Things High School Grads Absolutely Need to Learn in Their Gap Years

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Blame princes William and Harry for the many high school grads taking a year off before college to travel, work or otherwise explore adulthood. While that year should be full of fun and adventure, it's also an important time for personal growth. Ideally, a gap year will help prepare students for the real world ahead of them—usually college. If done right, genuine connections can be formed, worthwhile networking can take place and (at least) some helpful experience can be gained.

Gap years are more valuable than some people give them credit for, explains Robert Franek, editor in chief of the Princeton Review and author of the book “Taking Time Off,” which examines the usefulness of gap years. “There’s a myth that’s been perpetuated that if you take a gap year, you’re never going to go to college, but that’s just false. Most schools allow students to be admitted and then defer for one year,” he says. It’s also an option to wait to apply for college after your gap year is complete, allowing students to include their experiences on their applications.

In his book, Franek tracked 26 students from high school through their gap years and on into their first years of college. Across the board, those students who took a gap year performed better academically than their peers who went to university straight from high school. That’s not a difference you can simply chalk up to age, Franek says.

“If you matured for a year but didn’t do something of substance, that wouldn’t automatically leave a you in better standing,” he says. “What we saw from those students [who took a gap year] was that they were more focused academically, they came to the classroom with a varied cross-section of experiences they were able to reference, and they had a wider world view that really profited them.”

But not everyone gets the same benefit out of the experience. Here are three important things every gap-year-taker should aim to do.

Learn how to be yourself.

“Students need to see that life isn’t just an experience that’s happening to you—you are a driver in this experience,” Franek explains. “The script is yours to write, and that can be incredibly empowering.” Unfortunately, it’s common for some high school students to feel that they’re only heading to college because everyone else around them is. During grades K-12, things for students have probably been pretty “prescriptive” academically. But during a gap year, students learn how to make choices for themselves—choices that aren’t informed by anyone else. That’s huge. When they make their own decisions, they learn what it means to live as independent beings. What they do during the gap year doesn’t matter as much as the decisions they’re making—in other words, it’s not where you go, it’s what you learn in the process, he says.

Learn to get outside your comfort zone.

As you’re doing this, try to be intentional and purposeful with your time. For example, if you plan to travel, don’t just see your time away as a vacation but rather as a chance to learn a new language and immerse yourself with the locals.

“Venture out to make friends from different countries and backgrounds. Stay at hostels, or choose other group living arrangements that naturally allow you to spend time with people from all over the world,” says Kristina Ellis, college finance author and speaker.

Wherever you go, try to talk to as many people as you possibly can, Franek agrees. “Be unapologetic about interacting with everyone, as it’s the people around you who will shape your experience. The wider the cross-section of humanity you can shake hands with, the better,” he says.

If you plan to work during the year, don’t sign up for a job just to “pay the bills”—try to see every opportunity as a way to learn something that will further your future goals, Ellis suggests. “Consider picking up a new skill that you can pursue when you return to college,” she describes, suggesting social-media management or graphic design as lucrative options.

“Take advantage of the time you have to develop further skills that can bring in some extra income.” Working is also a great way for students to own their experience. Shouldering some part of the financial responsibility is an important part of the growth path; when you have a stake in the game, you tend to get more out of it.

Learn to chronicle your journey for reflection.

Journaling is about creating a reference of who you were that year. “What were your biggest fears? What was your relationship with yourself like? These are the questions you can continue to glean more from over the years,” Franek says. It’s not something you’ll necessarily cherish in the moment, but you stand to learn a lot from it over time. “Maybe you work through your a decision about your major without even realizing it. Or maybe you’re not even connecting all those dots right now, but you’re reflecting, with confidence, with substance, and as you’re looking back one day in the near future, everything will become clear.”

And note: Keeping a journal doesn’t have to involve the writing down of profound thoughts. In many cases, a gap year may be the first opportunity a student has to work out a budget, and that’s something that can be simply managed on paper every month. Learning to track your expenses in this way can be a valuable lifelong skill.

“Even if mom and dad are providing an allowance, every graduate should put together a budget. How much do you think you will need to live for the year? What are the hidden expenses you didn't plan for? Once kids are paying for their own living expenses, they may realize that there are certain things they don't want to live without,” explains Kathryn George, partner of Brown Brothers Harriman overseeing private wealth management and the BBH Center for Women and Wealth. “Lifestyle choices can be very helpful in informing career choice later on."

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With Kathryn Tuggle