt – In 2021, Americans owe $1.73 Trillion in student debt, much of it from general education focused on becoming well-rounded students. Unfortunately, many students follow a conventional path without a solid direction, even when they aren’t sure where it’s leading them. A flexible gap year program could help youth avoid taking unnecessary courses, and give them space to earn money for the next stage of their education if needed.
- Personal Development – High school and higher education rarely focus on self-exploration beyond measuring basic aptitude skills. Unlike conventional education, flexible alternative programs allow students to explore their strengths, gain emotional mastery, develop self-leadership and autonomy, and build resiliency. Traditional education encourages competition and measures success in grades. In contrast, gap year programs can encourage students to experiment and challenge themselves, embrace failure, and develop the ability to change directions as needed; skills that are crucial for finding a healthy balance in personal and vocational life.
- Professional Skills Development – Secondary schools and higher education programs teach students many skills they need to function in current, available positions. Unfortunately, many employers are reporting a lack of soft skills employees need to be successful in evolving corporate environments, such as:
- Critical and innovative thinking
- Relationship building and collaboration
- Decision making
Opportunities to practice these soft skills during their time off may give young adults a competitive edge when applying for employment or further education. A flexible gap year program may also allow time for hands-on work experience or business development.
- Building Connections – Successful gap year programs provide mentorship and peer interaction to help students connect with what matters most in their lives. Often, this time off can lead young people to participate in life-changing experiences. While we often think this means international travel, local experiences can also be transformational. For example, youth may connect with inner-city children or individuals experiencing homelessness through community outreach programs. Through these experiences, they can broaden their understanding of diverse backgrounds or cultures, and may also connect with like-minded peers more than they did in educational environments.
- Creating a Plan for the Future – Time off from traditional education can help students hone their strengths, talents, and desires. With mentorship and a road map, they can begin to see how these align with serving others, earning income, and contributing viably to the world around them. Given time to seek out interesting opportunities, try unfamiliar things, learn from failure, and reflect on experiences, they can envision a plan to live out their best life.
What Should a Quality Gap Year Experience Include?
Many teens feel burnt out by the end of secondary school or even after a year or two of college. As a result, more students are taking a break before moving to the next stage in their education or career, and seeking alternative opportunities. They may be tired or not sure what direction to go, so the challenge is finding meaningful opportunities that give them purpose during that gap time.
There are many different models for a gap year experience. Some youth may travel independently to experience different cultures. Others may volunteer for missions or service opportunities, or join the military. However, travel isn’t the only way for young people to become empowered to be the best version of themselves, discover their gifts, or find their true calling.
A quality program can include:
- Structure and a clear roadmap that helps youth discover their unique strengths and abilities
- Tools to help navigate uncertainties, build healthy habits like fitness and stress management, and build resiliency
- Mentorship to provide guidance and challenge limiting beliefs
- Community and a sense of belonging
- Opportunities to try new and challenging things
- Time and support to reflect on options and make decisions
- Opportunities to develop positive communication and collaboration skills
- Time to learn and develop the skills hiring managers want to see, or the entrepreneurial skills needed to start and maintain businesses
While conventional education goals often include post-secondary education immediately after high school, more people recognize the importance of taking a gap year on the journey to adult life. In fact, 95% of the young adults surveyed in a recent Gap Year Association Survey stated that their gap year prepared them well as they transitioned to higher education or the workforce.
Gap year programs need not always focus on doing things like traveling or humanitarian experiences. Rather, young adults can benefit greatly from programs that focus on becoming. With personalized guidance, mentorship, and positive peer relationships individuals can truly understand who they are and what they can offer the world. With this knowledge, they can develop the qualities they need to show up as leaders in business, jobs, and families. Then, they can formulate a plan and step out confidently, with clarity, into a fulfilling, joyful, and sustainable future.