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  • Stephanie Haynes

Can A Gap Year Really Be Beneficial? Yes!

Gap years, taking a break from formal schooling in order to learn and gain experience in a different way, are increasing in popularity, but can they be beneficial?

Gap Seasons (often referred to as Gap Years, which can be a misnomer), taking a break from formal schooling to learn and gain experience in a different way, are increasing in popularity, but can they be beneficial?


One of my clients, a high school student, wants to have a gap season after high school. She is worn out by schooling and not interested in any particular major or career path but has a passion to travel and see what the world has to offer. To her a gap season seems like a perfect idea.


Her parents are not necessarily unsupportive, but do not know how to trust that a gap season will lead to anything beneficial for their daughter. They worry she will "fall behind" or end up on the couch with nothing to motivate her. In their minds, continuing schooling at least guarantees she will be doing something productive with her time.


There is a lot of confusion about the benefits or even purpose of a gap season. Made popular by Malia Obama, among others, the discussion has largely centered on whether a student can really be successful at one.


While it is tough to believe that a typical 17- or 18-year-old can effectively plan to utilize their time well in an unstructured environment, gap seasons can work for some students. The catch? Parents and students need to work together to create a solid plan.


According to the Gap Year Association a Gap Year is

"A semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one's practical, professional, and personal awareness."

While this sounds good, practically speaking how does one actually build a year (or semester) that “deepens their practical, professional and personal awareness”?


I believe it starts with the actual student. Students who would do well to take a gap season can fall into one of several categories:


Those who have no idea what to do with the next phase of their lives and are not driven to continue formal education. These students are burned out by school. They may have been labeled "poor students" because they didn't fit the mold and are struggling with the thought of more of the same. These students are also those who have not yet developed a pathway for themselves towards success. They are often overwhelmed by the thought of having to decide on a career for the rest of their lives at 17 and struggle to do so.

In this case a gap season plan that focuses on helping them identify their gifts, talents, and strengths, learn how to utilize them in various ways, and directs them into developing a pathway to success can be hugely beneficial. Not only can it help them better understand themselves and increase self-confidence and self-awareness, it can also help them save time and money by giving them the opportunity to explore in a non-binding way before making a commitment to something that may not be a good fit for them.

Those who have a clearly defined view of their future career for whom experience will add leverage. These students are highly motivated and know exactly what type of career they want in life. They may even have their college picked out and their major decided. These students would do well to network with others, serve with others, and seek out specific internships in their chosen industry to develop leverage in getting hired at a company in their chosen industry.


In this case a gap season plan that is based on a specialized internship or other career development program can make the student much more competitive. Sometimes thought of as an internship, this type of gap season can be limited to a summer before college, an in-between season between high school and college for up to a whole year (or more), a study abroad program during a college semester or year, a sabbatical from college after general education requirements are fulfilled, or even taken after college graduation before seeking full-time employment.


Those for whom a college degree is not necessary and experience in the industry may lead to full time employment without it. These students may be interested in the trades or other industry areas for which a degree is not required. While certifications are often necessary, taking time to experience life in a chosen trade area before committing to a certification program would give these students the opportunity to better understand their chosen industry, network with future employers, build a solid skills base, and develop a clearer picture of opportunities for career advancement that may influence the decision for future schooling.


In this case a gap season can be an apprenticeship that starts in high school, fills the summer after graduation, spans a semester or whole year before starting a certification program or comes after a certification. This is also sometimes considered a paid internship in which a company may hire an untrained employee and invest in their development to bring them on full-time.

Those who need to take a break from formal schooling and/or are driven to serve. These students may have done exceptionally well in high school, or not, but they may be burned out and need a break or have a heart to step away from their desires to serve others. For these students a gap season makes sense for several reasons: it can be a physical way to leave behind their stress and overwhelm, it can be a way to invest in causes and community development opportunities they are passionate about, and it may give them a way to see more of what the world has to offer them in an unstructured way which can enhance their worldview, creativity, and even hire-ability. Each of these experiences can become a source of inspiration that leads to a career.


In this case a plan that focuses on a faith-based program (as in a missions trip), with a non-profit organization, as part of the peace corps, or in another service-based capacity can help the student regroup, reassess their priorities, and establish their plans for their future.


Those who want to go to college but cannot yet afford it and are motivated to find entry-level employment in their chosen profession. These students do not want to go into debt to fund their education, and do not qualify for as much student aid or scholarship money as they need. They may enroll in a local community college if they can afford it to get some classes completed towards a degree or certification and lessen their overall expenses, but they are chiefly motivated to build experience while building wealth to be able to fund their education needs.


In this case a gap season plan that focuses on gaining full-time employment (preferably in the industry of their future major or industry) and keeping their expenses low (like living at home) can help the student avoid debt and develop a clearer picture of their career pathway.


While a gap season is not suitable for every student it is worthy of consideration simply to establish options and give the student the opportunity to choose for themselves. A well laid out plan can lead to unexpected success.


Join the conversation: What would your ideal gap have been/be like?

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Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina
stephanie@stephaniehaynes.net
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