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3 Benefits of Taking a Gap Year

Despite the rising cost of tuition, college is still worth the time, effort, and investment. However, learning and growth can happen outside of the bounds of the traditional classroom environment, as well. A rising trend among students (President Obama's daughter Malia included), is to take a gap year before beginning college – a time to travel, have new experiences, learn new things, volunteer, and so on.

Despite the rising cost of tuition, college is still worth the time, effort, and investment. However, learning and growth can happen outside of the bounds of the traditional classroom environment, as well. A rising trend among students (President Obama’s daughter Malia included), is to take a gap year before beginning college – a time to travel, have new experiences, learn new things, volunteer, and so on.

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(Photo Credit: Trekking Rinjani/Flickr)

This experience isn’t for everyone; you need to be self-motivated and intensely curious to benefit from a gap year. Also, this option can be expensive, so it’s important to note that data about these students might be skewed to some extent because many students who elect to take gap year already had a leg up on success. They often attend good schools, have a high household income, and their parents usually have college degrees – all of which can affect success after graduation.

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However, choosing this path, if it’s the right fit, comes with a great many benefits and rewards. Let’s take a look at how taking a gap year could benefit your education and your career.

1. It helps you find and hone your vision for your future.

It’s tough to know what you’d like to do in the world when you haven’t really entered the world yet. Many high school seniors have ideas about what interests and excites them, but those visions benefit from being tested in the real world.

Jordan Robbins, corporate and individual relations development officer at non-profit organization No Barriers USA, recently sat down with me to talk about her gap year experience. Her travels, which included a multitude of diverse experiences around the globe, guided her toward a career that focuses on helping others to have similar opportunities through travel and expeditions. (Although her organization does not work with gap year students, they do facilitate travel experiences that allow students to encounter the world in new ways.)

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to study when I was finishing high school,” she said. “My parents agreed that I could take a gap year as long as I structured in a way where I would explore my interests and what I wanted to do moving forward. So, I went to this amazing place called the Center for Interim Programs.”

She went on to explain how the organization helped her to design a travel experience based upon her interests and ideas for how she’d like to spend the year.

“After spending five months in high school classroom in Kenya teaching English and biology, I realized that I was really passionate about working with kids but that I wasn’t really excited about working as a traditional classroom teacher,” she said. “And, I was also able to explore wildlife while I was there, because we often traveled and went on different safaris all around the area, and I became so passionate about learning about other ways of life and also about wildlife and conservation.”

High school students have some ideas about their interests and about their future. A gap year experience gives them the opportunity to pursue experiences related to those passions, which helps to clarify and solidify their vision.

2. It changes the college experience profoundly.

Contrary to many parents’ understandable concern that a gap year could derail college plans, studies have shown that the experience actually helps to heighten students’ motivation, drive, and performance once they do attend – the GPAs of students who’ve taken a gap year are actually higher than would be expected otherwise.

Also, because some schools, such as Harvard, actually encourage students to take a gap year, enrolling and deferring attendance is a great option to consider. Once students return and begin attending classes, they’re likely to notice that they’re processing the experience very differently than they would have if they’d started right after high school.

“I went to college knowing what I was passionate about studying,” Robbins told me. “It was so exciting to look at that college course book and pick out the classes I wanted to take. And, I knew what I wanted to get out of it. I knew why I wanted to take those classes.”

Taking a gap year helped Robbins to discover the passions she wanted to explore. College then became “a practical pathway for achieving that vision, versus something that my parents or somebody else was telling me that I should do but I hadn’t yet bought into myself.”

3. A gap year helps you acquire the skills and the character employers want.

In this complex digital and information age, having a good memory and being able to regurgitate facts and calculations doesn’t mean a whole lot to employers. These days, the skills that set us apart from the robots are the ones we really ought to focus on honing.

Gap year programs help students develop the valuable soft skills that today’s employers want. Not only can these experiences encourage the progression of independent and creative thinking, heighten persistence and grit, and take intellectual curiosity to a whole other level, they also allow people to expand their capacity for powerful communication, empathy, and even global citizenship.

“In terms of soft skills, I think it really brings about empathy and understanding, the ability to communicate, and an understanding of how important it is to listen,” she says. “You hear time and time again hiring managers talking about how they can teach the skills, but it’s those soft skills that they really look for.”

PayScale’s recent report, How to Win in the Skills Economy, shows that employers find recent grads lacking in both hard and soft skills, including critical thinking, leadership, and grit. Real-world experience can help bridge that gap, giving students an advantage when they continue their formal education and long after graduation.

For more information about pursuing a gap year experience, check out the Center for Interim Programs or the American Gap Association.

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