So, you’ve decided to take a gap year: Congrats, welcome to the club! You’ve taken the first step towards a wave of irreplaceable development. In the next year, you will have the opportunity to learn skills ranging from communication to time management to industry-specific needs. You will even have time to spend on self-discovery and self-agency, and bolstering your academics before heading off to school (if you choose to go back).
Chances are, you’re here because you’re looking for some tips on how to put your grandiose gap year plan into action in a way that ensures it is a year on rather than a “year off.” When done right, gap years can be one of the most pivotal points of growth and learning a young person has, and deciding to structure your own gap year means making things happen in as hands-on a way as possible. If you aren’t planning to participate in a program like Year On that provide the infrastructure to travel, learn, and intern, here are 10 ideas that can help you structure a productive gap year:
1. Create a schedule and stick to it.
You’ve heard the stereotypes – people think a gap year is a year-long vacation. That’s wildly inaccurate. After all, students who take gap years typically out-perform their peers academically. But, sometimes, without a syllabus or class schedule or work routine to guide you, it’s easy to fall into a Netflix-binge slump. Don’t let the year pass you by! Tip #1 for self-structuring a gap year? Create a schedule. What time are you going to wake up, and what are you going to do immediately? When is the time for work and development, and when is the time for fun? Sounds boring, but if you’re going to make the most of your year, it is important to know, at least in general, what your day holds. Sticking to a schedule (rather than just checking items off a to-do list) can actually help you prioritize, have more energy, and increase your productivity.
2. Find an internship.
The benefits of internships are plentiful--opportunities to work hands-on in your chosen field, building relationships and making connections, developing your resume with tangible experiences. Consider your internship a crash course in learning the most about whatever it is you’re interested in. There are more options available now than even a few years ago as remote internships are on the rise and many organizations will let you “shadow” even if they don’t offer a formal internship program. Now is the time to start thinking critically about what you’re interested in trying.
3. Work a job.
"Wait--I’m supposed to get a job and an internship?" you’re probably asking. In my opinion, yes! Unless you’ve got a super intense internship schedule, divvying up your time between different kinds of work lends itself to developing skills in time management, organization, and self-agency. It is also a great way to help structure your time during a gap year: During my own gap year, I worked a part-time job that kept my bills paid while learning via an unpaid internship on the side. The internship was in a field I had no experience in but was curious about, so I couldn’t expect to be paid right out of the gate. The combo also ensured my time was always accounted for, I was never bored, and emerged from my gap year with plenty of work experience to show for it.
4. Look for affordable travel opportunities.
There’s little doubt that travel benefits everything from independence to worldview, and research even suggests travel can be a perk when it comes time to get a job, and helps you stand out in the college application process.
5. Volunteer--and really get your hands dirty.
Don’t talk about it, be about it! What ways can you help your community? Can you tend to a community garden? Volunteer at the children’s hospital, or spend some time hanging out with nursing home residents? Working with kids in an after-school program? It’s easy to envision “volunteering” as something that happens overseas, but the reality is, there are people and organizations who could use a helping hand right in your own backyard. Find a way to make a positive, sustainable contribution that goes beyond donating to a canned goods drive.
6. Pick out a skill to learn just for fun.
Sometimes, skills or hobbies don’t wind up on our resumes--they’re things we do because we enjoy them! Commit some time during your gap year to doing that thing you’ve always wanted to try, whether it is learning to cook a certain dish, practicing riding a unicycle, or finally learning to play the guitar.
7. Learn a language, or take a class.
A gap year is a perfect time to brush up on a new skill set, whether it is coding or learning a new language. Learning a new language is advantageous in the workforce and for your brain health. An added bonus of how to study STEM outside school is by utilizing open, online courses--all of which are free! Like school, but sans the homework. Doesn’t get much better than that.
8. Find a mentor.
We rarely do anything alone. While a college counselor might help you schedule classes, the role of a mentor is wide-reaching. They can offer feedback on your work, introduce you to people you need to know and be a crucial source of guidance.
9. Partner up with an accountability buddy.
Take finding a mentor one step further: Try to meet peers who inspire you, challenge you, and push you forward. Even more specifically, set up a system of checking in, even if it is just via email or text: You can both outline what you want to get accomplished and when, and have weekly check-ins to make sure your work gets done. You could even expand the community by organizing a meet-up or coffee hour!
10. Document it all.
Sure, we’re all addicted to our smartphones...but when it comes to structuring your gap year, is that such a bad thing? Hopefully, you’ll be having tons of new experiences, meeting new people, and trying new things. Set up a space devoted to capturing it all, whether it is a web portfolio full of your latest work samples, a blog where people can read your thoughts on your adventures, or an Instagram account specifically for housing your gap year memories. Not only will it be an amazing thing to look back on, it will help jog your memory about your exploits when it comes time to write a cover letter or apply to school.