Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into university or college. But are you really ready to go?
For many students, taking a gap year after matric proves invaluable – and actually helps them to thrive in university or college when they eventually get there. At least that’s one of the beliefs held by American professor and higher-education expert, Jeffrey Selingo, in his bestselling There is Life After College. According to Selingo, a gap year can be critical to helping students form their own understanding of why they’re pursuing tertiary studies, and what they want once they get there. “We shouldn’t rush this transition,” he insists.
Selingo is not alone in his argument for taking time off. Many international universities, including the illustrious Harvard, encourage “admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way.”
And the evidence appears to back them up. Studies conducted on nearly 7 000 students by researchers at the University of Western Australia’s Business School found that gap-year students have marks 2.3% higher than those students who go straight to university after school. Researchers believe that students who take time off before furthering their studies end up discovering where their true interests and talents lie, which helps them bring a more mature outlook to their education in the future.
Minding the gap year
Of course, there is a catch: your gap year must be meaningful. “Students who delay college to work odd jobs for a while to try to ‘find themselves’ don’t do as well as everyone else when they get to college,” says Selingo. “They get lower grades, and there’s a greater chance they will drop out.”
So how, then, do you go about making your gap year truly “meaningful”?
1. Gain valuable work experience
Use your time off to explore and experiment with different types of work to see what you might like to pursue as a career in the long term. Whether you get voluntary work, an internship, or a paid part-time job during your year out, use the opportunity to determine whether you like the field you’re working in enough to make it your full-time profession – and, just as important, whether it’s a good fit for you. Are you a lone ranger or do you thrive in a team? Can you cope in a deadline-driven environment or do you fold under pressure? Work experience is far more than simply a valuable addition to your CV. It will teach you about the kind of person you are – and, as a result, the work setting best suited to your unique personality.
2. Get better prepared academically
If you’re not academically burned out, consider taking a short course in your intended field, or even getting a first-year credit or two out of the way. Doing so will allow you to get accustomed to the more rigorous, self-directed nature of tertiary study, without having to take on a full course load all at once. You’ll also get to start your first year a few credits ahead, which will give you a bit of extra wiggle room as you plan your course schedules in the future.
3. Broaden your horizons
Until now you’ve been on a conveyor belt of study, exams and zero time out for yourself. A gap year provides the perfect excuse to get to know yourself – a valuable exercise that will stand you in good stead, both professionally and personally, in the years to come. Use this time to gain as much life experience as you can. And what better way to do this than to travel? Contrary to popular belief, travelling need not cost you an arm or a leg. There are numerous international “volunteer-abroad” programmes you can apply to, not to mention student-exchange opportunities that allow you experience life in another country with a host family. Exploring the great wide world will put you in contact with interesting people and different cultures, so expanding your horizons and gaining you international experience – significant assets in an increasingly global world.
4. Learn a language
Learning a major international language such as Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish will be of huge benefit if you’re thinking of one day entering the business world. In today’s global society, being able to communicate across cultures is becoming increasingly important. Employers – especially those in the emerging markets – often operate with clients and partners from different countries and being able to speak their language can significantly increase your future job prospects.
5. Reflect on your goals
Your gap year will give you the mental space you need to reflect on what you do and don’t want from your tertiary studies, your career and, ultimately, your life. And the real-world experience you gain during this time, be it through working, travelling or further learning, can help you to more clearly decide how to make your future goals a reality. That clarity can translate into a smoother experience into college or university, as well as a more direct path to choosing the degree that’s right for you.
SACAP’s Higher Certificate in Counselling and Communication Skills provides a meaningful way of using your gap year to better both yourself and your future prospects. This one-year vocational qualification – which is offered on campus or online – also serves as an excellent point of entry into the field of psychology, human behaviour and mental health. For more information, click here.