A gap year is typically taken either between high school and college or between college and graduate school, and if you’ve ever thought about taking one, you are probably aware that it can make or break your resume. On one hand, if you take full advantage of your gap year and allow yourself grow as a person, it can make you stand out above the pack when it comes to school and job interviews. On the other hand, if you are lazy and turn it into a year-long vacay, it can bite you in the ass when you re-enter the real world.
1. Purposeful Travel
Make traveling more than just a checkmark on your bucket list. Resist the temptation to embark on a guided tour of Europe or Asia where you quickly graze over the highlights of each country without digging any deeper than that. You will learn a lot more about the world and yourself if you get out of the tourist mindset and the typical tourist attractions.
If you don’t know where to start, think of a place that has always inspired you or has special meaning to you. For example, if you know your family immigrated from Germany and you want to learn more about your roots, spend a couple months in Germany! Or, if you have always been passionate about the different forms of Asian theater, go indulge yourself in it in Japan or Thailand.
Budget your money and plan it out so that you can spend at least a month or two (hopefully six months or more) there because with that amount of time, you will begin to see things like a local rather than a foreigner.
2. Work on a Personal Project
Some people decide to take a gap year because they want to focus their efforts on a personal project that they wouldn’t have time to complete otherwise if they were in school. These kinds of projects can include writing a novel, creating a collection of sculptures or paintings, conducting scientific research, developing a smartphone app, or pretty much anything else you can think of.
Completing this project in your gap year will give you a huge sense of accomplishment, and it will shine on your resume because according to a study conducted in Australia, “Gap year students are perceived to be ‘more mature, more self-reliant and independent’ than non-gap year students.” If you are taking a gap year between your bachelor’s degree and another advanced degree, doing a project in your desired field will make you that much more appealing to the admissions staff.
3. Volunteer Your Time
Volunteer work is one of the greatest things you can do with your time, during a gap year or otherwise, because you are contributing to the community while also allowing yourself to grow in a selfless way. There are many opportunities you can choose, from helping out at your local animal shelter to teaching children in third world countries.
If you can’t figure out what you want to do, just go out and try a few options to see which ones “click.” Think of what majors or careers seem appealing to you and volunteer in that field. Such as, if you think you may want to be a teacher, spend some time helping out in a preschool or after-school program. Another great idea is to bring a friend to volunteer with you, especially if you are nervous about doing this on your own.
4. Get Work Experience
Obtaining a job is a popular option for many people who choose to take a gap year. While some do it to save up money for further schooling, others do it simply go gain work experience if they have little or none up until this point.
This gig doesn’t have to be your “dream job,” so don’t be too picky during your job search. Even if you end up at a job you don’t like, such as waiting tables at a restaurant, you can be content knowing that this experience is still valuable. You may learn how to work with people better, how to stay calm under pressure, the list goes on and on! The skills that you learn during your job can immensely help your work ethic for when you actually do find the job of your dreams.
5. Learn Something New
This is personally one of my favorite options because you can learn so much even while you’re not in school! Do you want to learn a new language? Purchase Rosetta Stone (or the budget-friendly option is to take courses on lynda.com, coursera.com, or Khan Academy), find some conversation partners either in person or online, and you will have mastered a skill that the vast majority of your peers will never have.
Do you want to learn how to sew so you can go to fashion design school? Buy a sewing machine, a ton of fabric, and some books or classes to help you along the way. Even if you don’t end up using your skill in your career, it’s something that you can always come back to and use if you need it at some point down the road.
6. Figure Out Who You Are
Many 18-year-olds start their freshman year of college with no clue what they want to do with their lives, so they end up taking a lot of classes they don’t need and spending a lot of money they don’t have. There’s nothing wrong with trying out different disciplines in college, but if you’re short on money, it’s not the most financially responsible option. If you decide to take a gap year to figure out who you are and what you actually want to do with your life, you’ll have a clear goal to work towards once you are back in school and you’ll know what classes to take to achieve that goal.
Now, how do you figure out who you are? The best answer is to explore. Finding yourself isn’t just about finding your career, and you may discover that exploring your “non-academic” interests could actually lead to a career and a life you wholeheartedly enjoy! Such as, you may enjoy photography, but have never seen it as a viable career option. But why not? Hone your skills and see where they take you. Even if you don’t end up pursuing professional photography, the skills you learned will pay off for a lifetime. Don’t doubt yourself. If you want to do something, do it, and don’t worry about what other people think. Figuring out who you are now can save you from figuring it out when you’re forty and filled with regret about who you could have been and what you could have contributed to the world.