By Sara Scheler, Managing Editor
Gap years have the connotation of being reckless and unwise. We all know those who have taken advantage of the elusive gap year and we look at them with envy and perhaps a little disdain.
The push is to go straight from college to grad school or into a career (or both). To many, taking a year off sounds lazy and terribly unwise. But gap years, if used well, can be incredibly formative, beneficial and meaningful. They give you a much-needed break from the constant stress of school and grades and help you transition and prepare for your next step, whatever that may be.
If you do take a gap year, don’t just sit on the couch playing Candy Crush and basking in your new-found freedom but take the opportunity to prepare for the bigger and better things that lie ahead.
Volunteer in a field you enjoy. Volunteer hours look great on resumes and they give you practical life skills, allow you to give back to your community and they can help you network and connect with professionals in your field. If you are itching to travel (and can afford it), check out WWOOF, a program that sets you up with farmers across the globe and gives you free room and board and a life-changing experience in exchange for some good, hard work.
Learn. Audit a class (free education…what could be better?), practice your hobbies, brush up on your juggling skills and learn how to make a perfect omelet. Instead of buying things, Google DIY. Figure out how to fix a broken sink, change a tire, or survive for a day without a cell phone.
Save money. As tempting as it is to rent a schwanky loft apartment downtown, this is terribly unwise. TV shows and movies love to convince us that, as bright, independent 20-somethings, we are entitled to a high standard of living. Ask any adult how the post-grad life is and they will all tell you the same thing: broke. You think you’re poor now? Just wait until those student loans kick in. Live simply and frugally. Find roommates, get a job at a retail store or restaurant that pays the bills, find cheap things to do for fun and learn to cook your own food.
Read. Let’s be real, when was the last time you read a book cover-to-cover (English majors, you don’t count). Read for enjoyment but read about topics that interest you (or, even better, a topic that you are not interested in). Just because you are a college graduate does not mean you get to stop learning, in fact, it means you should take advantage of the time you have to learn as much as you possibly can.
Visit your parents while you can. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Plus, couch surfing at home is pretty swell, especially when you get a free meal out of it. Your parents will be excited about all
the creative things you have been doing to keep busy and they might even send you home with a plate of cookies.
Stay active. Dust off your running shoes and get back into shape. Join a gym that doesn’t cost a fortune. Post-grad life is great, or so I’ve heard, because you actually have time to do things like exercise and eat healthy. With a little creativity, you can find plenty of cheap things to do to stay active—walk to the grocery store, bike to work, go for evening runs, find a cool state park and go hiking, get some friends together and play your favorite sport.
Learn to budget. Start an Excel document or use one of those fancy apps to organize your financial life. This is a terrifying but necessary part of growing up. In fact, this could be a weekend visit home because, for some reason, parents seem to actually enjoy budgeting and they have way more experience with it than we do. Balance your checkbook, sort out your student loans, pay off those credit card bills and give yourself an allowance for clothes, food and fun.
Network. Make sure you can tell future employers about all the awesome things you did after college and why those experiences make you a unique candidate. Hanging out with adults sounds boring but our people skills can always use more work. Find people in your field who have interesting jobs, shadow someone who has your dream job, find a professional on LinkedIn and ask if you can meet for coffee and pick their brain. Many of us have changed our majors multiple times and your gap year can be a great time to refocus on your goals and figure out how to reach them.
Gap years certainly aren’t for everyone. Some of us have job offers or graduate school acceptance letters to answer and if you are one of them, congratulations! Some of us still have no idea what we want to do and that is completely fine. If you take a gap year (or even a gap summer) to figure out a few things, work a part-time job to make ends meet and position yourself for future success, make sure you can defend the time as a formative experience. Don’t let your brain atrophy. Keep up with your career field, read journal articles or magazines, do research, network, read, stay active, do some of the things you love but have been too busy to pursue. This is your life—own it.