Take the time to find your path during your gap year. Image of people traveling.

Should You Take a Gap Year?

From one of our readers: “Should I take a gap year?”

“I was accepted early to the University of Central Florida, but I am reconsidering the decision. I do want to go college, but I am just not sure what I want to study.  My parents are encouraging me to just go anyway. They said I will figure it out eventually because that’s what they did. But I am the kind of person that likes to have a plan. I am thinking that maybe I should take a gap year, but I am not sure.”

If you are not sure what you want to do, and terrified about going to college, a gap year may be just the answer.

But when you defer college for a year, you run the risk of:

  • not engaging in any self-reflection
  • staying home all the time
  • feeling lonely, listless, or restless
  • developing anxiety, depression, or another mental health problem
  • finding no sense of direction
  • feeling more fearful and paralyzed than before you took your gap year

To avoid these problems, you have to make your gap year meaningful.

How to Make Your Gap Year Meaningful:

Take an internship or shadow someone in a potential career industry.

Make a list of career choices that are appealing to you. Include everything you think you might want to do, no matter how unconventional or impossible.

Then find a way to interact with or break into those industries. You don’t necessarily have to have a paid position.

You could:

  • work at a low-level job in the environment you’d like to be in
  • get an unpaid internship
  • find a mentor online or in-person
  • shadow someone you know
  • chat with people in your potential field
  • talk with college students who are majoring in something you might like

Related: This is how to find the right career path for you.

Get a job – any job.

Maybe you can’t find a way into any of your potential career fields. Or maybe you have, but you still have a lot of time on your hands.

You can still get a job. All jobs teach you something about the kind of job you’d really like to do. 

As you’re working, consider:

  • whether you like being around people
  • how you feel about sitting at a desk or being on your feet for several hours
  • if you prefer to work with your hands or like mental challenges
  • whether helping others feels meaningful to you
  • how tech savvy you are (or are not)
  • if you like being a leader, or like having someone else be the boss

These all tell you about the kind of job you’d like to do. Then you can narrow down your career options.

Related: Create a resume and apply for your first (or next) job.

Volunteer.

Are you really passionate about sustainable food handling or building homes for the homeless?

Then why not do something good with your time off and volunteer abroad?

There are programs like the Peace Corps that allow individuals to travel to exotic locales and volunteer their time for a cause they really care about. These programs  pay for your room and board. Some will even provide you with a stipend once you have completed the program.

Although the Peace Corps is a two year program, there are similar programs that are only one year long.

If that doesn’t interest you, you can stay home and volunteer within your local community.

Travel.

Note: COVID-19 restrictions may make it difficult for you to travel. But it’s 2021, and hopefully things are only looking up from here.

But if you can, get outside of your comfort zone and see what the world has to offer.

Traveling opens up a myriad of possibilities. You get to meet new people, learn new languages, and make cross cultural connections. It opens up your world scope and gives you a new perspective on life.

It will definitely be an unforgettable experience.

Teach abroad.

English is the most widely language around the world. For that reason, native English speakers are in high demand.

When you teach English abroad, you get to:

  • learn a new language
  • experience a different culture
  • get valuable paid work experience
  • make a difference in someone’s life

Learn a new language.

Maybe (like many people) you can’t just travel around the world. But, with the likes of Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, you have the technology to learn any language you want.

Speaking another language is a great way to connect with others, impress your friends, and piqué the interest of employers.

These are the most valuable second languages to learn.

Language courses are offered via community centers, local colleges, language schools, and online platforms.  And since you have time off, you can fully immerse yourself in the language.

Learn a new skill.

You can never learn too many things. Choose one (or a few) that interests you and may potentially guide your career. Form a plan to consistently build skill mastery (which also increases your self-esteem.)

Do not try to learn a hundred new things this year. This will leave you feeling chaotic and unsatisfied.

Focus on a few that really interest you, and immerse yourself in them. Perhaps you could even do an independent project, with an established goal and tangible end result.

Related: Learn more about developing independent projects here.

Treat your body well.

The first step to a prosperous gap year and a successful academic career is a body that is respected and loved.

With so much free time and with many of your friends “moving on with their lives,” you may feel the need to “glow up” during your gap year.

But you shouldn’t take your unstructured time and create rigid routines around food and exercise. That can lead you to develop an eating disorder during your gap year, which will take you further away from mental, emotional, and academic success.

You need to find a balance within your body now, before you go into the world of diet culture.

Learn about intuitive eating, healthy levels of movement, and how to practice self-love. (And yes, self-love is important for guys, too.)

Improve your mental health and resilience.

After high school, a lot of teens experience burn out. You might feel worn out from four years of high school, standardized tests, and college applications – it’s completely understandable, and pretty common.

But more than that, some students are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders right around now.

Mental health problems often start or intensify once you make a huge life change.

So why not build mental resilience and handle any underlying issues before starting college?

This could mean:

A gap year is not a sign of failure or fear. It’s a sign of success and bravery.

You are strong enough to take a pause, collect your thoughts, decide how you want to spend your life, and then move forward.

If you get an idea of what you want now, it will save you a lot of time, money, and mental energy in the long run.

Just make sure to spend your gap year in a way that will shed light on your desires and improve your overall well-being.

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