All The Wrong Reasons To Take A Gap Year In 2020—And How To Do It Right

Originally published in Forbes – September 10, 2020

In the wake of COVID-19 and the sweeping changes it has brought to postsecondary education, more people than ever are thinking about a gap year—and they’re not just freshly graduated high school seniors. College students at all levels are looking at their education with a fresh eye, weighing their options and determining the best path forward.

Gap years can have tremendous advantages, but there may also be some pitfalls. For those who view it as 12 months free from all responsibility, planning, and the hard work of self-discovery, a gap year could cause more problems than it solves. But a true gap year is not a year “off” from personal and professional growth. Instead, it should give the young person a fresh competitive advantage in their education and career journey.

I recently connected with Harsh Patel, CEO of Galvanize, on what makes a fantastic gap year and what doesn’t. Here’s what he had to share.

Why not to take a gap year

As amazing as a motivated gap year can be, there are a lot of wrong reasons to skip school during 2020–21. Don’t take a gap year if you’re:

  • Just looking to avoid stress. Yes, 2020 has been tough and it would be nice to avoid more stress in the form of school demands—but you might just be creating more stress for yourself down the road. “Staying stagnant in this way could have dire consequences on someone’s long-term career trajectory,” says Patel. “Intense, fast-paced learning opportunities that require high levels of intrinsic motivation are the perfect way for students to make the most of their gap year and set themselves up for future success.”
  • Just waiting for things to improve. While it’s true the economy has plenty of ground to make up, there will never be an easy or perfect moment to pursue your dreams. There will always be challenges, whether COVID-19 is still disrupting life or not. “The job market students will be entering will create new demands and expectations,” says Patel. But a gap year full of valuable growth and learning can help. “It’s one of the best ways to get ahead and understand what a career is like.”
  • Just planning to veg. It bears repeating: a truly valuable gap year isn’t a year off to stick your head in the sand. Just chilling on the couch won’t pay off in the long term. “A gap year should be considered a jump start on the rest of your life,” advises Patel. “It’s critical to go into it with a plan to make it worthwhile.”

Bottom line: Don’t take a gap year to avoid being pushed to grow.

How to make your gap year awesome

You might be a good candidate for a gap year if you’re:

  • Looking to fast-track your employability. “This is a unique opportunity to learn real-world, employable skills much earlier in your college career than you would otherwise,” says Patel. “You can structure your gap year to build your portfolio, network with like-minded students and learn skills to take on the nation’s top jobs. This typically doesn’t happen until your junior or senior year in college, once reality sets in and you’re scrambling to figure out what’s next.”
  • Planning to keep learning. “Specialized skills-training programs of varying duration, intensity and subject matters that will improve your future employability are already available online,” says Patel. These programs don’t limit you from going back to college next year—instead, they may enhance your earning ability to fund your higher education. Not to mention that they can equip you with new abilities and experience to get more from your college education.
  • Still trying to determine your direction. If you’re unsure of what you want to do in life, Patel suggests trying a data science or software engineering bootcamp. “In virtually every industry, we’re seeing increased interest in data-driven decision making, new methods of analysis for better business decisions and increasing interest in automating systems and processes,” he says. Even if this is not a forever career for you, it might be a good for-now direction to stay productive and growing. “It’s a field that’s widely applicable and in short supply. Demonstrating a strong analytical background will make you stand out in the applicant pool—with or without a college degree.”

Bottom line: Take a gap year so that you can grow in new and different ways.

Can a pandemic gap year still have value?

Traditional gap years often include activities like traveling, volunteering on-site, and interning in the workplace. COVID-19 has put a damper on all of this, so what’s out there? “COVID-19 has opened our eyes to how well we can still communicate, be productive and make progress—personal or professional—from the safety of our homes,” says Patel. “One example is online bootcamps, offering students the chance to learn technical “how-to” skills they likely wouldn’t be exposed to in their freshman general education courses.

“There are countless ways for students today to use their gap year differently, but wisely.”

Living through a pandemic during your education has other benefits as well. “Generation-Z will have to be more intentional in their college and career choices from here on out—something that a lot of previous generations could have benefitted from,” says Patel. “Being thrust into an unprecedented period of disruption, they’re calling the status quo (signing up for tens of thousands in student debt and figuring out how to pay for it later) into question.

“Many may realize that with enough skills training, a four-year degree isn’t necessary after all—setting the stage for broad societal change.”

Redefining the gap year

“Students have every right to be disappointed that this academic year is not what they expected it to be, but they should look for the silver lining,” says Patel. “Too often young people rush into college thinking it’s ‘the right thing to do’ even when they have no idea what they want to make of their careers. Now, time is on your side.”

No doubt about it: 2020 is the year that will redefine gap years. No longer just for freshly graduated high school seniors, the new gap year can be a great fit for anyone, at any stage of their education, who decides to pause their current pathway and try something new. “Students today have the chance to identify and dive deeper into what they truly care about so that when the world does reopen, they will be prepared to take it by storm,” says Patel.

Maybe it’s time to give yourself 12 months to rediscover your education and career passions. Who knows—it could lead to the adventure of your lifetime.

To learn more about Galvanize, visit galvanize.com

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