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Gap years are becoming more and more popular. But they are getting good press, and bad press. When done right, there is no question that taking a gap year will have numerous benefits. Here are 8 tips to make your gap year exceptionally productive.

1. Defer for a year.

Before you graduate from high school, apply to college along with everyone else. You may be anxious about college, which is why you want to take a gap year. But if you don’t apply to college while you’re in high school, you will spend your entire gap year stressing out about what comes next. Even if you defer for a year, you can always change your mind and go somewhere else. But you will at least be set up to start your education.

From the college’s perspective: While colleges do encourage gap years, they want to see that you have a plan. Getting started early (or on time) shows that you are serious, and intend on having a constructive, productive gap year. This tip is huge. Nobody wants you to spend your gap year sitting at your parents’ kitchen table, stressing out about college applications.

Before applying to colleges, check in with each school’s admissions office to see how they treat deferrals. Asking will not hurt your chances of getting in, and it is crucial that you find schools that are encouraging of your decision to take a year, and will honor any scholarships you have been awarded. We live in a wonderful time, when most universities understand the value of a gap year, and will honor the scholarships you were offered during your time in high school.

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2. Confront your weaknesses.

This one’s exciting. This is a time in your life when you should acknowledge your weaknesses, and confront them head-on. Figure out what you are afraid of, and do specifically that.

Your gap year is a relatively risk-free time. You haven’t made a substantial multi-year investment; you likely don’t have a mortgage, kids, or accountability to other people. This is a rare chance to jump into the deep end and do what makes you nervous, without any serious repercussions or lost opportunities; college will still wait for you.

Are you bad at speaking French? Go to France. Have you always wanted to get SCUBA certified, but are nervous about deep water? Go to Cambodia and jump in the water with a dive instructor. Are you interested in business management, but are nervous about public speaking? Join a business program and enter a public speaking boot camp.

If there are real risks to any of your interests, just be sure to pursue them through a reputable program. Other than that, your gap year will be the perfect time to overcome any fears you have about pursuing your interests. You will become a stronger, more confident, more interesting person.

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3. Travel.

This may seem obvious, but there are countless benefits to traveling that go beyond seeing beautiful places and doing cool things. You are likely just graduating high school, and have spent your childhood at home with your family.

Families are more than a group of people with the same accent and nose. They are a group of people with similar values and experiences. When you travel, you meet countless people from different families – with different values, and different experiences. With this, come different opinions on politics, religion, the economy, and even on Justin Bieber (his “Purpose” album was actually pretty good).

Traveling will introduce you to totally different experiences and perspectives – some that you never thought of. You may try a food that is considered disgusting at home, but is actually pretty good. You may hear an opinion about your home country’s political leader, and you might find out how your government interacts with the rest of the world. In some cases, traveling may help you appreciate the way things are at home. Either way, it will give your thoughts more perspective, and your opinions more bases for legitimacy. Traveling creates well-rounded global citizens, and fosters empathy. Everyone should try it.

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4. Work.

You have a high school degree. Congratulations! You’ve worked and studied for most of your life, so your degree really is a huge accomplishment. A college degree may be your next goal, but do you know what that degree is worth? I don’t mean how much it costs, but rather what its value is.

Spend part of your gap year working at a job, and you will quickly discover the value of your high school degree. Most likely, you will be able to get entry-level jobs that require little skill. You may get a job in customer service, data entry, or manual labor, but it is extremely difficult to get a job in your field of interest right out of high school.

I myself spent part of my gap year doing data entry in a factory that makes fluorescent light fixtures, I worked as a telemarketer, and I worked in customer service. Working during your gap year will quickly show you the kinds of jobs you can get with your new high school diploma, and will be a huge motivator to go to college and get a higher level degree.

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Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow!