3 Ways a Gap Year Can Pay Off

3 Ways a Gap Year Can Pay Off

There is much discussion these days about the value of a gap year.  A gap year is a term used to describe a year, granted by the university that has accepted a student, between leaving high school and entering college that students can use to work, do projects and generally experience the world before officially entering college. Many institutions of higher education offer a gap year and some, like Harvard, even encourage it.

For me, GAP is an acronym that stands for Get A Perspective.  Left up to me, a GAP year or two would be mandatory and here is why:

  1.  Helps pinpoint gifts and passions – Those who read this blog frequently (thank you so much to all three of you) know that I place a high priority on starting the discovery process early in life to identify your gifts and talents. Unfortunately, a purposeful path of discovery is not the norm and most teens find themselves unaware of their gifts and talents at a time when the education system requires them to choose a college major and a career that will put them on a particular track for the next 50 years.  It is not surprising that most of us spend 4-6 years, and leave college with a sizeable debt, pursuing a major that is mostly unrelated to our eventual career.  A 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York pegs that mismatch at 73%.
  2. Provides opportunities to serve – My observation is that most teenagers are pretty selfish and serve as the center of their own universe.  There are a number of scientific studies that attempt to explain this phenomenon in terms of neurons, receptors and hormones but basically it comes down to “everything ain’t connected yet”.  Natural maturing processes will eventually change this situation but I believe a good dose of refocusing priorities and real world decision-making could jump-start the maturation process.  I’m not talking about backpacking across Europe to “find yourself”.  I’m talking about taking a year or two to serve others, solve real world problems, and figure out your gifts and talents.  A few examples include waiting tables and saving money to go on several mission trips, working in a startup, pursuing multiple paid internships, volunteering at non-profits, programs like City Year, or even military service.  This period should not be a random event but a purposeful pursuit of discovering passions and gifts, and developing skills while serving others.
  3. Figure out what you don’t like – This may be as important as figuring out what you do like.  It is important to sort out what you seem to have a passion for but aren’t that skilled at, what you are naturally skilled at but don’t care about, and what you absolutely never want to do again.  There were not great choices for summer jobs in my small town growing up but I learned some very valuable lessons working as a laborer during the construction of coal-fired power plant.  These kinds of experiences motivated me to go to college because I did not want to be doing this to support a wife and kids when I was 40 years old. Spending time with a relative who was a lawyer and internships in college working in local government helped me to hone in on what I thought I wanted to do.

Unfortunately, the idea of a Get A Perspective(GAP) year or two before we make big decisions about college and career will likely not catch on any time soon.  Most education institutions are still on an agrarian calendar, higher education has become a big business that doesn’t like disruption, and we have become accustomed to the SYSTEM pushing us along.  As parents, most of us are going a hundred miles an hour with our hair on fire and it’s simply more convenient to follow the formula than to engage and manage our children’s education and discovery process ourselves.  I’m not sure whether Joshua, our young entrepreneurial son, will have a few GAP years spent trying to build a startup before eventually pursuing college, or whether his GAP years will evolve into an entrepreneurial life.  I do know this, it will be on his terms and he now has an understanding of what it will take to achieve his goals.  He’s learned a great deal about himself, business and life since leaving high school a few years ago.  The decisions he makes going forward will certainly be more informed, goal oriented and long-term.

THE TAKEAWAY – A purposeful GAP year or two can make a big difference in college success.  Why do you think Harvard encourages it?  Some parents fear that if their kids don’t go to college right out of high school, they may not go at all.  I believe this period, if it is done in a purposeful way that helps define strengths, weaknesses, and interests, can result in an optimized college experience, a more meaningful career and a more fulfilling life. Get in the GAP and discovery yourself. 


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