October 15, 2010

A year off for good behavior

Taking a gap year does not put incoming students at a disadvantage

Those who decide to explore the benefits of a gap year more often than not find themselves working for a financial institution, a Barclays or Credit Suisse-type, or some sort of an accounting firm in New York or San Francisco. I, however, chose a more unconventional approach for my gap year experience and interned for Meg Whitman, former eBay CEO and current California gubernatorial candidate. If my experiences are any indication, a gap year, even one that doesn’t complement one’s ultimate career interest, provides a better perspective on life after college, offers the opportunity to explore various interests in a work environment, and helps build a resume.

One of the most rewarding things one can get from a gap year is a realistic perspective on life after college. As a naïve high school graduate preparing for a gap year, you assume work will be easier than school. However, when you get involved in the work, you quickly realize that while it may seem glamorous and appealing beforehand, it is really quite the opposite. For me, it was a difficult and challenging, seven- day, 120-hour workweek, with hours and hours of phone calls followed by meeting after meeting after meeting. For most of my gap year, my life revolved around the campaign; I ate, breathed, smelled, and, when I found time to sleep, dreamt campaign. By the second week, I was so absorbed in various projects that work began to feel like an extension of myself.

A gap year also allows students to explore careers or opportunities related to their interests or passions. While many college graduates are attracted to jobs that will allow them to make a living and pay off student loans and bills, those who choose a gap year are not similarly confined by circumstances for their year off. A gap year provides the ability to explore whatever one wants, wherever one wants, without the distractions of debt and pressing financial obligations, while at the same time gaining valuable work experience.

One can only assume that when the time comes to leave school and join the workforce, the experience gained during a gap year will be helpful in landing that first job. In a competitive job market, the more experience one has, the better. A gap year is the first entry on the “experience” line of a resume, and each experience adds to the potential for the next level of advancement in a career. The gap year is the first experience of developing relationships and skill sets, the benefits of which will last a lifetime.

When students tell people they were on a gap year, they are often asked whether they felt they were at a disadvantage going into college. I do not at all think that students taking a gap year are at a disadvantage. Students who choose to take a gap year have more experience than those who don’t—rather, they have a head start. One way in which a gap year can be extensively helpful, as it has been for me, is in the process of applying for internships for the following summer. A well-chosen gap year experience opens up the opportunity to qualify for internships restricted to rising juniors and seniors.

Everyone eventually has to step out in the real world, and the more information one has, the better. My experience taking a gap year gave me a realistic picture of life after college, gave me the opportunity to see what my interests looked like outside the classroom, helped me to fine-tune my academic path, and ultimately has made me better prepared to enter the workforce and begin college. It is a dose of reality that can give some much-needed perspective to one’s college years, and the years to follow.

Brandon Watson is a first-year in the College majoring in Economics.