You don’t have to completely give up your twenties to the working world. These years offer the time to explore passions you may have never known you had. You might have a business degree but don’t know if a corporate role is the right fit. Maybe you think you want to be a journalist instead. Take a gap year and try writing for a local newspaper. You might love it, or you might find out you hate it. But at least you tried it.
If you’re still unsure of which direction to head in, a gap year can help. “The greatest benefit of taking a gap year for me was discovering my independence. As a young timid, 18-year-old girl, the feeling of hailing my own cab, eating out alone, fighting my own battles and finding my voice is a feeling unmatched by any other moment in my life,” said Emma Jo McAuliffe, member of the Florida State University Gap Year Fellows Program.
If you are considering a gap year, check out these top 10 ways to maximize your time off.
1. Personal Reflection
You’ve just finished four tedious years of school. You studied hard, you graduated, you stuck the landing. Now you need to decide which direction you want your life to go in. “For some individuals they feel like they are moving forward but they have a lot of questions and sometimes anxiety or doubt, in coaching we call them the gremlins,” said Beth Kennedy, entrepreneur, career coach and author of Career ReCharge: Five Strategies to Boost Resilience and Beat Burnout. Taking time off to think and reflect might solidify your path and ease those gremlins.
Those “aha” moments don’t happen while you slave away at a desk inside a cubicle. They happen when you travel out on an adventure in a new city or climbing a mountain in a far-away country. Traveling forces you outside your comfort zone and gives you a broad view of the world. This leads to those awesome personal insights. People also travel just to have some fun before grabbing life by the horns. “During my gap year, I saved enough money to travel through Europe and simply enjoy life before hitting the books in my first semester,” said Nick Beekhuizen, first year law student at University of Miami. One last pre-professional hurrah never hurt anyone.
This one is simple—just read, read and read some more. I don’t mean read the entire Harry Potter fiction series, I mean read brainy books—topics like psychology, politics, business or technology. Educate yourself on your future field by reading some experts advice. Book learning shouldn’t stop when you graduate. “A gap semester or year has proven to give great introspection and perspective to students,” said Jill Tipograph, career consultant and co-founder of Early Stage Careers. It’s important to have a foundation of knowledge before entering the job market. Do some heavy reading during your time off and you will begin to see yourself as a lifelong learner.
4. Try New Things for Fun
That whole nose-to-the-grindstone attitude has a time and place, but not everything in life needs to feel like a job. I’m guilty of this myself—always pursuing something and rarely taking a step back to contemplate. Life doesn’t have to feel like a to-do list. Write some poetry, smell some flowers, have fun and open yourself up to the possibilities. None of this happens while you constantly tell yourself “I need to get my sh-t together.”
5. Destress and Decompress
Professional burnout really happens—and it sucks. Getting ahead in life is important, but is it worth exhausting yourself? If you’re thinking long-term, taking one year off to recharge won’t put you very far behind at all. “Think of yourself as a battery and figure out what are some of the strategies you can do on a daily basis to recharge yourself emotionally and mentally,” Kennedy said. For some, yoga or meditation may do the trick. For others spending time in nature or reading their favorite novels would bring them zen. Also, you’re young—don’t forget to have fun and enjoy your youth. It’s a marathon after all, not a sprint.
6. Part Time Work
College costs a pretty penny and everybody hates student loans. Taking on part-time work to save money can be a game-changer. In addition to saving and improving your credit by chipping away at those student loans, it can also put you into a working mindset before landing a career job or going to graduate school. “Working during my gap year prepared me to treat graduate school as a job. In addition to my matured work ethic, I gained a clear goal for my future and could focus on achieving that goal,” Beekhuizen said. Also, having extra cash will boost your morale every time you gaze into your wallet.
7. Learn a Language
What better time to learn a new language than a gap year? Especially if you go abroad. This allows you to further immerse yourself in other cultures, and not only for the personal benefits. Learning a new language can help you in your career too. If you are the only one at the company who can speak Mandarin Chinese, they’ll call on you for the all-expenses paid business trip to China.
8. Tour Colleges
Picking which college you attend impacts the rest of your life. But cramming in a bunch of college visits over spring break can almost cause a heart attack. “Too often, we are rushing to get to the next thing in life and students are often burnt out after high school,” said Hege Ferguson, director of admissions at Florida State University. “Taking a gap year provides the individual the opportunity to take that knowledge gained in high school and apply it to real life experiences, to reflect on these experiences and to explore their interests before starting their university studies.” Whether it’s undergrad or grad, all universities have their pros and cons. Having the time to explore different schools on a deeper level might better prepare you for the next important step in your life.
9. Build Your Resume
Time is money, but it’s also experience. Nowadays, it seems like companies look for more and more experience. During a gap year, you have time to make your resume stand out from the hundreds of others in the employer’s stack. Boost your resume by becoming fluent in a new language, volunteering abroad or taking on a part-time job. Sharpen your copywriting skills or even become certified in Google AdWords—because the more skilled you are, the better off you will be. Assuming you didn’t slack off during your year off, you will most likely have a clearer vision for your future.
10. Gain Clarity Around Your Career Path
You probably won’t have all the answers at age 21—most people don’t. And that’s completely fine. “There are more than 800 careers today, which is overwhelming; and it is not possible for someone on their own to understand all the right-fit job opportunities that may be applicable to them,” Tipograph said. Immersing yourself in different cultures and gaining extra valuable work experience can help you grow as a person. These effects will help you succeed in choosing a career path the best career path for you.