Lesson #2 from My Gap Year: Try Everything

A follow up of Ben’s first post about his gap year.

A Gap Year is a fantastic way to get some answers. Typically, more important than finding what you want to pursue, is finding out what you absolutely don’t want to pursue. Prospective gap year students should seek the greatest breadth of experiences possible in order to check off potential areas of study, and pursue the short list that remains once in college.

Designing my own gap year is still one of my greatest accomplishments. I take pride in the fact that I turned “I’m not ready for college yet” into one of the most productive years of my life. I hiked the 2,174.6-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, worked in a variety of industries, and taught English in Peru. In looking at potential interests that I pursued, however, I was only able to check off a few. I learned that I didn’t want to work in telemarketing or light fixture manufacturing (no surprise there), data entry, or retail. But these were the jobs that I could get straight out of high school. The good news is this lesson made me really want to get a college degree, so my first semester in college yielded my highest grades yet. The bad news? I still didn’t know what to study.

I came away from my gap year interested in education, but my lack of breadth throughout the year meant my examination of other disciplines was far from over. I started majors in communication, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. I waited until the last possible day – halfway through sophomore year – to declare my major as international relations. I wandered through more than a third of my college education. J.R.R. Tolkien was right when he wrote that, “Not all who wander are lost” – in fact, I had a pin stating that on my backpack for the entire trail that year – but when the financial stakes are as high as they are in college, it’s best to have focus.

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My advice to you: don’t treat your college tuition money like the entrance to a buffet. Instead, spend your gap year doing as much as possible in as many areas of interest as possible. You will become a well-rounded person, a greater asset to your school and future employer, and a more interesting person!

A skills-based gap year is the best way to ensure that when you step on campus as a freshman, you’ll know what to do next.

A Lesson from My Gap Year: Relax, You’re Awesome.

High school students receive drastically different messaging than I do as someone in the field of experiential education. They’re asked every day what they want to be when they grow up, where they are going two months after they graduate from high school, what they want to study, and what they want to accomplish. Most of the adults who ask that probably don’t even know what they want to be, do, or accomplish, so they’re asking pretty unfair questions.

My favorite thing about getting out of high school and college is that I now hear a completely different philosophy. My colleagues consistently say that there’s no way a high school student should be expected to know what they want to study, let alone what they want to do with their life. My life goal is to make sure high school students receive similar, more supportive messaging.

If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, you’re probably feeling pretty vulnerable. People probably ask you “why?” Because you have guts, that’s why. If something doesn’t quite feel right about going straight to college, listen to your gut, and figure out a responsible plan of action. People will understand – even if it’s after the fact.

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Senior year, students at my high school consistently asked me why I wasn’t going straight to college, and they asked the question with both curiosity and a palpable tone of confusion. A few weeks into my gap year, I was a couple hundred miles into the Appalachian Trail when a Facebook group popped up: “I wish I was Ben Welbourn.” Front and center: a photo of me conquering another mountain. It was created by our class president/football captain/lacrosse captain/resident stud. That was my first positive reinforcement from a peer, and it happened over a year after my decision to defer from college. After that, I got more and more support from high school friends and complete strangers from the college I was yet to attend. Be patient!

A week before graduation, my high school Spanish teacher asked me what my plans were post-high school. When I told her I was about to start a gap year, she told me “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” Initially, I took that as an insult, as if she was telling me, “Yeah, you’re a mess, so you’re probably not ready for college.” I’ve kept in touch with her long enough to know now that she just saw a gap year as a great opportunity for me to find focus.

Stick to your guns, but put in the leg work to make sure that once you do take your gap year, you’ll come out with new skills and experiences that everyone will appreciate.

How a Gap Year Can Add Value to Your Career

While taking a gap year has become an increasingly popular trend among high school seniors for various reasons, there are many benefits to doing so for those who are in the workforce, too. Whether you’re about to don your cap and gown — or already among the employed — taking a gap year offers specific advantages that can positively affect your career.

 

What a Gap Year Is All About

In a recent post by Counseling@NYU, which offers an online masters in school counseling from NYU Steinhardt, titled “Gap Year Basics: How Taking a Year Off Increases the Ceiling for Students,” looks at the dynamics of a gap year. Although some may view such a choice as a luxury, individuals take gap years for various reasons — such as saving for college, working, traveling or for religious purposes. In an interview for the article, Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association (AGA), noted that serious gappers dig deep to learn more about themselves. He says they: “… confront limits they didn’t know they had, succeed more frequently than they would have thought before, and are exposed to new and different ways to lead this thing called life.”

5 Ways a Gap Year Can Benefit Your Career

There are many advantages to taking a gap year. In addition to the positive results of its own 2015 National Alumni Survey, the AGA highlights data across a variety of studies that show what benefits can result from making this choice. This and other resources demonstrate the advantages that are possible, including the following five:

 

  1. A better sense of self and deeper multicultural understanding — which helps individuals learn how to cope with new challenges in a creative manner.
  2. The acquisition of new skills and knowledge for career enhancement — many of the attributes that employers look for can be gained during gap year activities. Many take a gapyear to learn a new trade, or do a short course that enhances their skills.
  3. Increased job satisfaction and employability — studying abroad during a gap year has been shown to have a big impact on getting both jobs and promotions.
  4. Expanded networking potential — made possible both by extensive travel and the ability to shed the pressures felt back home.

When Your Gap Year Is Over

Although it may seem daunting to re-enter the workforce or school after the gap year is through, there are specific things you can do to ease your transition. If you’re headed to school and your admission has been deferred, be sure to contact the institution involved and let them know you’re ready to hit the books. When it comes to getting back into the workforce, it’s important to let your current employer know you’re back — and to rework your resume if you’re looking for something knew. The AGA offers the following tips for doing so:

  • Communicate the value of your experience clearly.
  • Focus on the skills you acquired, rather than the experiences you enjoyed most.
  • Structure your resume correctly, with gap experience under the right section, like ‘Volunteer Experience’
  • Know your audience and what role you want, and align your resume accordingly.
  • Use specific metrics to be concise and communicate the value of your experiences.
  • Remember that a gap year is seen by many as a choice made by the privileged, which is not always the case. Clearly articulate why you took the gap year and emphasize the well-rounded experience.

Knight expounded further in a recent interview for Fast Company, offering the following recommendations:

  • Treat your experience like a job and include it in your application materials.
  • Be clear about why you took a gap year.
  • Know what the employer is looking for and show how the gap year has helped.

If you plan your gap year strategically, embrace the experience fully, and communicate its benefits clearly — you can enhance your self-growth while adding value to your career.

 

Colleen O’Day is a Digital Marketing Manager at 2U, based out of the Washington DC area. Colleen supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and K-12 education programs