3 smart ways to make the most of a gap year and boost your college and career prospects

Francesca Di Meglio

June 26, 2020

College-bound high school graduates have a big choice to make: They have to decide whether to take a gap year in the middle of a pandemic or attend college as planned, even if it means attending virtually.

Under normal circumstances, some students would take off a year between high school and college to gain life experiences that would improve the story they would eventually share with both admissions committees and potential employers.

Traditionally, privileged students, who had strong academic records, spent their gap years travelling the world or gaining work experience – or both. Those options are now limited as a result of lockdowns, border closures, layoffs, and general uncertainty caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Still, some experts say they expect more students to take a gap year this year.

“Whether students refuse to pay full tuition to attend college online or whether they are unsure of safety when arriving on campus in the fall, many more students are planning to take a gap year this year,” said Daniel Lee, cofounder of Solomon Admissions Consulting in New York.

Making the most of a gap year, however, will be more challenging than ever. In fact, some don’t recommend taking one, even during this unprecedented situation.

“Start college,” said Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach admissions consultancy in New York. “If you’re worried you won’t be making new friends from your childhood bedroom, know that you are not alone. Everyone is experiencing similar feelings. And you’ll all start college together – and make friends – in due time.”

But for those still willing to take the plunge, here’s what experts say you should do to take a gap year that’s truly beneficial for you and your career.

Set clear goals

There’s a difference between a gap year and deferring admission, said Patricia Grant, senior associate dean for the Undergraduate Program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, DC. A gap year is spent on enriching yourself, whereas a deferment is spent caring for a sick loved one or waiting out a pandemic.

Grant said that it’s vital to determine which one you’re pursuing.

“Any student or family considering pursuing a gap year after high school really needs to think about what their gap year goals are, and those goals will have to guide them along the path of discerning whether that gap year will help them to meet those stated goals,” said Grant.

The McDonough School advises students who want to take a gap year to set goals around networking, applying to jobs or internships where they could build professional skills, or providing community service that in some way relates to their interests and aspirations.

Some will use the time to improve their candidacy at top universities and colleges.

“For students who want to take a gap year to reapply to a higher ranked college than the ones they were accepted by, it’s critical to map out the gap year to maximise three things: standardised testing performance on the SAT, ACT, and SAT 2 subject tests, intellectual vitality, and angularity in extracurricular activities,” said Lee.

Pick up new skills

Students interested in gaining work experience should engage their current employers or internship supervisors to see if there’s potential to stay on into the fall. Grant said those opportunities are rarer now because many companies are “focused on solidifying their workforce and making sure they have viability long term to withstand the challenges of the current pandemic.” But she also pointed out that it’s not impossible to land one, especially if you already work for an organisation.

Volunteering or helping with research projects is another way to boost your resume during the gap year, said Lee.

“For students interested in business and finance, this could mean doing research with an economics professor or interning at a smaller bank to gain substantive experience in the field,” he added. “For students interested in computer science, this could mean self-teaching themselves a programming language like Java or C++ or interning at a small tech company to gain substantive work experience. For students who want to attend medical school, this could mean volunteering at COVID-19 hospitals or doing medical research with a professor.”

Those who might not know where to start can try to get a mentor. Mary Kurek, president and CEO of Frontrunners Development, Inc., has been mentoring a high school student, Marley, for a couple of years because her parents approached Kurek when their daughter showed an interest in health and life sciences. Before the pandemic, the mentee pursued an internship in the medical or health field. Kurek helped Marley get in touch with a nearby lab that had sparked her interest.

The lab told her to get in touch in April about the possibility of summer work. But April was the middle of the coronavirus crisis. So, Marley asked if she could sign on sooner than the summer. The lab, which handles clinical trials, agreed and is even paying her for the internship.

“Marley is making this gap in her traditional education count for so much more than what an average 16-year-old would have,” said Kurek. “Opportunities are out there. Marley told me that there are three other interns in college working at this same lab. By the way, she is in JROTC and currently is aiming to head into the Navy for her higher ed.”

Take initiative

Aside from teaching yourself certain skills, Lee suggested starting a nonprofit related to your area of interest or pursuing some other work project for yourself.

“Students who excel during a gap year have the maturity to handle that kind of freedom,” said Lee. “This means developing goals, a definitive plan with a timeline, and a system for accountability and reflection.”

Michael Heiman, a 2020 graduate of New York University Stern School of Business’ undergraduate college, pursued entrepreneurship upon graduating because the job market was challenging amid the pandemic and founded a music tech company, Clique Networking. If the startup doesn’t succeed, Heiman said he still will have a good story to share with potential employers and a set of newly acquired skills.

“You don’t have to be the next Uber either,” Heiman said. “Do what you love and what you know, learn new skills, and try to work hard despite the situation.”

 
 

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