When I tell people that I’m taking time off before going to university, the question I’m most frequently asked is this: “Where are you traveling to?”
The thing is, I haven’t made any exotic travel plans. I won’t visiting poverty-stricken villages in Africa or teaching English in Vietnam, and I’m okay with that. For me, a gap year is a time to learn about what I enjoy in the way that I enjoy. Traveling is great way to do this, but it’s far from the only option.
Instead, I am learning about different things in different ways: for example, how to excel in my full-time job at UnCollege. It’s easy to have a fantastic and productive gap year even if you’re not going to be travelling.
Here are 4 other examples of how you can keep learning on your gap year:
1. Find an internship in the field you want to go into
If you have relevant work experience, visit the “We’re hiring!” page of a few of your different companies. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry: there’s an easy way to avoid the Catch-22 of finding a job without previous experience — volunteer.
Unpaid internships are increasingly common these days, and while there’s a bit of controversy surrounding them, they’re extraordinarily useful if your goal is to gain the skills and work experience that you can later leverage to land a paying gig.
There is tremendous value in pursuing an internship (that’s why they’re a key component of UnCollege’s Gap Year Program.) By doing real-life work, you pick up skills that are actually valued by recruiters. By working under someone, you naturally position yourself to find a mentor who is invested in your success. By interacting with your colleagues, you build your network of friends and supporters.
Perhaps most importantly: instead of wasting 3/4 years of of your life majoring in something you think you’d like to do when you grow up, intern in the industry and see what an actual day on the job looks like. You will have a much better sense of whether or not it’s actually a good fit for you.
2. Attend or volunteer at one event a week — alone
Check out Eventbrite, Facebook groups that curate events, community bulletin boards, and so forth. Choose one that would be potentially interesting to you. It could be a guest lecture, an industry-specific mixer, or even a music festival. Bonus points if you email the event organizers and ask if you can volunteer.
Mark it on your calendar, and go. By yourself.
There are tangible benefits to this: you make friends who have similar interests as you, build your network to include people of all ages, and learn to be comfortable doing things by yourself.
This is one of the best ways to practice your social skills. How can I introduce myself in 100 words or less and carry on an engaging conversation with anyone? That’s what you learn.
3. Give yourself weekly challenges
How can we systematically grow and improve? By routinely doing things that scare us. At UnCollege, fellows pursue weekly challenges that push them out of their comfort zone for exactly this reason.
For me, missing out on new and interesting things on the internet is scary. Ergo, I am often glued to my computer, and I’m aware of that. My challenge for the week might be to shut my computer off completely after 8pm every day. Sure, it’s difficult and scares me a bit, but since the challenge only lasts for a week, who cares?
Travelling is inherently challenging, which is why it’s often such an impactful growing experience. Fortunately, we can emulate this by simply introducing challenges into our lives regularly.
4. Keep an online learning journal!
One of the most valuable things you can do on your gap year is to keep an online learning journal. You will grow so much as a person in a year, especially one that you design yourself.
Cataloguing that growth will not only be interesting to look back on (and probably highly amusing as well), it is also a valuable resource to show potential employers in the future. This is particularly true if you plan on taking a non-traditional route — you’ll need evidence to back your skills.
Final thoughts: there are so many ways to learn on a gap year. These are just four ideas. When we take time off from school, we are not taking time off from learning. In fact, the beauty of a gap year is that you get to choose what, why and how you learn. Make the most of it.
Jean is a recent high school graduate who is taking time off before attending Stanford University. She is Community Manager at UnCollege, an organization that runs gap year programs to help young people become self-directed learners, as well as develop the network and personal brand that they need to succeed without going to university. Find out more about Jean.