By: Sean McCarthy, NCA Career Ambassador
My Name is Sean McCarthy and I am a Junior, double majoring in Psychology and Theatre with a minor in Legal Studies. I have worked at the NCA as a career ambassador for the past year. I decided to interview one of the Career Counselors at NCA, Jeff Jenkins, who helps students navigate important career decisions, including choosing a major, evaluating interests and exploring different industries to learn more about gap year planning.
What is a Gap Year?
While everyone may define a “gap year” differently, The Gap Year Association defines a gap year as, “A semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.” Gap years are not a cure all for post-graduation/job search stress, but can be a great fit for some students. Gap years, like any life decision, bring with them potential pros and cons, and it is important to plan and evaluate them in the context of your current situation and goals for the future. To help with this evaluation process, NCA highly recommends meeting with a career counselor or adviser, who can help you determine if taking a gap year is a good fit for you and your career goals. You don’t need to know what you want, or what questions to ask in order to swing by the NCA office for an appointment. Below are just a few ways students have utilized their time during a gap year:
- Traveling domestically or internationally
- Participating in gap year specific programs (targeted at recent grads who may have an interest in supporting a particular cause, volunteering, teaching or traveling both within the U.S. and abroad)
- Gaining experience to apply for graduate or professional programs
- Preparing for and taking entrance exams for graduate or professional programs
- Engaging in fellowships, research or other time-bound opportunities that help a student gain new experience, insights or explore a particular field (NOTE: some employers will even defer offers for the duration of a program to allow students to participate in something like a Fulbright, for example)
Essentially gap years do not mean time unutilized- they are rather, time spent engaging in opportunities that continue to support your goals, but may not fit the “typical” definition of a first job post-graduation.
Gap Year Pros
What a gap year looks like and what sort of long term benefits they provide differs greatly depending on your individual goals. Benefits to a gap year could be: traveling abroad, exploring a new culture, discovering new interests, building experience and more. During a Law Career Trek I attended this spring, I spoke with several litigators for a private law firm in Chicago, all of whom highly recommended taking a year before law school to work as a clerk or a paralegal before applying to law school. Some students might simply need time off from the pressures of academics to be given the opportunity to introspect on exactly what they want in the future. How you choose to spend a gap year is flexible, but it is especially important to set clear and achievable goals for your gap year as early as possible.
It is also important to be realistic about gap year planning. Financial constraints are one example of a factor that should be taken into account. If you are considering travel, looking for a part-time or remote job could save a lot of money. If you are considering graduate school, see what sorts of benefits your potential program could offer in terms of grants, stipends or scholarships. Additionally, if you are taking a gap year post graduation, be sure to check the NCA Career Guide for information on industry hiring timelines. Knowing when an industry hires could help you to plan around when the roles you are targeting will be available.
Steps for Success
If taking a gap year is something you are interested in, your first step should be to take some time to reflect on what you would want from your gap year. During a discussion with Jeff Jenkins, one of the NCA career counselors, he told me that he often meets with students asking for guidance during their spring quarter of senior year. According to Jeff, what’s important is that the students are seeking help in the first place. And while students at NU still have access to NCA 1:1 advising services for six months after they graduate, he advised students to take advantage of NCA’s resources while they are still on campus.