As spring rolls around and school approaches its conclusion, a lot of us are looking to next year. If you’re looking at your last days of high school approaching, you’re already facing a huge decision. Are you headed off to college with the crowd? Chances are, if you’re reading this, there’s at least a part of your heart that’s telling you to take a gap year. Go see the world, get some experience, live a little before deciding what you’re going to study or do.
It used to be that going to college was the norm and just about anything else was considered to be a lesser achievement. But now, times are changing and opportunities are easier to come by than ever before. However, it’s one thing to decide on a gap year, but something entirely different to decide what to do with it. You could go anywhere, do virtually anything. How do you narrow it down?
Well, as someone currently on his seventh gap year in a row, I’ve got a couple of ideas by now. Today we’re going to go over a number of ways you can spend your gap year gaining valuable experience, pushing your limits, and trying new things. You can stay in your home town, travel to a new state, or take on the world. It’s easier than you’d think. By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear picture of just how much is out there, as well as how to narrow it down to what’s right for you.
Get an internship
One of the most useful things about taking a gap year is that you can experiment before committing to a school or degree. After all, most people have no idea what they want to do with their lives by age 18. Getting an internship in the field you think you want to go into can be invaluable. Not just by exploring your own interest, but by building credibility in the field if you do wind up staying in it.
Get real life job experience, build connections, and explore your own interests. Best of all, you can do it without committing thousands of dollars of tuition. What’s more, many internships pay a small wage or allow enough time to hold a job on the side as well. That way, you can save up money for travel or a new car while working towards your career goals.
Colleges can be a good place to find help getting internships. If you’ve been accepted into a school, you might talk to your advisers there about how to defer for a year and get an internship. High School counselors can also be an invaluable resource in finding internships in your field.
Get a job or two
If you aren’t interested in interning or don’t know what you would want to get involved in yet, just putting your head down and working for a year can be a great experience. Aside from all the money you can make and save, you can also experience your first big dose of freedom and adulthood.
To some people this may sound like I’m suggesting you waste a year partying, hanging out, and ‘doing nothing’. However, I would argue that there’s immense value in learning to support yourself before going to college. There’s also a lot of real value in saving money up for travel or personal goals down the line. If money is a big motivating force in your life, try putting away 10% of everything you earn for the year in a separate savings account. At the end of the year, use it to start investing and building your personal wealth. If you want more good ideas about how to manage your wealth, check out The Richest Man In Babylon, it might change your life.
What’s more, some people find that they never wanted to work in an academic field anyways. I’ve met hundreds of people who got a degree and wound up working in the service industry or other ‘non-academic’ field for the rest of their lives. Some people think of trades like cooking, serving, art making, performing as lesser skills. But the truth is, that you can find value and personal satisfaction in all sorts of work, not to mention money. You won’t know what calls to you until you experience it. So, get a job in a restaurant or a mechanic and start learning a trade.
Sign up to volunteer internationally
This is what I initially did with my gap year. What started as six months teaching grade school in Guatemala turned into a lifelong passion for travel and experiencing the world. I got into hostel work, cooking, managing, and eventually freelance writing all because of this initial decision. International travel is one of the best choices you can make because it will open your eyes and mind in a way nothing else can.
The best thing about volunteering internationally is how accessible it is. There are thousands of programs designed for people on a gap year just like you. Opportunities range from teaching, to medical work, animal shelters, solar and tech projects, home building, you name it. There are as many types of volunteer projects out there as there are potential volunteers.
Usually these programs will involve you paying for the experience. Some are expensive, some are cheap. Just be careful who you sign up with. Not all programs were created equal and not all of them deliver on all their promises. Some careful internet research and asking people who have real experience will be necessary.
These programs are great for anyone who has never traveled before or who is intimidated by the idea. They are mostly all designed to create a safe environment for first timers where you don’t have to handle too much of the logistics on your own.
Travel and volunteer or work
This is by far the most involved and scary option on this list but can also be the most rewarding. At the end of my six months with my volunteer teaching program, I was offered a job at a tree house hotel in Guatemala. Suddenly, the tables turned and I was being paid to travel instead of paying to travel. Ever since I learned it was possible, that’s all I do.
Although it can be incredibly frightening to set off to a new place and look for work in a foreign country, you’ll learn more than in any college class. If you can pull this off right out of high school, there’s really nothing in the world you can’t do. It all comes down to having enough money saved to start traveling and having a skill or hardworking attitude to put to use along the way. If you’ve worked in restaurants, bars, or hotels before, it will make finding travel work much easier.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to do this, I’ve written a number of other articles that will help you out. In Travel Tuesday number one, I cover the story of volunteering and then being offered that job in greater detail. Check that out here. If you want to know more about how to find volunteer work that will pay you in room, board and maybe a small wage anywhere in the world, check out this article about Work Away.
Pursue a passion
Some people aren’t looking to explore the world as much as they are looking to explore themselves. If you’re a creative who just never got enough time to pursue your passion in high school, now’s your chance. A gap year can be a great time while still enjoying some amount of support at home to dive into your art form.
Whether you’re an aspiring DJ, a graphic designer, or a competitive dancer, what you need most is time and space to practice and progress. So, get a job and make time and space to pursue your goals. It’s best if you can find a job that compliments your creative pursuits. If you’re an artist, maybe you can get a job at an art gallery or design studio. Or if you’re a musician, get a job at a music store or studio.
The most important thing about spending your gap year pursuing your passion is that you actually pursue it. Set goals for yourself and develop habits that help you to stay focused and driven. Be careful of spending too much time with friends, partying, or doing any of the other countless things that are fun and counterproductive. When you’re young, it’s all about balancing the fun of freedom with the pursuit of your person.
Gap year gone wrong
The one word of caution I would give anyone considering a gap year is that gap years can go wrong really easily. If you hang around your home town and don’t have goals or ways to stay productive, it’s really easy to fall into excessive partying and habits that are anything but productive. Remember that this is essentially when you create your adult persona for the first time. If you start it off with a year of belligerence and debauchery, you’re setting yourself up for a pretty stagnant adulthood.
And I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t party, try new things, or live a little. However, having known a lot of kids whose gap years turned into gap lives, I’ve seen the risks of too much freedom first hand. That’s why this article is all about ways to make your gap year productive and a force of positive change in your life.
To help yourself avoid falling into these traps, be careful who you hang out with, who you live with, and who you look up to. When you’re young it seems like your friends will be forever. However, as you grow through your twenties, you’ll likely realize that people change a lot and you need to focus on yourself and what is good for you. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your friends. But you should always think for yourself and make life choices and habits that will benefit you and build the type of future you want to inhabit.
Whatever you do with your gap year, remember to have fun, remember to live, and remember to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you. You only get to be young once and you only get one shot at most of the important chances in your life. Don’t be afraid to push your limits, try scary and challenging things, and build strong and important relationships with the people you meet along the way.
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