November 15, 2022

Tips to make the most of a gap year

More and more high school graduates are choosing to take a year off after high school and before college. Even college students sometimes choose to take a leave of absence. So the question I get from many families is how to make the most of this time. 

More and more high school graduates are choosing to take a year off after high school and before college. Even college students sometimes choose to take a leave of absence.  So the question I get from many families is how to make the most of this time. 

I’m so glad they ask! Many parents are worried that the year will be wasted time. But, if used wisely, this extra year can be transformational!  So, I have put together a guide for making the most of this time. 

First, let’s talk about the benefits of taking a year off. If you’ve already decided, scroll down for tips to make the most of the year.

The Benefits of a Gap Year

  • Allows students to recover from burnout. Many students are burned out by the time they graduate from high school. Did you know teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep a night? According to the National Sleep Foundation, only 15% of teens are getting the recommended amount of sleep. This means most teens are sleep-deprived. The CDC tells us that adolescents who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk for many health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and injuries. They are also more likely to have depression, attention problems, or behavior problems, which can contribute to poor academic performance in school.  Taking a year off is a great opportunity for young people to engage in self-care including getting plenty of sleep and setting up some healthy habits, such as a mindfulness practice, that can help them cope with stress as they enter college and adult life. 
  • Develops responsibility and independence. Sleep is a great element that leads to a restorative year, but not by itself. It must be paired with being productive. Being productive can come in a couple of different ways. Getting a job allows a young person to add to their resume and experience. Getting a job while not in school gives them the time to learn about money and finances. Too many schools in the United States do not teach young people the basics of money management. This leads many young people to make financial mistakes that are easy to avoid with some basic knowledge. A Gap Year is a great opportunity to learn these tools.
  • It can allow them to develop a commitment to civic engagement.  Volunteering is another great opportunity to be productive and learn new skills. This opportunity can be done in addition to or in place of a job. Not all, but many travel gap year programs are designed around a service project. But even if you can’t get away, you can find service projects and volunteer opportunities in your area. These opportunities have so many benefits in and of themselves. They broaden our understanding of the world, allow us to make new network connections, lead to more civic engagement, and are great experiences to include on a resume.
  • It allows for developing new skill sets. New skill sets can come from a job, a service project, connecting with mentors, or throwing themselves into an interest that they’ve not had time to explore before. Acquiring a new skill set is always a positive addition to one’s perspective and one’s resume.
  • It provides real-life context that will shape a college experience differently. College students who are a little bit older, even by just one year, are more likely to do well in school. Some of that has to do with our neurological development and some of it has to do with our experiences. I can say from personal experience that a young person’s time in college is very different after having some real-world experience compared to going straight away from high school. One of those is the next item of the list.
  • Leads to better grades. Most students who take a year off get better grades for all of the reasons listed above. This and all of the other reasons listed are why colleges like gap year kids so much. Yep, you read that right. Some are actively encouraging it and even offering financial aid (what?!?).
  • Gives undecided students a chance to honestly think about what they want to pursue. I saved this one for last because this is my expertise. While for some it takes time and some “real world” experience to find what they want to do for work, that time and experience can be reduced with a gap year that focuses on this pursuit. A program like Life Quest can help undecided students find their unique definition of success and find the occupations that are most suited to them. This can save a family or student tens of thousands of dollars. When a student goes into college undecided they will often change majors several times to try and find a good fit. Every time a major is changed it will cost a semester or more of time and money. Taking a year off to make this decision before starting school can reduce the amount of money spent or even reduce the amount of student loans one will acquire.

As you can see, a gap year doesn't have to be wasted time. It has the potential to be an extra year giving young people the skills and tools to live a healthy happy life. Now, let's take a look at some tips to incorporate these experiences into your graduates year.

Tips to Make the Most of a Gap Year

A lot of young people choose from a variety of quality travel programs for their gap year because of all the wonderful benefits of experiencing another culture. However, if travel is not an option there are still some great ways to make the year transformational. If you include the learning experiences listed below, you are sure to have an amazing year! 

  1. Self Care - Establish healthy habits and practices. Start by getting the recommended hours (8-10 for teen) of sleep per night. Learn what healthy foods are best suited to take care of your body, and make sure to keep moving in whatever way feels best for you. Learn how to take care of your mental and physical health by taking on a mindfulness practice. A mindfulness practice could include meditation, walking in nature, yoga, tapping, gardening, journaling, coloring, or any other relaxing, restorative, or meditative activity.  
  2. Volunteer - I mentioned earlier that travel allows for individuals to learn about other cultures. This is often true when volunteering, as well. Whether your volunteer work is in person or virtual it is a great way to build new relationships, build new skills or continue to hone some of your best skills. And you will learn that you can make a difference with what you do. Also, let me mention that generosity has its own set of benefits from higher self esteem, more friends, and better mental health to having a greater satisfaction with life. 
  3. Learn about money - Some schools in the U.S. require a quick, high-level finance course, but most do not. Money is something that we interact with every single day and so deserves at least some basic understanding. Many young adults begin life with little to no knowledge about how to manage their finances, read loans, or the basics of investing. So many of us learn money through trial and error which often leads to simple mistakes that can take years to correct. Taking a year to learn these basics is a great way to establish a financial foundation so that a young person has more of a chance to grow their wealth. Of course, getting a job in addition to reading and learning about money management is a great way to do this. However, some choose not to work during their gap year if they feel it might change their FAFSA award amount. But that’s no reason not to engage in this type of education. 
  4. Finally, engage in what I call Career Prototyping. If you still aren’t sure what you want to do for work, start with career exploration. Then, once you have an idea of what you want to do for work, research it more to make sure it’s a good fit. Keep in mind: Interest -> Industry, Personality & Skills -> Job, values -> Decisions. There are all kinds of things you can do to get an idea of what it’s really like to have a particular job. Look it up online, talk to someone who has the job, and best yet: job shadow, intern, or get a job in the field. If you want to learn more about how to begin a thorough career exploration and prototyping journey click here. 

If you include the items listed above the year will be full of valuable life lessons that most people don’t learn from school. Whatever way you or your graduate chooses to spend the year, set intentions at the beginning. Consider what they want to accomplish during this time. Make sure to celebrate all the wins along the way, big or small. And finally, have fun! 

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Founder of Be On Purpose, LLC, Emma is a mentor who specializes in helping teens and young adults craft who they want to be and how they will impact the world.

As the author of "What's the Point of School: Ed Transformation, A Matter of Life and Death" Emma is pushing the education transformation movement forward. Her work seeks to redesign our school system from its industrial structure to one that serves our students by giving them the tools they need to thrive in all areas of their lives, internal and external. 

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