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5 Productive Ways to Spend a Gap Year


So you’ve decided to go to grad school – but as the semester comes to a close and you head into your final semester of college, you’re starting to feel a little bit burned out on school. Maybe you’d like a little time to experience the “real world” before heading back to school, or perhaps you want the opportunity to explore your interests outside of your major. Sound familiar? If so, taking a gap year before heading off to grad school might be a great option for you!

Usually the term “gap year” refers to high school students taking a year off before entering college. However, taking a gap year in between finishing college and heading off to grad school can also be a great way to refresh before heading back to higher education! Taking a break doesn’t have to mean sitting around on the couch with Netflix all day either; there are plenty of productive and even life-changing ways you can spend your gap year. Read on for five productive things to do during your year off.

1. Go abroad

Maybe you didn’t have the time to study abroad during college while trying to get all those credits out of the way, or maybe you just have a lot of wanderlust to get out of your system. Either way, going abroad during your gap year is a great way to expand your horizons and experience the rest of the world before coming back to focus on grad school.

If you do decide to use your gap year to go abroad, you can use an official gap year program or design your adventure abroad. If you’d like more structure to your year abroad or you want to work, study or volunteer while there, doing it through an organization may be best for you.

Projects Abroad offers a variety of programs in over 10 countries worldwide, such as Ghana, India, Costa Rica and Peru. Projects Abroad also offers the opportunity to volunteer and intern in a combination of countries over your gap year, and even allows you to design your own combination of countries and locations. Prices at Projects Abroad vary depending on your choice of country and activity, but the multitude of options allows you to design a plan with your financial needs in mind.

Even if you don’t use a specific program, make sure you do plenty of planning and research ahead of time!

“I would recommend that students sit down with a career counselor to work out some possibilities, goals and strategies for planning out a gap year,” says Caryanne Keenan, assistant director for career development at Ithaca College. “The process may involve creating an international resume, networking, interviewing and applying for working permits, depending on what kind of experience you're looking for.”

2. Volunteer  

Spending your gap year helping others can really change your perspective, especially if you didn’t get a lot of time to do volunteer projects in college. There are plenty of volunteer programs available for college students and young adults, many of which are even available within the United States!

Montana Buss, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, took a year off between her freshman and sophomore years of college to work for City Year, an organization that allows volunteers to work for 11 months at a school with a small group of students to increase their educational opportunities.

“It was an amazing opportunity to work with kids in a school and feel like I was making an impact on them,” Montana says. “I worked with ninth graders as a tutor and mentor in high school classrooms.”

City Year is also a great option if you’re worried about the financial implications of taking a gap year, as it offers the option to apply to work in a specific city. With programs in 25 cities, it’s likely that there might be a program close to or even in your hometown! The program also offers a small stipend, and some volunteers even become eligible for an education award for up to $5,645 to put towards any further education, making it perfect for gap year collegiettes planning to attend grad school afterward.

3. Explore possible careers with an internship

You’re going to be spending two or more of the next few years of your life hitting the books, so why not try getting a little work experience before heading back to school? Interning can be a great way to try out a career you might not necessarily have the option to explore or study in college or grad school. It can pave the way to new opportunities that you might not have expected!

Websites like Intern Queen and Internships.com are great for finding internships in a variety of industries.  Even if you get an internship in the exact industry you’re going to grad school for, it can help reaffirm your reasons for studying hard when you go back to school a year later.

4. Learn something new

Sure, you’ve been learning like crazy in college – but what about that foreign language you’ve always been dying to learn, or that cooking class you’ve always wanted to take? Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to code! Whatever your interests might be, taking a year off before grad school can give you time to learn new things and develop new passions you haven’t had time for before. The best part? No grades or forced credit hours to stress you out, meaning this learning experience can be way more stress-free than your regular classes.

Look for classes in your area at community centers or even a local community college. Strapped for cash or can’t find your passion anywhere near where you live? The Internet also has tons of great options for online classes in everything imaginable. For language learners, Duolingo is a free online language-learning service. It has a “streak count” that encourages you to keep learning by telling you how many days in a row you’ve spent learning the language. It’s also available as an app for iPhone, Android devices and Windows Phone, so you can take your language on the go!

If you’re interested in learning to code, Codecademy is a free online computer-coding course with a sleek, user-friendly design that makes learning simple.

“It's important to be able to articulate to employers and graduate school representatives what you learned and how you developed during your gap year,” Keenan says. “This shows the value of the experience and prevents it from being misperceived as a ‘vacation year.’”

Because it’s so important to be able to show employers and grad school representatives what you’ve done during your gap year, gaining a new skill is a great way to show that you haven’t just been taking the year off.

5. Pursue your passion

Maybe you’ve been interested in creating a band with some friends or you’ve always had the idea of starting a fashion blog in the back of your head, but you haven’t had time to do it with your classes, extracurriculars and grad school applications. Whatever you’re passionate about doing, your gap year is a great time to do it!

If you plan to spend your gap year this way, stay focused by structuring your project. If you want to start a blog, stick to a schedule of writing, editing and creating posts to keep yourself on track. This ensures that you’ll stay productive throughout your whole gap year.

Whatever your passion, your gap year is a great time to pursue it.  Who knows, maybe if your blog or band takes off, you can earn some extra cash for grad school – a major plus!

Taking a gap year between college and grad school can be a great way to refresh, recharge and even have an experience that changes your outlook on life.

“A gap year is not for everyone, and sometimes it's simply not feasible, but for those who have a strong desire to travel, explore, learn and grow more before jumping into their first ‘real-world job,’ a gap year can be a life-changing experience—and what better time in your life is there to do it?” Keenan says.

Ask yourself what you want out of your year off, and go for it. Ultimately, your gap year will be what you make of it. Before you know it, you’ll be refreshed and ready to tackle the next adventure: grad school. 

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