Clearly defined goals shape gap years in powerful ways. Students who set goals at the beginning of their gap years are likelier to have robust resumes, supportive networks and a strong sense of direction. They are less likely to lose track of time, rack up debt and start their college careers behind their peers, in terms of skill and performance.
Some goals, such as those related to personal growth experiences, will naturally have harder-to-quantify outcomes. While still valuable, the nature of those outcomes can make them difficult to parlay into academic and career success. As a result, it is generally in students’ best interests to include at least a few specific, career-oriented goals in their gap year plans. When selecting these goals, students should consider key trends in their fields of choice, and how they expect to translate their experiences into academic and professional success.
Learn a New Language
Between 2010 and 2015, the demand for bilingual and multilingual workers more than doubled among major employers in the United States. As technology continues to shrink the global marketplace, that demand is expected to keep rising. Industries as diverse as finance, engineering and health care routinely pay multilingual employees between 5 and 20 percent more to do the same jobs as their single-language-speaking peers.
Demand for multilingual workers is noticeably higher in some states than others, and students’ choice of second language matters. Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, for example, are in particularly high demand. When it comes to how to learn a new language, however, gap year students have a plethora of options. They can take formal classes, utilize online and other digital training tools or embark on an immersive cross-cultural experience.
Earn a Certification
According to widely respected estimates, by the time today’s elementary school children enter the workforce, 65 percent of them will be headed into jobs and career fields that do not yet exist. Graduates entering the workforce right now are expected to hold more than 10 different jobs over the course of their working lives. To keep up with this accelerated rate of change, employers, educators and the creators of new technologies often rely on independent certification programs to bridge the gaps between what workers can – or will – learn in professional degree programs, and the latest skills and tools they need to succeed in the workplace.
Gap years provide prime opportunities for students to take short-term, independent certification courses that will help them succeed in their chosen career fields. Depending on their long-term goals and industry trends, students may wish to complete certifications in:
- Project management.
- Computer programming.
- Industry specific software programs.
- Web or graphic design.
- Industry-specific technician categories.
While these certifications are not substitutes for higher education degrees, they can give students distinct advantages during their college years and post-graduation.
Get Hands-On Career Experience
Lack of primary, hands-on experience in one’s chosen career field can directly contribute to inconvenient – and potentially costly – redirections in students’ academic and career endeavors. Examples might include switching majors, changing to new jobs or going back to school for supplemental degrees to retool for more desirable positions. Students who spend time actively working in their fields during their gap years give themselves the opportunity to spot potential problems, and narrow or adjust their areas of focus, before they invest time and energy pursing it in college.
Students can get first-hand experience by applying for temporary or entry-level jobs in their preferred fields, or by taking internships. In either case, students can maximize their opportunities by working hard, asking questions and trying their hands at as many aspects of their jobs or fields as possible.
Detailed goals will generally result in more helpful outcomes than vague ones. For instance, to compare and contrast news journalism with investigative journalism to see which is more likeable, and why, will help students focus their experiences and collect more actionable information than getting experience in journalism. More specific goals are also easier to leverage affectively in cover letters, essays and interviews, later.
Many colleges, universities, graduate schools and employers look at applicants’ extracurricular activities, alongside their academic scores and work experience, when making admissions and hiring decisions. In part, this is because extra curriculars help admissions counselors and hiring managers “see” a range of skills and experiences in applicants that they otherwise might not. For example, successful or long-term participation in volunteer organizations suggests that applicants are capable of taking direction, work well in teams and have other highly desirable “soft” skills.
Volunteer work can help students round out their resumes, connect them to influential people in their regions or fields of study and provide opportunities to earn letters of recommendation. Students interested in volunteering during their gap years should select their positions with care. Key questions to ask when choosing where to volunteer include:
- Will this position teach me – or allow me to practice – skills that are relevant to my future career field?
- Will this position expose me to populations, technologies or issues that will challenge me or prepare me for the workforce in my field of study?
- How well-recognized and respected is the organization with which I am volunteering? (E.g. Americorps vs. a small-scale local organization.)
- Does the volunteer experience come with pre-set goals and structure, or will I need to create my own?
- Will this position give me a chance to demonstrate leadership, communication and/or other key skills?
National volunteer programs often provide opportunities for students to combine work or resume-building experience with travel and exposure to new people, places and cultures. This can allow students to achieve personal and professional goals in an integrated way.
Build a Network
Recent research suggests that employers rely on networking to fill up to 85 percent of professional and management-level jobs. With personal connections demonstrating that kind of influence, laying the foundations for a strong professional network may be one of the most powerful things students do during their gap years to help their future careers. Fortunately, networking is often an organic consequence of other activities students engage in during their gap years, such as working in their fields, volunteering or taking certification courses.
Taking small steps to nurture and sustain those relationships between their gap years and graduation can have enormous payoffs later on. Examples of practical networking goals for gap year students might include:
- Establishing a profile on a national networking site, and earning at least two professional contacts.
- Practicing appropriate follow-up protocols (e.g. thank-you notes or emails) with professionals they interview or work with during their gap years.
- Pursuing a mentorship with a supervisor, coworker or other successful individual they meet during their gap year experiences.
Related Article: How to Develop and Achieve Career Goals