Gap years are more popular in some countries than others, but it does seem to be a phenomena that is slowly gaining recognition in more places (like the United States). However, there are still a lot of people (like many employers) who don’t know or understand what a gap year is.
Hopefully if you took an entire year off, you did at least one of these things or something a little more meaningful and productive with your time besides hop from bus to hostel to plane to hotel all the time.
If you’re back from a gap year and applying to jobs, the reaction to your gap year may vary wildly among different potential employers. Some may be fascinated by, or even jealous of, your trip. Others may think you just took a year off to laze on the beach and do nothing.
Especially for the latter, you need to be able to explain in your job interview what a gap year really is, what you did, and how your experiences can benefit them -- namely, what skills and characteristics you developed that translate to the job and to you being a superior employee. Follow these steps during your job interview and your gap year will shine in the best possible light.
1. Set the scene
Before you get into the nitty gritty, give your interviewer a simple explanation of what you did on your gap year. And no, this doesn’t include hiking to Machu Picchu or seeing the Taj Mahal -- unless that is somehow relevant to the position or you have reason to believe your interviewer would find it particularly interesting.
In a year you must have done some things a little more (relevantly) worthwhile! Did you volunteer? Teach English? Did you take language classes, or some other kind of class or project? Did you work at all, or maybe do an internship abroad? Did you do anything that was a little more selfless use of your time? At the very least, did you keep a blog or write guest posts about your experiences?
Hopefully if you took an entire year off, you did at least one of these things or something a little more meaningful and productive with your time besides hop from bus to hostel to plane to hotel all the time. Play up those aspects of your gap year, so your interviewer knows you aren’t just a full-time slacker with no motivation, aspirations or work ethic.
2. Explain your reasons
Often the reasoning behind your gap year can be extremely compelling for an interview. If your gap year was after high school or college, maybe you did it because you felt you needed to gain a sense of the world and become more responsible and mature. Maybe you even felt you’d get better experience abroad. Or maybe you just felt it was more responsible to take a gap year before you had, well, lots of responsibilities. Many employers can probably identify with that, and perhaps may wish they had had the guts to do the same.
If you took a mid-career break, maybe you realized you were on the wrong track, or wanted to take time to give back, develop new skills, or understand yourself better. Again, you may be surprised how much an interviewer could relate to your feelings.
Also, if you had doubts -- which you likely did -- about taking a gap year, you may even want to relay these to your interviewer. Let them know that you had the same questions and concerns then that they may have about you now.
3. Follow up with the results
Now that you’ve explained your reasons or goals for taking a gap year, it’s time to show the interviewer that it wasn’t all for naught. Explain how your gap year did make you more mature, or helped you gain invaluable skills and experience, taught you more about yourself, changed your worldview, or helped you improve yourself.
More importantly, make sure you have concrete examples and stories to back it up. Don’t just say, “I’m definitely more responsible now.” Say, “After living on my own in a foreign city, then finding myself a job as an au pair and taking care of two kids full time, I certainly gained a greater sense of responsibility.” Then share a specific story that illustrates a time you had to step up and be responsible.
The best part? Not only does this show that you truly exhibit this quality or have that skill, but the story likely showcases a bit of your personality and will certainly make the interviewer remember you (if that gap year alone wasn’t enough to endear you to their memory already!).
4. Summarize, but emphasize your inherent gap year awesomeness
You likely won’t (or shouldn’t) spend your entire interview talking about your gap year. But whether it comes at the end of a long conversation, or if it’s the only thing you get to say, make sure you have a concise summary of your experience to share. This is what you did, why you did it, and what you got from it -- a one minute summary.
You need to be able to explain in your job interview what a gap year really is, what you did, and how your experiences can benefit them -- namely, what skills and characteristics you developed that translate to the job and to you being a superior employee.
Probably all that you’ve said at this point has been enough, but you might as well remind them that it was no walk in the park. Don’t let them forget how scary a prospect, and what a huge undertaking, a gap year can be. Because, of course, you can’t just one day wander off for a year (or at least you didn’t do that, right?).
You had to plan -- from wrapping up your life at home to figuring out at least some aspects of your trip, hopefully at least setting up some meaningful endeavors and a vague itinerary -- and, more importantly, you had to have the guts and initiative to do it. You made the plan, and you put it into action. Heck, isn’t that what just about every job is about? It’s about not just saying you’ll do something, but actually doing it.
5. Put them at ease
Assure them that you’re not about to take off again. That you satiated your thirst for year-long wanderings, accomplished what you wanted to, and are ready to put down some roots and stay in one place for a while.
Put a little emphasis on that last part. If you do still have itchy feet you obviously don’t want to lie about it, but if you really do feel ready to hunker down and dedicate yourself to building a life and a career, then make it clear and make it known.
6. Be sure to judge the situation
Even though your gap year may be one of the most transformative and influential experiences in your life, there may be times when it’s better to downplay it.
Maybe you have a ton of other more relevant experiences to speak of, or maybe you did kind of go on a binge party gap year where you didn’t do too much you’re proud to talk about (let’s hope not!).
In such cases, you may be better off addressing their specific questions simply and move on. You can always save those stories for the break room once you’re hired!
7. Be confident and own it
Whether you delve deeply into your gap year experiences or not, don’t let yourself forget how much the experience changed (and improved!) you as a person. If you get to talk about how your gap year made you more adaptable, confident, and independent, that’s great. But even if you don't get to talk about it much, know it in your bones and exude those qualities.
After a year to reflect, pursue your interests, and broaden your mind, you’ve probably gained more focus and purpose (and in turn a greater drive toward your goals and your future). This a great thing for employers to hear, but it’s also just a great thing for you in general. It hopefully means you’re already on the right track -- interviewing for a job that you’re qualified for and that fits with what you want in life. You belong there, so go for it and embrace success!
Photo Credits: IES Abroad.