Gap Year in the News: Summer 2017

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The media highlights of the Gap Year movement continue. More students are enrolling in Gap Year programs and students in high school are increasingly considering taking a Gap Year as an important piece of their educational plan. Check out these articles and share them with your community:

Making the Most of a Gap Year Before College

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If you’re going to take a Gap Year before college, definitely make the most of it! NBC talks about how to do just that:

“A gap year is a wonderful opportunity for young people to take a year to follow a passion before attending college,” said Avis Hinkson, dean of Barnard College in New York. “Some will have internships, some will travel, some will fulfill religious responsibilities and some find paid work. All-in-all, they will grow and mature.”

“While the reasons for a gap year can vary from the pursuit of a passion project to simply needing to work to earn money toward that degree, in every case, the year should be a worthwhile use of time.

“There are the hard benefits of making money and the other benefits of expanding one’s world view,” Ruderman said. “Schools want to see you do something productive – where you are getting a discernible benefit.”

Why More College Students May Want to Consider a ‘Gap Year’

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VOA Learning English published this piece & accompanying video delving into the reasons behind taking a Gap Year. Check it out:

“Stoke told VOA she felt different when she returned to the United States to begin her studies at Virginia Tech in 2014. She said she felt at ease and that she knew more about herself as a person. Also, when talking with friends who went straight to college from high school, she found many had a difficult time in their first year of college. Some told her they questioned the field of study they had chosen. Others said they felt lost at the college or that they were wasting time doing things like partying.”

Dadline: Don’t Rap the Gap Year

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The Roanoke Times encourages older people to be a little more open mined about the rising trend of taking a Gap Year between high school and college in this call for intergenerational understanding and support:

“Sneer at those kids who take a year off from school, if you want. Call them spoiled, homesick and lazy. Those descriptions would have applied to me in 1987. Heck, they apply to me today. But if a potential college student needs an extra year to make the right decision, one with a lifetime’s worth of consequences, what’s it to you? Doesn’t matter if they spend their time skiing in the Alps or working in a garage, just as long as they figure out how they are going to make a difference in the world.

Believe me, sometimes you can learn a lot more about life away from a classroom than in one.”

How To Make Your Gap Year Valuable To Prospective Employers

This is a big one for a lot of Gap Year participants, whether you’re trying to impress a college board or an employer upon return. A Gap Year can translate into immense benefit to your career path forward, the trick is in communicating that.

“It’s also important to identify the key skills that are crucial to the job you’re applying to. The beauty of gap years is that participants come away with a set of soft skills that are more difficult to hone in a college environment. Knight suggests thinking of your gap year experience from three lenses that an employer will likely value: the ability to work independently and be a self-starter, the ability to collaborate in a team, and the ability to think on your feet and be entrepreneurial when necessary.

Participants of gap years, according to Knight, usually tend to have those skills well documented and well experienced. But it’s important to identify specific instances where they were able to practice those skills, and communicate them to a prospective employer in the interview process.”Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 11.46.57 AM

More Gap Year News

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The Gap Year movement is definitely on the rise! From personal stories to all the good reasons why a Gap Year is a great choice, there is more media attention on the benefits of taking a Gap Year than ever before. Share these articles with your community:

Considering a Gap Year?

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With a reputation for encouraging every incoming freshman to take one, it’s not secret that Harvard is a powerhouse supporter of the Gap Year. Rhea Bennett shares what she did on hers and asks some questions to help you think through whether a Gap Year is a good idea for you too:

“Many of us work our butts off during high school to be the best we can be, and that can be tiring. Many students come out of high school with depression or anxiety, or are simply burnt out. That is a-okay! You are allowed to take time off from school to maintain your mental health and well being either before college and/or during college. It is not a race to graduate.”

Yara Shahidi Will Take a Gap Year Before Going to Harvard

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In entertainment and higher education news, another high profile young woman is taking a Gap Year and going public with her plans. Teen Vogue reports:

“Black-ish star Yara Shahidi announced on Instagram last month that she’d accepted an invitation to attend Harvard, where she wanted to major in sociology and African-American studies. But she won’t be headed there this fall, she told InStyle. Like her soon-to-be classmate Malia Obama, she’ll be taking a gap year.”

What You Need to Know if You’re Thinking of Taking a Gap Year

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The South African College of Applied Psychology provides some helpful resources for those in the decision making stage with this article. Check it out:

“What are your motivations for taking a gap year? Give real thought to the rationale behind delaying your further studies. Many of the best benefits of taking a gap year are difficult to quantify: maturity, confidence and a refined sense of direction for instance. As a result, the questions you need to ask yourself should be deep and broad.”

Programs Aim to Make a Gap Year Possible, Regardless of Financial Background

NBC takes the time to highlight Gap Year programs that are working to increase economic parity by providing options for students with financial need. We need more of this!

“Princeton, like Harvard, encourages its incoming first-years to delay the start of college. Programs such as Bridge Year offer incentives to make it as easy as possible, regardless of financial background.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but statistics suggest that a break between high school and college produces students who are more dedicated to their courses and more apt to get involved in service work.”

Gap Year in the News

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There’s been a lot of great media coverage of the Gap Year movement this spring. Here are a few stories to encourage, inspire, and educate yourself, or skeptical friends about the value of a Gap Year.

Two Who Opted for a ‘Gap Year’ After HigScreen Shot 2017-07-12 at 10.52.30 AMh School

Let’s start with two guys who opted for a Gap Year after high school and what they learned, published in The Almanac:

“Asked about being self conscious as an American abroad, Peter sounded a note of humility. “I would never want to assert myself or do anything self-centered (or act to advance) a goal of mine that is self-centered,” he said. “My willingness and interest in using Spanish kind of stems from that respect.””

On walking the whole Appalachian Trail, he said:

“I would say it was very enlightening,” he said of the hike. “When you’re out in the woods every day, you have nothing to think about but yourself.” One insight: “You can kind of wing it if you really put your mind to something. As long as you put your effort into (it) you can achieve some pretty awesome things,” he said. “This is a pretty awesome thing, at least for me. It was something I didn’t think I could do.”

Selling Your Business? Consider Taking a Gap Year

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According to the Miami Herald, Gap Years aren’t just for young people any more! Mid-life or mid-career Gap Years can be the catalyst to the next big thing in your life. Consider this:

“These benefits are not limited to college students. I have witnessed highly successful individuals take gap years after selling their businesses, when they are not yet willing to retire but want to take some time off. They have used the time very wisely to attain even greater professional and/or personal success and fulfillment. Here is the secret:

First, make sure your financial house is in order. Consult your financial advisors and develop a financial plan.”

Voices: How my Gap Year Taught me That I Matter

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USA Today College featured a young man who discovered his worth on a Gap Year:

“Bali was the dose of perspective I needed in my life. Everywhere I looked, I saw people less fortunate than me, but I saw so many smiles as well. These were people who were content because they had people around them, and they were simply happy to be living life. Any love you showed to the children at the school would be reflected back at you two times over. It was a small haven of pure good, and for the first time in my life, I was so happy to be on this planet. Even though I wasn’t happy with myself, I was happy to be where I was.”

18-Year-Old Works Three Jobs to Afford Gap Year Travel to Machu Picchu

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How do you afford to take a Gap Year? YOU WORK! Hard, and a lot, just like Isabel Conde did, as told by Teen Vogue:

“Isabel took a gap year following high school graduation in 2016 and split her time among babysitting, being a law office secretary, and working at World Market. Six months of up to 60 hours per week later, she saved $7,500 for her trip and $1,000 more for college. She put Machu Picchu on her dream board to keep her going.
“I just kinda bought a plane ticket and got on a plane by myself — I didn’t know anyone in Peru,” she told Insider. “I had this moment where I was like ‘What am I doing!’, but as soon as I got [to Peru], I saw the mountains, nature, the beautiful people, and the culture, and I knew I did the best thing I could for myself.””

College Applications and Gap Years

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Sterling College Senior Dinner

Sterling College Senior Dinner


What do college admissions officers think about Gap Years, and how might the decision to take a Gap Year impact your college application prospects? In this post Tim Patterson, Director of Admission at Sterling College in Vermont, sheds some light on Gap Years from the perspective of a college admissions officer.

More and more students are choosing to take a gap year between high school and college. For college admissions officers like me, the growing popularity of gap years is a trend that merits close attention. Personally, I am a big fan of gap years because I believe that students who take a gap year arrive at college having gained a clearer sense of purpose that helps them focus and succeed in their program of choice. However, Gap Year students need to figure out how to approach the college application process, including the question of when to apply.

Should I Apply To College Before Taking A Gap Year?

Students often ask if they should finish their college applications and defer enrollment before taking a Gap Year. Most colleges, including Sterling College, allow students who receive an offer of admission to defer for up to one year by submitting an enrollment deposit. Alternatively, some students choose to hold off and complete the application process during their gap year, or apply after the gap year is complete. There are pros and cons to each approach.

The conventional wisdom that I usually hear from college counselors and parents of gap year students is that students should finish the college application process before embarking on a gap year. The argument goes something like this:

Settling on a college before a gap year helps students because they can access all of the resources of their high school college counseling office while completing their college applications. Additionally, by deferring college enrollment before a Gap Year students can make the most of their Gap Year experience instead of being distracted by college applications.

If you stop and consider the perspective of many college counselors and parents this argument makes a lot of sense. After all, counselors and parents have been known to worry that a Gap Year might somehow lead a student off track, and they want the reassurance of knowing where and when the student will go to college. Also, since high schools keep track of the plans of graduating seniors and often look favorably on graduating a high percentage of college bound students, guidance counselors can sometimes feel pressure to successfully “close the file” on each student before graduation. However, I think a different approach is often the right call.

You can apply to college during a Gap Year

You absolutely CAN apply to colleges during a Gap Year, and for many students I think that doing so is the right choice. Here’s why:

A Gap Year is a time of growth and change

Students almost always gain a great deal of perspective and maturity during a Gap Year, and many emerge from the experience with new academic interests and a more evolved sense of purpose. Applying this new perspective and self-knowledge to the college search can lead to students to consider college options that are a better fit given the self-knowledge gained during the gap year. Precluding that possibility by choosing a college before the gap year might be the “safest” option, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Not going to college right away isn’t a catastrophe

The average age of a student here at Sterling College in Vermont is 22, and generally speaking students who have life and work experience before college are more focused and successful in their studies. There is nothing wrong with delaying college until you’re fully ready, clear-headed, and prepared. If your Gap Year leads you to other opportunities, it’s OK to take advantage of them instead of imposing a fixed end to your gap year experience.

A Gap Year can make your college applications stronger

When my colleagues and I are evaluating applications, we look for things that set an applicant apart. Students who are able to describe their Gap Year are often our most captivating applicants, and we know from experience that students who have completed a Gap Year are often better prepared for success in college than their peers who attend college straight out of high school.

Students with a clear sense of purpose thrive in college

I keep coming back to the phrase “sense of purpose” because I think it’s a pivotal part of the whole conversation about Gap Years and college applications.

Like many colleges, Sterling College has a clear mission and purpose – we happen to be focused on a mission of environmental stewardship, with majors in Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems, Ecology, Outdoor Education, and Environmental Humanities. It takes a very focused student to succeed at Sterling, and we look hard for evidence of that sense of purpose during the application process. A gap year is a great opportunity to hone in on a sense of purpose, and then approach college applications with clearer focus and intent.

Gap Year students can be savvy about financial aid

Finally, a word about affordability. I believe that we are in the midst of a student debt crisis in this country, and I am often shocked at how little students and parents know about financial aid and college affordability in general. I could write a whole series of posts about financial aid, but here are the points that are most relevant to gap year students:

  • Financial aid packages can change from year to year.
  • Students are in the best position to advocate for an affordable financial aid package BEFORE they commit to a college.

By committing to a college before receiving the financial aid package for the academic year in which they plan to attend, students sacrifice all of their leverage and are unable to compare financial aid packages and find the best fit at the best price.

The choice is yours

Ultimately, the choice of whether to apply to college before, during, or after a gap year is up to you. If you have already have a clear sense of where and why you want to go to college, by all means go ahead and lock in your plans before your gap year. Just don’t feel as if there is only one path that you need to follow. One of the most important lessons of a gap year is that you are free to make your own choices, and use your own compass to navigate the world. This is true in life, and in college as well.

To contact Tim Patterson, or learn more about Sterling College, please visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.

Interview With a Gap Year Student

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Kai Millici took her Gap Year in Ecuador. Her high school newspaper interviewed her about the experience:

Where in the world are you? What have you been doing this year?

I am living in a small town called Imbaya in a northern region of Ecuador. My program, Global Citizen Year, placed me with a host family where I have a mom, dad, a brother and a sister who are all really involved in the community. I live with them and work in the afternoons with my mom at the Caja de Ahorro y Credito, which is a small credit union for the town. Right now the members are working to meet the requirements to become a Cooperativa, which is a larger credit union that has more benefits for its members.

My program also placed me in the Caja. For about a month I didn’t have anything to do in the mornings before the Caja opened so I was given the option by my mom who asked around to teach English at the local school, work at the health center, help at the local preschool or the local daycare. I chose to help at the preschool to be able to be active in the mornings since I spend most of my time at the Caja sitting, and because it allows me to be more involved in the community by meeting a lot of little kids and their parents. I’ve also come to enjoy it a lot because it’s really interesting to see the first interaction Ecuadorian children have with their education and what the way they are being educated says about the culture. On top of that, I take Spanish class in the city that I live outside of once a week, and do a lot of activities with extended family of which there is a lot.

Why did you decide to take a Gap Year?

I took a Gap Year for a lot of reasons. For one, a lot of my interests that I’m looking into exploring in college are international relations-related: government, development, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. These are all things that I think feel really abstract and foreign if you only study them in a classroom. Especially for interests like diplomacy and development, it felt weird thinking about pursuing those in college, and then potentially as a career, without knowing what any of that actually looked like when all of these policies and negotiations and laws are made and people have to live them. So I guess more simply I wanted to see the effects of development initiatives, see how government interaction with citizens is different in a different culture, and gain a better understanding of what I wanted to study in college before I was learning about it in a classroom. This goal ended up working out really well because the Caja that I work at is one of many under a development organization based in our region, which also gets some aid from the U.S., so it’s been really interesting to observe how that works and the pros and cons of that.

I also felt that throughout high school I had been overly-focused on my grades and getting into college and always kind of looked at everything as having to be a straight path. In a lot of ways that mindset has held me back so I really wanted to have time between high school and college to see who I am and how I react to things when there aren’t grades, tests, activities, cliques, and the like involved.

I haven’t traveled a lot before this year but the small amount I had taught me a lot about how the world is changing, the ways that we can all be similar but the ways that we are different depending on our culture and history, and a bunch of other ideas and questions that got me so curious and excited. Everyone tells you to travel while you have the chance, and I knew I would probably regret it if I didn’t do it. I also wanted to be able to travel somewhere long enough to really get it. Of course, after eight months I’m not going to be Ecuadorian. There are still a lot of things about Ecuador I won’t be able to understand. But the longer I’ve been here the more I realize how much I didn’t know before. I wanted to travel somewhere and be there for a really long time.

Has this experience taught you anything about yourself? If so, what?

It’s taught me so much about myself, but there are a few things that I think keep coming up for me all of the time. The first is that I shouldn’t place so much importance on everything. That’s not to say that I want to stop being punctual and bringing my hardest-working self to any work I do, but working this year and realizing I don’t have to freak out and analyze so much after every time a supervisor says I did something wrong or anything like that is a big thing for me to learn. People’s view of me and my reputation is built over time and I tend to forget that and over-analyze every little reaction someone has to my work. I’m still working on that but I’m glad to have identified that as a problem this year.

I also want to spend more time with my family and prioritize that more, because the work-family/life balance in Ecuador is much more focused on family and being around your extended family all of the time here. There are certain things about that focus here that I don’t think are possible with how my lifestyle and a lot of my peers’ lifestyles are in the U.S., but family as a bigger priority is definitely something I want to take away from this year.

You have to put in a lot of effort to get to know where you are when you’re traveling (talking to a lot of different people, walking around, going to events, activities and all of that), but through doing that here I’ve realized I don’t know that much about Seattle either. By this I mean I spend most of my time with friends in the same parts of Seattle, I don’t prioritize making new friends too much, and I don’t really try to learn about my city because I assume I know it having lived there my whole life. So I guess I’ve learned that it’s really easy to become comfortable and assume you know a place, but you should keep trying to peel back layers so you get to know it even better, and then you get to be in your comfort zone in more places.

What have been a few of the highlights so far?

Last week I went with four of my friends to the Amazon for a week. I live in the mountains so the scenery was still way different from what I was used to, and the climate and how people who live there adapt to it is way different. We got to see a bunch of monkeys and snakes and other animals, swim in the lagoons in black water (to be clear: it was clean it’s just known as black water), canoe a bunch, hang out with our really cool tour guide, hike through the forest, and wake up to the sounds of all the animals because we were sleeping in tents.

I wasn’t placed in Imbaya immediately, first all of the Fellows in my program were in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador, for orientation where we lived with temporary host families for three weeks and met every day to learn about culture, the education system and that type of thing. I remember getting into Quito on a flight super late at night, and just looking out the window and realizing I was going to be in Ecuador until April. It was one of those moments where you have no idea what you’re looking at or what you’re getting yourself into, but you know eventually you’ll be looking at the same view or same thing with so much more understanding and clarity which was really cool.

On a day-to-day basis I most look forward to just talking with my mom Mayrita every day at lunch. My dad works all day and my brother and sister aren’t home when I’m home for lunch, so I just eat with her. I’ve loved getting closer and closer to her as the weeks have passed and learning about her life and sharing about mine. Forming that relationship was tough at first because both sides have some trouble understanding each other (culturally and language-wise) and now it feels so rewarding being able to talk to her about so much and feeling so comfortable.

What have been some of the challenges? Have you overcome any of them? How?

All of my challenges have stemmed from being out of my comfort zone in one way or another. They range from small things like being laughed at on the bus if I don’t know what stop to get off on, getting a spider bite or having to eat foods that I’m not used to. Those are challenges because no matter how good of a day you are having they remind you that you’re in a place you aren’t used to and that can be hard. The bigger challenges are more constant. It’s seeing your friends all come home for winter break on Snapchat or Instagram while you’re thousands of miles away from your family on Christmas and all you want to do is go home. On the day after the election I was really upset because I did not want Trump to win, and that was really hard because nobody really understood. I felt like I had to suppress my feelings and on top of that I didn’t feel like I could fully communicate my needs or anything like that so it felt lonely and overwhelming. Things like that. You’re kind of constantly stretching yourself and while that’s great it also means there are going to be so many big and small challenges that come up for you when you’re out of your comfort zone.

As far as overcoming them, I try to just think about why I came here in the first place and that helps a little bit. Like not look at what is happening or what I’m feeling in the moment as a bad feeling, but a feeling that reveals something about myself I wouldn’t get to see otherwise, which makes it more of a blessing or something to be grateful for. Which is way way more easier said than done. When that doesn’t do the job I facetime friends or family, listen to music, or just do something that reminds me of home.

Do you feel ready to jump into college next year?

Honestly, the fact that I’ve had a whole year without doing essays and math tests and all of that means I’ll probably have a rougher first semester than most people academically, but I know once I get back into the swing of things it won’t be a problem. But as far as navigating being away from home and having to take care of myself, I have so much more experience with that than I could if I just went straight to college. I also have more questions about the topics I want to study and more clarity on how I want to spend my time, so I think in that sense I’m also much more well-prepared for college than I would be otherwise.

If you had the chance to redo this year and choose Gap Year or college, which would you choose?

Gap Year without a doubt. You’ll never have the opportunity to travel somewhere for this long without having to worry about a career, or taking care of your kids or any of those things. I think a year like this allows you to go into college more passionate about the things you’re studying because you’ve seen it in a sense, so you get more out of it than you might if you did it in your junior year of college when you don’t have a lot of time left.

Overall pros, cons and recommendations?

Pros:
You learn so much about yourself, you learn so much more about a different culture and a different part of the world than you could if you traveled for less time, and you make a lot of great connections throughout the year, with friends you’re traveling with and the people you meet in your community. Also for those that aren’t convinced it’s a good idea just because of the personal growth stuff, you also learn/practice a different language, get internship experience in a field you’re interested in, and take part in something that’s becoming more and more popular and seen as more valuable to employers and groups that want to see evidence of travel experience and maturity.

Cons:
It’s super hard and while you adjust to where you are, it never stops being hard for one reason or another just because there are so many facets of it that are out of your comfort zone and you know that you won’t be in your comfort zone for a really long time. That being said, the benefits and what you learn from putting yourself through a gap year are beyond worth the hard parts.

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kaiKai Millici

Kai is a Global Citizen Year Fellow spending her bridge year in Ecuador. She is passionate about traveling, journalism, education reform, social justice and Native Peoples’ rights. In high school Kai was involved in soccer and track and field, was editor of her school’s newspaper, and studied international relations at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, D.C for a semester. Her goals for the year are to become fluent in Spanish, gain a better understanding of herself and her values, explore her interests in education and entrepreneurship, and learn about Kichwa history and their current state.

What Matters More Than Talent: Meta-Learning

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I once led a six-week leadership retreat for five young people taking self-directed Gap Years. I rented them their own apartment in the bustling town of Ashland, Oregon, and challenged them to devise a clear set of independent learning goals, which they would pursue with daily mentorship from me and my co-leader.

One student wanted to learn about biology and Kendo; another wanted to improve her photography and web design skills. So I sent them away to interview biologists, martial arts instructors, photographers, and designers. My students boldly introduced themselves to complete strangers, pushed themselves to learn both online and offline, and blogged about their successes and failures, over and over again.

Those were just the weekdays. On the weekends, I sent them on wild adventures to build their self-directed resolve in some rather unusual ways.

For “hobo weekend,” they hiked on train tracks (on which trains weren’t actually running) to a local reservoir and camped out under tarps and thin blankets, a lesson in the importance of maintaining one’s attitude in a difficult situation: like not having a home to return to at night.

For “travel weekend,” I challenged teams of students to get as far away from our home base as possible, and back, in 48 hours with only $50. I showed them how to use Craigslist (to find cheap rideshares) and Couchsurfing (to find free housing), gave them some safety protocols, and then sent them on their way. One team made it as far as San Francisco, a 700-mile round-trip.

For “entrepreneur weekend,” the students attempted to earn as much money as possible using only $5 seed capital. For “paperclip weekend,” they traded up a worthless starting object (a paperclip) into a more valuable one (a set of golf clubs) using only their wits.

For the final weekend, I gave them surprise one-way tickets on a Portland-bound Amtrak train, a to-do list with tasks drawn from previous retreat activities, and the challenge to eat, sleep, and get themselves back four days later, with a budget of only $80 each. (My co-leader also boarded the train, trailing the group undetected with a fake moustache, as an extra safety measure.) Spoiler alert: they made it.

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What Matters More Than Talent

When the program ended, everyone went home happy—and I spent a long time asking myself why I ran it.

The leadership retreat combined some of the most fun and interesting activities I’d picked up over my years of hanging around innovative summer camps, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, world travelers, and outdoor educators. I hadn’t thought about how they fit together before I ran the program, but there had to be a common thread. What was it?

An excerpt from a blog post by the author Seth Godin finally nailed the answer for me:

“An organization filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, ethical and driven people will always defeat the one that merely has talent. Every time.”

The world is full of places that try to teach “talent,” school and college being the preeminent two. But the world has far fewer places that attempt to teach honesty, motivation, ethics, and the other traits Godin described.

Yet for many businesses and other enterprises, these traits ultimately matter more than talent. People get hired for professional skills and fired for personal skills.

That’s when I realized that what I was teaching at the leadership retreat was what educators call meta-learning: the personal skills that help you learn effectively in complex and unpredictable environments.

Building the Skills That Matter

The leadership retreat wasn’t really about sleeping under a tarp or finding rideshares or learning Kendo: it was about building resourcefulness, creativity, self-regulation, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and focus.

It was about greeting a stranger, learning from a defeat, arguing one’s case, and telling a good story. Meta-learning was the thread that connected all of my own formative educational experiences, and I was trying to pass that thread along.

If you’ve spent the majority of your life on the competitive college-prep track, then you’ve gained a very specific set of meta-learning skills:

The ones that help you succeed in structured and academic-focused learning environments. But if you don’t see yourself becoming an academic or corporate professional—if you want to have a more self-directed life that defies conventional expectations and boundaries—than you’ll need to expand your meta-learning capacities.

Gap Years are Laboratories for Meta-Learning

When you leave the academic bubble to travel, work, and learn in the real world, you’re navigating complex and unpredictable environments. You’re tackling novel, multi-faceted problems each day. You’re developing your heart as much as much as your mind.

No matter if you sign up for a traditional Gap Year program, do a crazy program like mine, or bootstrap a solo gap year, you’re doing a service to your career and your soul. You’re signing up for an experience that doesn’t just pour information into your head; it helps you learn how to learn. The investment will pay for itself over and over again.

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Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College and The Art of Self-Directed Learning. He leads gap year and travel programs through his company Unschool Adventures.

This post was adapted from Chapter 15 (“Learning How to Learn”) of The Art of Self-Directed Learning.

A Short History of the Gap Year

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clothes-travel-voyage-backpackWith the decision by President Obama’s daughter, Malia, to take a Gap Year after high school and before entering Harvard, the spotlight has been put on this increasingly popular stage in the development of individuals. Some commentators applaud Malia’s decision while others deride it.

Malia will not be the first member of a “first” family to take a Gap Year.

A major boost to the Gap Year concept was given when it got “royal approval” in Britain with Prince William taking a Gap Year before starting at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Among his adventures he spent time sleeping in a hammock in the jungles of Belize, working on a dairy farm in the UK and laying walkways and teaching English in remote areas of southern Chile.
Catherine Middleton, whom he married also took a Gap Year before going to St Andrews. She spent time studying in Florence, Italy and crewed on Round the World Challenge yachts in races off the south coast of England. And, like her husband to be, whom she only met much later when they were both at St Andrew’s, she also spent time in Chile.

Because the Gap Year is a relatively new phenomenon in the USA where less than two per cent of students take a gap year after high school, it might be useful to know something of its background as a structured element of a young person’s education.

Considered an Essential Part of Education

As far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries young people of sufficient wealth undertook “The Grand Tour”, a year-long trip around the principal cultural centers of Europe. This was considered an essential part of the education of a gentleman.

In modern times the roots of the Gap Year movement can be traced to Britain. After World War II, all young men were conscripted at age 18 for two years of National Service in a branch of the armed forces, unless they were granted a deferment to continue their education and enlisted after graduation.

Looking back, this can be seen as a kind of enforced two-year Gap whether you were going on to further study or to join the workforce. It was a period that accelerated “growing up”. It was also a time when the majority, who had never been away from Mum and Dad and the comforts of home, could learn to fend for themselves. By the time that those who were going to continue their education arrived at the universities, they had matured in many ways that their professors contrasted favorably with younger entrants coming straight from secondary school.

National Service began to be phased out in 1957 and the last conscripts were demobilized in 1963. This uncovered a problem unique to the peculiar educational system in Britain. All universities in England and Wales, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge based the selection of applicants on the grades they achieved in the final year examinations sat each year in July, known then as “A” levels. They would start as college freshmen that same year in September. But, candidates for the two ancient universities, even though they had taken their A levels and knew the results, had to stay in school for another trimester to take the Oxbridge entrance exam in December. Pass or fail, this group would find itself at a loose end until the following September/October. This nine months could be wasted or put to good use. (A few especially gifted students took this exam in December of their penultimate school year).

Gap Activity Projects & Frank Fisher

Enter GAP (Gap Activity Projects), brainchild of Frank Fisher, the celebrated headmaster of Wellington College, one of England’s premier independent schools which sent many pupils on to Oxford and Cambridge. His idea was to create a clearing house of structured activities that could be undertaken in this “fallow” period and would prove useful to the student as well as to the community at large. Fisher’s influence extended well beyond Wellington itself. He had been the Chairman of the Headmasters Conference, the association, or club, of the heads of Britain’s 200 elite boys schools and also established and taught a six-week course for men who had been selected to become head of one of these schools for the first time. This, of course, was in the time before Wellington, along with most other similar schools went co-ed.

It was during the 1970’s that I became associated with GAP as a volunteer public relations official. The organization was expanding to serve pupils at other schools well beyond the elite institutions and was increasingly part of the mainstream educational system. A small amateur start-up had come of age, separated from its parent and turned professional. It achieved charitable status in 1976.

Most of the activities on the GAP “menu” involved travel within or far outside the British Isles. Many involved manual work, a major change from the academic life the applicants had been used to and awaited them in their future careers. Most had a social purpose of some kind.
The GAP organization recently changed its name to Lattitude Global Volunteering to reflect its international outreach as well as to avoid confusion with the clothing store chain.

Gathering Early Data on Gap Year Students

After a few years there was a thick volume of case studies reporting on the experiences of gap year students (known in Australia, where taking a gap year has become the norm, as “gappies”). In addition to useful but rewarding assignments, there were some remarkable examples of what might be achieved by young people, not yet twenty years old. One small group used their Gap year to build an eye hospital for 200 patients in Bangladesh.

It was not long before many students, their parents and most especially many other universities began to recognize that a Gap Year, productively spent, had many advantages. Instead of being merely a way to ensure that young people could make productive use of an otherwise wasted nine months they saw that a gap year could be as important a part of a person’s development as one spent in the lecture hall.

Gap Years Have Clear Benefits

From the point of view of the universities, students who had taken a Gap Year arrived more mature and with greater ability to manage their lives. This in turn enhanced their academic performance, according to many college professors and administrators. A survey conducted in the USA found that students who include a Gap Year as part of their higher education experience earn college degrees in less than four years and are almost twice as likely to vote in national elections. The survey, which was conducted by Nina Hoe, PhD of the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University, interviewed 1,000 American Gap Year students and alumni ranging in age from 18-60 years old.

For the many students who wanted no delay in their education and went straight from school to university, the Gap Year became one after graduation and before beginning a lifetime’s career, very much on the line of the Peace Corps in the USA. Lattitude Global Volunteering caters to young people up to age 25 and reports that taking a Gap Year after college is becoming increasingly popular.

It did not take long before Wellington College’s offspring GAP Activity Projects was joined by a plethora of organizations – both commercial and charitable – offering Gap Year programs of all kinds. And the concept caught fire internationally so that now taking a Gap Year is the norm in many countries.

Nor is taking a Gap Year any longer reserved for the well-to-do. For families with limited financial means grants are available to students eager to do voluntary service. Other organizations specialize in arranging paid assignments. Some young people see a Gap Year (or two) as a period in which to earn and save for college fees so they do not end up burdened by excessive student loan debt.

Maybe Malia Obama’s decision will give a boost to the Gap Year concept in the USA making it as accepted a part of the educational trajectory as elsewhere.

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Michael Morley is the retired Deputy Chairman of Edelman, the world’s leading public relations firm, and author of two books on PR, published by Macmillan

The Unbelievable Career Advantages of Taking a Gap Year

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There are plenty of reasons why you should consider taking a Gap Year. Finishing high school, and moving on to college is a pretty big step. You should take some time to mark this transition, and really internalize the importance of this moment. A Gap Year shouldn’t be just a period in which you can take some time to relax, though that’s pretty important as well. You should use this opportunity to figure out what you’re going to do further on, and prepare for your future career.

Taking a Gap Year is a smart decision, no matter what you decide to do with it. But if you’re going to take some time off, you should try to maximize the potential benefits of this period.

Gap Years Improve Your Job Prospects

Gap Years can be immensely useful for your future job prospects. There are some who consider taking Gap Years even after they’ve finished college, and are already employed. Even though they’re motivation for taking a mid-career break is somewhat different than yours, taking some time off before you’ve settled into a career might save you the time and hassle of having to do it later.

Many employers say they value work experience over education. This should not be taken as a plea in favor of abandoning college all together. Having a college degree is a given, for most candidates, so naturally employers are going to look for relevant experience, that can set them apart. Finding work during your Gap Year might seem like a difficult task, but there are ways you can maximize your chances of landing a job that can help you gain that all important work experience.

Use Your Gap Year to Experiment

Your Gap Year is the perfect time to experiment, and explore different career paths. That way, you’re going to have a head start when it comes to investing in the training for your chosen career. You can use the experience you’ve gained during this period to find a major that suits you, and perhaps even find part-time job during college, so you can continue to work on your CV while you study.

Develop New Skills

And for most jobs that require a college degree, apart from work experience, and a relevant skill set that relates directly to your field, most employers value soft skills as well. Soft skills can only be acquired through daily practice. That’s not to say you can only develop them during your Gap Year. You’re probably going to keep on learning, and practicing all throughout life. But during this time you’re going to find more diverse opportunities to put your skills to the test, in situations you might not encounter otherwise. These are immensely valuable experiences you should not dismiss. These are the kind of things that are going to make your resume stand out later on.

Gap Years are also great opportunities to learn foreign languages. In an increasingly globalized work market, knowing more than one language is going to make you an immensely valuable employee, regardless of your field. And the sooner you start learning, the easier it’s going to be. Plus, it is much more easy to learn a foreign language when you’re living within that culture, than it is to learn from books, and CDs.

Leverage Your Blog in Your Job Search

You can start documenting your Gap Year experience through a personal blog, or personal web page. This can be the basis of a future portfolio, if you’re considering starting a career as a freelancer. It’s going to help you meet, and bond with people who share passions similar to yours. The people you connect with via these experiences, either directly, or via your blog are going to form the network of people you can rely on when you start hunting for a job. Often times, knowing the right people is more valuable than anything else. Because people would rather hire someone they know, and trust, rather than a person who looks good on paper, but might not be such a great person in real life.

If you’ve already set your heart on a specific field, consider the skills you won’t be learning in college. During these months, instead of trying to learn ahead for your future courses, try learning something you might not have time to learn later. You never know when those skills might come in handy, and having a vast array of skills is going to stand out in the eyes of any employer. Plus, you might discover something you enjoy that you’ve never considered before.

There are nay-sayers who believe that Gap Years are just a waste of time. But the truth is the only time that’s really wasted is the one not spent learning something. Your Gap Year can be incredibly valuable for your future job prospects if you take full advantage of the opportunity.

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About the author: Marc Mendelman is a Junior HR consultant and a Contributing Editor at Today Assistant. He is passionate about identifying daily work hacks and creating ways of increasing personal and professional productivity. You can contact Marc at marc.mendelman@gmail.com

Why My Child’s Gap Year is Vital

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There are a lot of great arguments for the value of a Gap Year for young people. Chief among them seem to be the focus on a break from the long slog of 12 years of institutional schooling, the value of getting outside of a home culture and seeing from different perspectives, and the time to pursue passions in a way that might develop clarity on a professional path forward. These are great reasons, and I agree wholeheartedly, but they don’t apply to my kids.

My kids didn’t attend a brick and mortar school until they transferred their outside the box credit into university programs. We spent 8 of the most formative years of their childhoods traveling full time, across six continents and dozens of countries. Their entire education has been focused around building their dreams and pursuing their passions.

Does taking a Gap Year still matter?

It is my opinion that taking a Gap Trip is a vital part of any education. It builds confidence, provides a test flight, and develops independence in ways that forever change the course of a young life.

Gap Years Build Confidence

Most young people approach the bridge to adulthood with some anxiety. As parents, we wonder if we have done enough to prepare our kids for the “real world,” and we are nervous about their first forays into the wilds alone. It has been my observation that the only way to build confidence is through experience.

The only way to gain experience is by actually doing things. The only way to actually do things, is to bravely take a risk and conquer a hard thing. Of course there are risks, and then there are risks. Gap Years provide a way for students to take small, calculated risks as they develop in their confidence. A well chosen program will have this built into the experiential learning.

Your child may appear perfectly confident in her home environment and perfectly capable within the sphere you have raised her in, but we all know that the real world is bigger. A Gap Year is the perfect way to stretch her wings and expand her confidence.

Gap Year As a Test Flight

In our family we talk a lot about “test flights” and we don’t wait until a Gap Year to begin them. My kids fly alone between family members homes from a young age. At 13 they have all taken their first semi-solo trip or educational experience. By 15 they have all spent as much as a month completely on their own, traveling or studying, in some capacity. As they graduate high school we expect them to take a self-planned, self directed journey of at least a few months in order to flap their wings a bit and gain some experience with self governance in the larger world.

Of course the nature of a test flight is safety nets. We work with our students to plan their Gap experience and (unbeknownst to them) we put a few safety measures in place. Such as, reserve funds of cash, back up people in the countries they’re traveling to, and extra insurance on their trip and their stuff.

Gap Years Develop Independence

We can’t imagine, when our children are tiny, that the day will ever come when they don’t “need” us. But, if we’ve done our jobs properly, that day does come, and to my way of thinking, the sooner the better. Not because I don’t want my kids around or to have a voice in their lives, but because I want, more than anything, for them to be strong, successful and fulfilled in pursuing their dreams. Maintaining control in their lives longer than is absolutely necessary would cripple them in that. My goal as a mother is to give them roots, wings, and a nest to return to, but never be bound by.

In planning and executing a Gap Year your young person will develop and actively practice independence. When my daughter required stitches in Italy, I couldn’t help her. When her phone was stolen in Paris, she had to learn to file a police report. When my son waged war with a violent storm on the Mediterranean, he and his team were on their own. When he lost his wallet and his phone in Barcelona and was completely out of money, he had to figure it out. When another son needed to make his way, by bus, through the mountains of Guatemala his second language had to be strong enough to work it out fro himself. As painful as those sorts of experiences can be, they are the building blocks of independence. Until our young people actually stand on their own two feet, they won’t know if they can, and we won’t either.

There is a lot of hand wringing and lament over the state of the millennial generation. The general sentiment seems to be that young people can’t handle their own lives, or make their way in the “real world.” I would like to submit that one solution to that dilemma is the Gap Year. Young people who travel on their own develop confidence on their test flights and they grow in independence in ways that simply can’t happen without taking the leap outside of a box. Even a non-traditional box, like ours.

Photo Credit: Josh Felise

What’s the Point of a Gap Year?

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To be the campus stud, obviously!

No, just kidding. People pack their gap-year-bags with many unique motivators: gaining more experience or understanding of an area they’re thinking of pursuing in college, making money to pay for said-college, volunteering, or meeting people from halfway across the world.

There is actually no one point to a Gap Year – that’s the beauty of it. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. There’s no guidebook to tell you what to accomplish, how to get from A to B, or a review sheet for some standardized post Gap Year final exam.

The point of a Gap Year is up to YOU, the gapper yourself, to define.

Say QUOI?

Okay, we’ll back up a bit.

Did You Have A Say In Your Education?

Besides choosing one elective over the other during your upperclassmen years of high school, it is rare that the US system invites students’ opinions into the curriculum-deciding-parties. On the one hand, this is good, because they are experts and they have experience in defining what all youths need to assimilate in order to adult well. On the other hand, it does have a negative side effect – students become less invested in their learning and kind of forget how cool learning is in general (save for that one science lesson on how to make ice cream at home).

The reality is: most school administrations barely let students have a say in their lunch options, let alone in including classes in the liberal arts or other extensive courses. So if you don’t feel like your interests or passions were catered to in your general education since kindergarten, you’re in luck.

Now You Can Have a Say

All bets are off. The Gap Year is time that you, specifically, can devote to deepening your understanding of whatever the heck you want. Spanish? Cool – tons of programs in Latin America. The life of a farmer? Yup, Gap Year programs have you covered. General self-awareness and independence? Comin’ right up. Curious about working in construction? There’s an international job for that.

Fleshing out the point of YOUR Gap Year is some serious exercise in self awareness. Are you already breaking a sweat? But with time, reflections, conversations with mentors and your family, a chunk of research online to know all of your program options, you are bound to craft an adventure that can (and will!) reignite your interest in learning.

It’s Okay if You’re Not Ready

Taking the reigns of your life and your education is no small feat – especially considering that we’ve been herded around like cows from class to class and schedule to schedule all of our academic lives. It’s okay if the task seems more daunting than exciting. You can either choose to face it head on, balls to the wall and overcome it – or, alternatively, you can sign up for a Gap Year program that will help guide you through this process (which will likewise include balls to the wall learning and excitement, just served up a little differently).

Another perk of using a program like Carpe Diem Education or Thinking Beyond Borders is the instant community of fellow gappers that you gain. It’s fun to see the world, but it’s also really fun to see the world in the company of friends – people who are wrestling with life’s big questions, just like you. If the point of a Gap Year is up to you self-define, it helps to have friends and peers you can bounce ideas off of.

Should I do a Gap Year?

A Gap Year can bring tremendous value to a young person’s life. It’s not just taking cool photos, having epic experiences, and running out of pages in your passport. It’s a short term investment with long term gains. If you are calling to question the status-quo or norms of your life, you’re ripe for adventure. Exposing yourself to new ways of living, new ways of thinking, and new ways of cooperating will only further help you make “sense of it all.”

Everyone, especially you, should do a Gap Year.

The underlying goal of a Gap Year should be to explore: the world, your mind, your heart. Find what excites you to learn about. Chase that curiosity, whether it takes you around the corner or around the globe.

Photo Credit: Annie Spratt

Article contributed by Megan Lee