In the United States, young people are told that our career paths should resemble a factory assembly line. A one-size-fits-all conveyor belt carries us through grade school, middle school, and high school before we move over to the college track. Four years later, we’re expected to transition smoothly into the grown-up working world.
It’s easy to see why this formula makes sense on paper: healthy societies depend on strong education leading to good jobs. The only snag? This classically U.S. model of success doesn’t reflect reality.
We should admit that finding gainful employment is rarely so smooth a venture. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students complete their Bachelor’s degree within six years, never mind what TIME Magazine calls the “myth of the four-year degree” (it reports that in 2012, the four-year graduation rate for Purdue University sat at a mere 42 percent).
Then there are those of us who do manage to finish on time. I graduated from a prestigious private university and will soon complete my Master’s at a well-known public school. However, like the 260,000 college graduates with a Bachelor’s degree or higher that worked minimum wage jobs in 2013, I don’t feel any closer to a particular career than during my first years as an undergrad.
These statistics force us to assess our cookie-cutter “path to success” as a misguided one at best. They also push us toward making proposals to fix that path.
Here’s mine: we need to reconsider what is known as the gap year, or a year taken off from career demands (like school or work) to engage in some other activity – often travel.
In the United States, pursuing a gap year is frowned upon. We interpret “taking some time off” as “taking some time down,” and once you get off the whirlwind ride, they say, it’s hard to get back on again. But despite a general cultural disapproval of gap years, the number of people choosing to take them is on the rise. In 2013, roughly 40,000 people nationwide participated in sabbatical programs (up 20 percent from 2006). This number neglects those that took a personal year without participating in any program at all.
So what is a gap year, really?
Well, it’s hardly an excuse to sit in your parents’ basement for twelve months. One year taken off from school, between jobs, or at any stage along the way should help you build a personal vision of the world and your place in it. By breaking up the career assembly line, a gap year allows you to be intentional about your long-term decisions and goals. Statisticians at Middlebury College have even plotted a correspondence between gap years abroad and higher GPAs/faster graduation times.
The concept of the gap year enjoys wider acceptance in other countries than it does in the United States. In Belgium, for example, employees are entitled to one year of absence from their jobs per lifetime via the Time Credit System, while in Israel, it’s customary for young men and women who have completed their mandatory military service to go backpacking abroad before starting college or launching a career.
Here in the United States, there are countless groups eager to advise those considering the big gap leap. These include the Center for Interim Programs, which names itself the “first and longest-running independent gap-year counseling organization” in the country and offers a database of over 6,000 program opportunities for students, recent graduates, and mid-career and post-career professionals. Other groups, like Habitat for Humanity and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, make financing a gap year easier by allowing participants to work for room and board.
Before you consider programs and destinations, take the time to understand your potential gap year as a deliberate experience. Virtually limitless options mean that you have to be honest about the big picture you hope to gain. Are you seeking rejuvenation? A sharper understanding of your professional objectives? The opportunity to create meaningful change in the lives of others?
Whether you want to work, volunteer abroad, or just experience new landscapes, acknowledge what you’re hoping to accomplish from the start. I’ve seen gap years include everything from employment on an Arctic cruise ship to volunteering with Ecuadorian non-profits to living for months in the solitude of Patagonia. You are the creator of your own experience, so create it to nourish yourself.
In the end, college admissions officers, graduate selection committees, and professional interviewing panels all seem to agree that gap years – when pursued earnestly – can result in fresher and more focused individuals better prepared to make enduring contributions to their communities. For more than 35 years, according to the U.S. News and World Report, Harvard’s acceptance letters have included the recommendation that students take time off before enrolling.
As the gap year gains its own devotees in the United States, I can’t help but wonder if it will one day become a common feature of an American path to professional and personal fulfillment. After all, if I could give one piece of advice to my 18-year-old, impressionable, ambitious self, it would be this:
Take some time off, girl.
Does a gap year sound right for you? Have you taken one before? What was your experience? If you’re a hiring manager or an admissions counselor, how would a gap year factor into your consideration of offering a position to a particular candidate?