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How Does a Gap Year Help Your Career?

Hiking in Colombia

The United States is catching on to what the UK and Europe already know: gap years are great for young people. Who wouldn’t want to travel the world, study Spanish in Peru, teach English in South Korea, participate in conservation projects in Costa Rica, or volunteer with an inner-city non-profit that is transforming lives? You’re a young person considering this important and transformative adventure, but how, you wonder, will a gap year impact your career?

Gap years are a chance to really discover yourself away from the crowd and noise.

The experts are pretty much in agreement that a gap year, one that is purposeful and structured (that means no year spent just sitting on the beach sipping mojitos) can really benefit your life and career. A gap year isn’t just about hanging out in a hostel and discovering a love of green curry (though, it IS a dish worth discovering...).

According to GapYear.com founder, Tom Griffiths, “It's about a constructive use of time that will enable young people to find and demonstrate focus, showcase their abilities, and discover a life path that works for them, both financially and emotionally.”

While the data is still being collected and studied, anecdotal evidence and hundreds of testimonials show us that a gap year will make a huge impact on your life, especially where your career is concerned.

From a Gappers Perspective

Many Gappers take the opportunity to travel, volunteer, teach, and explore as a chance to "get to know yourself". It’s been years, maybe a lifetime, of living up to other people’s expectations, whether that be parents, teachers, bosses, etc. This is a chance to really discover yourself away from the crowd and noise. Specifically:

It's a Time to Explore Interests and Career Paths...

People tend to follow their hearts, finding opportunities that naturally correspond with their interests, passions, or hobbies. Someone wanting to get a degree in Marine Biology, for example, might find themselves working on a conservation project in a far-flung reef in the South Pacific.

No matter what the interest or skill, there is an opportunity for exploring it during a gap year. This will then set you apart as you follow this passion into a career.

Again, looking at the Marine Biology example: Marine Biologists will want to hire someone who has not only studied the discipline, but actually demonstrated their commitment and actually worked in the field. Someone who can articulate doing versus talking about doing will already be a step up on that ladder to success and fulfillment.

Case Study:

MakeitBetter.net profiled a local woman who decided to take a Gap Year and reveals how by following her interests and passions, she influenced her career.

Meredith Berger spent her post high school gap year in Crete, learning Greek, studying history and poetry, interning in a cheese factory, all while becoming part of the local community in her remote village. Berger graduated from New York University in 2007 with a double major in Hellenic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.

"Having experience abroad and traveling alone has made me feel that anything is possible."

According to Berger, “the experience inspires you to be curious, to push yourself. I really had drive from the beginning to the end of college. I was really focused.” She believes that her gap year had a “profound effect” on her major and career path, as she continued on to graduate school in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies.

...Or a Chance to Discover Interests and Passions

Some gappers, like Pioneer Project's founder Adam Haigler, take this opportunity as a chance to discover, rather than explore, what it is that they're passionate about.

They may set out to explore the world and end up teaching in Costa Rica. This could lead them down a road that they never predicted, one that leads to opportunity after opportunity, resulting in a unique path that organically reveals the skills, interests, and passions that they didn’t even know they had.

Time after time, gappers talk about an epiphany moment that they have when they realize, “yes, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Learning what it is that drives and motivates us will lead to better focus when we seek out and begin our careers. It will also help us to stay on target and find opportunities that help us to stay on that path that may have begun with a volunteership in Costa Rica.

Case Study:

Tuscany, Italy

While there are many examples of gappers taking what they learn and applying it creatively, Kate Wheatcroft, of Bien Cuit bakery in New York, might be one of the best.

Recently named one of Forbes’ Food and Wine Top 30 Under 30, Kate credits her gap year through Dynamy with helping her find her true calling.

She writes, “I found out not only what I wanted to do, but how much I could do. The program gave me the supported freedom to explore my interests and realize the extent of my strengths. I worked on a farm and in political organizing and found myself drawn to particular elements of both jobs that would later feed my career in the food industry.

As an organizer I learned what brings people together and motivates them and how to turn those big ideas into practical solutions. My respect for food and the importance of where it comes from is directly linked to those months I spent at The Heifer Project."

Gap year student Lissi Knell spent a year in London as an Au Pair before starting her freshman year at the University of Redlands.

As she reflects on her time overseas, she says “taking a gap year confirmed my love for travel, meeting new people and learning about new cultures. I want to find a career where I can work with people and not be stuck at a desk all day. Even though I didn't figure out my career, taking a gap year definitely impacted my future life choices. Having experience abroad and traveling alone has made me feel that anything is possible.”

The Data Supports Gap Years' Career Benefits

The data supports this idea of using a gap year for greater self-awareness, especially when it comes to careers. Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, education policy experts and authors of Gap Year, American Style: Journeys Toward Learning, Serving, and Self Discovery, write that in their sample of 273 gappers, many considered employment-related factors when deciding to take a gap year.

"I firmly believe that my experiences during my gap year set me apart from other peers in competing for a job."

Almost half, (46%) needed “to take time to explore possible career paths or courses of academic study.” They conclude, “we anticipated a significant number of respondents would have career-orientation. What we did not anticipate is that gap years would have such an impact on changes in career-direction or choice of academic major... These findings attest to the fact that internships or work experiences in general can help young adults discover what they want to pursue as a career.”

A South African based study conducted by Melinda Coetzee has a similar argument: “the conclusion can be reached that the gap year has a positive influence on personal growth and the acquisition of life-skills, which leads to increased career maturity. During this process the participant is better equipped to make a career decision, which is an important aspect of career maturity.”

It Helps You Develop Real Skills

Erin O’Neil, profiled by Haigler and Nelson in their popular Gap Year manual, Gap Year, American Style, believes that her gap year made a real impact on her future. She says, “I firmly believe that my experiences during my gap year set me apart from other peers in competing for a job. I believe my experiences show that I am confident, self-sufficient, a go-getter, someone who thinks outside of the box, and someone who has experience dealing with others who may be vastly different from myself.”

Haigler and Nelson’s survey data supports the idea that gappers feel better prepared for their careers than had they not done a gap year. They found that 85% of survey responders “rated their gap years highly in terms of providing them with additional skills and knowledge that contributed to [their] career or academic major.”

Seventy-three percent of the participants felt that they “had higher skills than their peers after a gap year.” Furthermore, the study found that gappers expanded their networks and connections and were overall, satisfied to highly satisfied with their careers.

A UK-based study found that the vast majority (80%) of gappers agreed that their gap year had “added to their employment,” specifically identifying the following benefits:

  • Having extra time to reflect on career possibilities
  • Learning a new language
  • Gaining professionally relevant skills
  • Acquiring additional training or qualifications
  • Read about more benefits of a gap year (ad).

Dr. Andrew Jones of Birkbeck University in London conducted a Gap Year trends survey and found that “two groups I have followed in depth worked voluntarily as teaching assistants in Tanzania and Vietnam. Quite quickly after arriving in their placements, these young people were dealing with classes of teenagers and having to stand up and speak (and often teach).

Many reported feeling much more able and comfortable speaking to new people, to large groups and dealing with difficult social situations. They also had to help plan and organize lessons on a day-to-day basis as well as work unsocial hours when tired and discipline unruly children.”

Lissi Knell agrees that “being exposed to different backgrounds has given me a bigger perspective on the world and has given me a different view on starting college. I am [now] much more appreciative of my college experience and the education I am receiving and am not going to take it for granted. So far in college, I've joined clubs and programs that I may have not gotten involved in if I hadn't taken a gap year.”

It may be helpful for gappers to think about their experiences in the context of a workplace. A gap year might not directly correspond to a certain career, but the skills that are developed, consciously or not, can really set one apart. Haigler and Nelson organize these skills into the following blocks:

  • Leading and Deciding
  • Adapting and Coping
  • Analyzing and Interpreting

No matter the journey or adventure, pretty much all gappers have experiences that test their ability to adapt, be flexible, and make hard decisions. From there, it’s about convincing an employer that your experience is applicable. Employers are looking for someone who can articulate what it is that they learned and, according to Griffiths, “demonstrate genuine interest and talk knowledgeably in an interview around the subject based on real experiences.”

From an Employer's Perspective

It's probably no surprise that traveling and taking a gap year makes gappers feel more confident, gain professional skills, and find direction in their studies or careers. Last December, we explored what colleges think of gap years, but how do employers feel about them?

Gap Years Help Applicants Stand Out

Ecuador, host family

The first step in any career is that first interview, and even getting that first interview can be competitive. As an employer, sifting through hundreds, or even thousands of stark white resumes, anything that sets an applicant apart will get them on the short list.

Dr. Andrew Jones argues that Gap Year “participants gain a wide range of life skills and other more specialized skills. These skills are often ones employers identify as lacking in new recruits.”

Tom Griffiths agrees, “Sitting in a bath of cat food to raise money for a six-month placement shadowing a vet on a lion project in Kenya, or a 10,000-mile adventure in a pink tuk-tuk raising funds for charity -- both real examples, two of the thousands I see each year -- jump out from the mass of bland, identical, CVs.”

If sitting in a bath of cat food doesn’t sound appealing, applicants can also stand out just by getting relevant experience during a gap year. If someone is applying to work with a non-profit and has already spent time working in the field with at risk populations, that goes a long way in showing an employer that they can “hack it.”

You're Ahead of the Pack

Marvin Hough, Regional Vice-President, Latin America, at Export Development Canada, believes in the value of this experience, saying “I can tell you from my own personal experience, seeing all kinds of résumés that come onto my desk, that it really does make a difference when you see someone who's completed an overseas experience. They have a comparative advantage over other applicants."

Once through the hoops of resumes and interviews, employers notice that employees with gap year experience are better prepared for life in the workplace. They have developed skills and confidence that set them apart.

You've Demonstrated Flexibility

A gapper will be able to step into a new environment and use the experiences they have had to be assimilate. If they have taught a classroom full of French nine-year-olds or tracked lions on the savannah, nothing is going to rattle them.

For example, Lissi Knell writes that as a result of her gap year, “I put myself in more situations that may be uncomfortable at first, but I know in the long run, I will adapt and learn something new.”

There are many things that one learns while traveling that just cannot be taught or learned at school.

Dr. Andrew Jones’ study found that “Employers, thus, are able to recruit young people who have experience of workplace environments, of dealing with people in a working environment and who have communication and organizational skills to deal with professional occupations.

Many graduate-level jobs require these skills in equal measure with academic ability but formal qualifications do not give employers much indication of an applicant's ability in these areas. Employers also benefit from new recruits who, to quote one HR director, have ‘been out of their comfort zones’ and are thus more likely to have the flexibility and improvisation skills to deal with the demands of the graduate workplace.”

You're Adept at Being Part of a Team

Gappers consistently show, no matter what type of gap year they had, that they can be a valuable member of a team, and that they know how to listen, how to lead, and how to take an active, results-oriented role. Nigel Miller, Director of Public Affairs for Labatt Breweries, understands this first hand.

In a recent article for Verge Magazine on employer opinions on gap years, he says, “A big part of traveling is getting along with other people and coming to mutual decisions -- sometimes in difficult situations.

That person is probably fairly sociable and has had to develop good listening skills -- they work well in a team environment." Miller continues, “there are many things that one learns while traveling that just cannot be taught or learned at school.”

You're Skilled at Resource Management

Huts in Ghana

ABCNews.com recently profiled several gappers, including Caroline Cating, who was volunteering with a daycare center in Mexico.

She writes, “all of my different experiences have helped me learn to be patient and to have faith that things work out, though not always as planned.” In particular, she adds, “I've learned to budget for groceries and gas and rent, to navigate new social situations in which there isn't always a right or wrong answer."

Lissi Knell also lists financial savviness as a product of her gap year, explaining that “living on my own required me to make my own decisions dealing with money and time. I was forced to budget my income and I had to weigh my options on whether or not something was worth the money. I enjoyed being able to do this, because I felt like a real adult and was able to make all my decisions on my own.”

Regardless of whether a gapper is self-paying, supported by his/her family, or receiving a stipend, grant, or scholarship, being conscious of a budget is part of the experience. Often gappers are on their own for the first time, trying to balance needs, wants, and exchange rates.

As Cating mentions, she was forced to budget for food, rent, and transportation. This ability to value the resources available will absolutely translate to the workplace. “After all,” says Rae Nelson, “what employer wouldn’t want someone who’s financially savvy and values resources?”

Gappers are Leaders

Leadership and integrity are also skills that employer notice in gappers. Nerella Campigotto, President of Boomerang Consulting, notices that a gapper tends to be a “risk taker, someone who can think out of the box, [is] willing to listen and [is] open to change,” adding that these are “employees who can bring a different perspective to their job.”

What employer doesn't want to hire someone like that?

You've Practiced Humility

This is a skill that is often undervalued and overlooked, yet people who return from a gap year are often very self aware and humble.

After time away from their comfort zone, they realize that they don’t know everything. They don’t have all the answers. They are open to input from others and learning from their surroundings.

This is a gift that could otherwise take years to learn. As Haigler puts it, “gappers are often in a period of emerging adulthood. They are more impressionable, more malleable. This is a time when they create life long habits. This is when they strike that balance between confidence and humility.”

Gappers go into their careers more focused, having had time to hone their skills and realize their passions.

The really top-notch formal gap year programs make this a priority. Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), for example, believes that “developing an intellect rooted in honest, humility, and a determination to pursue truth to empower all means unraveling how we learn.” TBB gappers are encouraged to question, learn, and value varying perspectives. “Learning in this way builds a sense of humility; students are taught to value questions that lead to dynamic understanding rather than simple answers.”

A young person who has developed these skills would be a highly valued member of any team in the workplace, especially when employers are hesitant to hire a recent college grad because most tend to lack these skills.

The Future of Gap Years

The trend is clear. Gap years are becoming more and more common -- applications for gap year programs are up 61% in the past two years -- and even encouraged. There's even a question about gap years on the college entrance common application.

As more students come through gap years and start to build their careers, we’ll learn more about the impact that this time had upon their lives and jobs. We'll collect more information and data and be able to prove with statistics what many in the gap-year world already know: gap years take many forms, but in the end, the participants gain valuable skills that transfer to the workplace.

Employers are increasingly looking for employees who can adapt, lead, and have can-do attitudes. Gappers go into their careers more focused, having had time to hone their skills and realize their passions. As we listen to the stories of those who have benefitted from gap years and the employers who value their skills, we know that gap years set young people on a path to fulfillment and success in their careers.

Photo Credits: Natasha Krol, Ellie Taylor, Gabi Schiller, and Jazzmine Lawton.

Kate Evans

Kate Evans is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa. Published internationally, travel is her favorite pastime and writing subject. Follow her on Google+ or on Kate Evan's website.