By Lauren Joffe for The Real College Guide
Thinking of taking a year off after graduation and before heading into the workplace or grad school? No, we’re not talking about a break to slouch on the couch. We’re talking about a gap year: Europeans do it all the time, taking some well-spent time for themselves after receiving a degree. While gap years are less common in the United States, more and more students are carving out time to travel, volunteer, teach — anything to reboot before entering the “real world.” Here, we get the pros and cons from recent grads who’ve done it.
The Pros of Taking a Gap Year
Pro No. 1: It puts the world in your hands.
Should you choose to take a post-graduation gap year, there are infinite opportunities that will take you anywhere in the world:
Travel: Opting to tour Prague, Hungary, Poland and Vienna is an inexpensive way to see Eastern European sites — without breaking the bank. The exchange rates are more tolerable than that of the Euro.
Teach Abroad: If teaching English abroad is more your speed, American grads travel all around the globe to instruct international youngsters. If you’d prefer to stay on U.S. soil, teaching programs such as Teach for America place applicants in low-income schools around the country.
Study Abroad: Stephen Snyder graduated from the University of Michigan in spring 2010 and is now an alumni ambassador for the Critical Language Scholarship Program (CLS). CLS enables current students and recent grads to study for approximately two months at an overseas institution in one of 13 languages deemed critical for United States diplomatic, trade or security purposes.
Says Snyder: “For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit a country to which I never otherwise would have been. CLS was an unparalleled opportunity to build up foreign language skills by immersing myself in a foreign country. … Not to mention, it was a fully covered scholarship, so I was lucky enough to not have to pay any expenses out of my own pocket.”
Volunteer Abroad: Government programs such as the Peace Corps offer opportunities to work and learn in 77 developing countries.
Not sure where to start? Here are some great resources:
- JETProgramme.org (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program)
- ISVOnline.org (International Student Volunteers)
Pro No. 2: It amps up your resume.
Taking a gap year can make your resume more attractive, especially if your gap year plan leads you toward a relevant career goal. That extra experience will position you as a well-rounded candidate — giving you an edge over your competition in the applicant pool.
However, Snyder warns, “Make sure that, if you spend two months partaking in professional development, you have a clear plan to integrate it into your career. For example, going abroad to develop an intermediate knowledge of Chinese might not help you if your career plan is wildly unrelated.” If it is related, “by living and breathing a foreign language, you build up a unique skill set that sets you apart from other candidates on the job markets,” says Snyder.
It is important to keep in mind why you’ve chosen a particular career path. Ask yourself: What are my main objectives? What do I want to accomplish, and to what do I want to contribute my time? If you graduated with a degree in marine biology, say, perhaps an eco-travel tour is more your speed — and more conducive to your career goals.
The Cons of Taking a Gap Year
Con No. 1: It’s all about the Benjamins.
While taking a gap year certainly has its perks, it’s only feasible with financial support for costs such as airfare, transportation, food, visas, etc. If you’re graduating with debt and little to no savings (like most of us), securing support can make or break your travel plans.
Emma Rose, a New York University veterinary student of the class of 2009, was interested in working with professional vets in a developing country, but the programs she found cost thousands of dollars — plus airfare. “It didn’t make sense to lay out more money when I currently owe money,” says Rose.
However, there are options for cash-strapped young adults of Rose’s mindset. The Peace Corps, for example, provides volunteer opportunities for little to no personal expense. Do some thorough research before deciding you can’t afford to take a gap year.
Con No. 2: It puts a damper on networking at home.
In a tight job market and an even tighter economy, recent grads are having trouble finding jobs even months into the search process. Professionals assert that networking is one of the more successful ways to land that first job. But for students taking a gap year, networking opportunities can be slim to none.
Being abroad without an Internet connection in a developing nation or not being able to commit to a casual meet-and-greet can bring some students one step back in the job-hunting process.
Says Snyder: “I could not enter the job market right away, which is a big disadvantage. Companies are hiring in the springtime, right when school lets out — not in mid-August, when I returned from Azerbaijan and when most companies are on slow schedules with many managers taking time off.”
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com/tboyan.