So you did it: you decided to take a gap year. Whether you made the decision because you:
(a) want to see the world
(b) want to reapply to your top choice schools
(c) are close to burned out from all those APs in high school
(d) several/none of the above, the point is that you made the decision. Congratulations!
But if you want to be one of those people who, 20 years from now, credits your Pulitzer Prize and impressive career to lessons learned during your gap year, you’ll need to be prepared. Rather than leaping headfirst into your gap year, with little clue of what, when, and how you are going to make those life-long experiences, take a few days (or even just a few hours) to put together a plan for your opportunities. The time you invest now will pay off over the course of your alternative year.
First things first: What do you want to do?
Go somewhere quiet, with just a pen, a piece of paper and your thoughts. Then think.
Do you want to learn a new language, explore a new culture and become a part of the global community? Then travel should probably be a part of your gap year opportunity.
Do you want to figure out your future career path, pad your resume or get a taste of the working life?
Then a job, internship, or volunteer placement is probably what you’re looking for. But don’t just stick to established programs—if there’s a company that you’re really interested in working for, it’s worth contacting the company personally. They might just be willing to have you join them!
Whatever you want to do, chances are that you can find the opportunity to do it. All you have to do is be proactive, ask for help and organize yourself as early as possible.
Draw out a detailed budget for your gap year, inclusive of travel, food, housing and miscellaneous expenses. Then pool your resources and, if between savings and familial assistance, you don’t quite reach the sum that you need, figure out ways to make up the deficit. From working for the first part of your gap year, to applying for relevant grants, giving up needn’t be an option.
Once you have your resources worked out, plan the logistics of your gap year. Set time frames for completing certain sections and must-do items. These time frames do not have to be set in stone, but will be helpful in preventing you from running out of time, with lots left to do.
Everything is more fun with friends.
Sure, chances are that your friends aren’t coming on your gap year with you. But that doesn’t mean that you should think a gap year is a solitary period. Talk to friends and family about your plans. You might have a family friend involved in an industry that you’re hoping to take a look into, or perhaps you have an aunt who lives in the country that you want to visit. People are often willing to help you, but you have to give them the opportunity to do so first.
Yes, there’s a lot of planning that goes into a gap year. But the most important thing to remember is that you are doing this gap year for you. Just as you shouldn’t allow yourself to be pressured in to making college and career decisions, do not allow yourself to be pressured in to making gap year decisions. Remember what’s important to you, set manageable goals and remember not to stress out.
In the wise words of Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
Danai Kadzere is a German-South-African-Zimbabwean-American student from Greensboro, N.C., studying at Harvard University (www.harvard.edu).