Updated: Jan 22
Your definitive guide to all those questions that parents and students have about Gap Years.
Leaving High School and taking a step into the big wide world is HUGE, and sometimes a student isn’t ready to dive straight into tertiary studies or a full-time role. This isn’t a fault of the student or a weakness – we all have different needs at different times in our lives.
If you want to get a tertiary qualification but the idea of University or a Polytechnic doesn’t excite you at the moment, that doesn’t mean you should rule it out altogether – that excitement might come later, after a change in scenery and the opportunity to step back from the focus on study.
Most students, whether they love school or not, find that by mid-way through Year 13, they are over the structured, predictable routine that High School requires. They are young adults with a driver’s licence of some sort, some personal freedom, perhaps some income, but they are still required to arrive at school at the same time each day and tick off subjects that they don’t feel are relevant to their future but meet the NCEA/IB requirements.
They are ready to transition to a space where they have more options and more personal freedom and responsibilities, but the boring old adults of the world won’t allow it. Just yet.
I get it. The study life of year 11, 12 and 13 can be quite repetitious and these eager, energetic and willing young adults are seeking more.
And sometimes it takes a brave person to say: “I need to stop for a moment and reassess my future.” It’s not laziness or a weakness; we all face a crisis of confidence at various times in our lives.
Some surprising statistics about what High Schoolers REALLY think!
When I was at high school, a Gap Year wasn’t an option, so it’s often hard for parents today to see the point of it for today’s students.
Many parents I work with WISH they could have taken some kind of gap year – they are confused about the best path for them, they don’t have the right information to make a good decision and they feel the pressure of time to settle on a way forward. If they had the ability to take a gap year, many would have taken it. So let’s be open to the possibility for this generation.
The views of high school students confirm that most of them feel uncertain about their path after high school:
67% of Year 13 students are worried that they are not going to be able to find a career-related job.
56% believe their prospects after university aren’t strong.
And finally, 64% believe that universities aren’t adequately equipping students with skills that will fulfil the needs of a workplace.
Despite what you might hear, a gap year isn’t
just about taking a break from everything
(although if you do just want a break that’s
totally okay too).
What are the benefits of doing a Gap Year?
A gap year can be a key part of your career/life development and if you’re travelling or spending time working, you’ll be picking up important life skills like budgeting.
A gap year can give you a chance to just figure things out without the pressure of exams and deadlines and most of the time you’ll be able to defer your University offer for a year while you decide.
Studies have shown that students who delay tertiary studies for a year after leaving school have a higher grade average at the end of their tertiary studies.
They are also less likely to change their course once they start and are less likely to binge drink!
The Gap Year experience can help you build your resilience, your ability to adapt to new situations and your skills in working with diverse groups or environments.
In 2012, 34% of Harvard students had taken a Gap Year, and 90% of these went on to finish their degree on time!
So here are some reasons to consider a Gap Year:
You feel you don't know yourself well and want to improve your self-awareness and motivation for work or further study.
You have things you are passionate about ticking off before going to University - for example, taking your sporting skills to a higher level, completing a volunteer project, testing a new idea/product in the marketplace.
You want to get some money behind you to lessen the financial stress while studying.
You have challenges outside school that warrant a breather before your next step. For instance, you may be dealing with a disability, illness, or family loss that has drained you emotionally and physically.
You don't feel you know enough about the world of work to make a considered decision about your best career move.
Your career coach (like me!) has identified through the detail in your personality profile that a Gap Year could be beneficial to you.
Now, what are the downsides to a Gap Year?
You may be a year behind your friends and former classmates who have gone on to tertiary study.
You might find it hard to pick up certain subjects again, or get back into the study habit.
You may be tempted by a good work offer when it may be in your best interests to study instead – choosing income now over your longer term prospects.
You may not earn as much money as you hoped you might.
You might enjoy the freedom a little TOO much, and your Gap Year extends beyond a year.
The key questions you should ask yourself in deciding on a Gap Year:
Am I really clear as to why I don’t want to move onto tertiary study or a full-time job?
If I undertake a Gap Year and my friends don’t, could I handle doing something different to them?
Am I thinking clearly about my next steps after High School? For example, don’t make a decision in the midst of exams or after a break-up. Let some time pass, get rested and then explore your options with fresh eyes.
Do I need a whole year off from study or work? Would a semester/half-year work just as effectively?
What do I want my Gap Year to look like? New experiences, income earning, physical achievement, mental wellbeing, adventure, giving back, etc.
Imagine the Gap Year/Semester is over – what do you want to have achieved? What do you want to be able to tell others?
How will I finance my Gap Year?
Do I need to put in some deadlines/dates for next decisions, to give my parents/friends some confidence that I will be able to put a full-stop on the Gap Year experience?
When I am working with students and exploring their career options through personality questionnaires, their knowledge about jobs comes through really clearly, so if a student doesn’t know enough about the world of work, I put the option of a Gap Year on the table – it’s a great opportunity to see if this could work for the student and I can help them assess the pros and cons. As they relate to THEIR NEEDS.
Perhaps the student doesn’t know themselves well, perhaps they are facing a personal struggle they need to deal with first or perhaps work just doesn’t excite them at the moment, while study is such a big part of their lives.
Whatever the reason, I help them work through the options and allay the parents’ fears that Gap Year is an excuse for a holiday – with most of my students who express an interest in a Gap Year; it’s for valid, viable reasons.
What could I do on my Gap Year?
There is no one way to approach your Gap Year, and here are some ideas to get you started:
Secure an internship
Teach English overseas
Work as a nanny/au pair
Work at a summer camp overseas
Combine travel with temporary work
Fulfil a sporting goal or physical challenge
Get involved in a conservation/environmental project
Undertake a short term study course
Start a fundraiser
In terms of undertaking study as part of your Gap Year, it might seem counter-intuitive to do study while you are taking a break from study. But it may be that you see a course which could build your confidence, or kick-start a hobby for you, or push you out of your comfort zone, or it may set you up for employment options while you are travelling overseas.
For example, Horizons Unlimited in Christchurch has programmes where gap year students can get an outdoor education qualification, which can then be used in overseas employment which Horizons sets up. This gives the student a qualification, an employment option and a structured gap year, which parents value.
So, what next?
Here's some further resources to explore:
Also, talk to others who have completed a Gap Year – get feedback and ideas from them – what did they gain from the Gap Year? What did they wish they had known about the Gap Year experience?
Am I am here to help you sift through your options, too.
The Gap Year in a Nutshell
The benefits of a Gap Year include being able to build soft skills that couldn't be addressed at school, seeing roles/organisations/projects around the world that could spark an interest for you, building your ability to work in a diverse workplace and seeing if applying some of the things you learnt at school could lead to a meaningful career for you.
So, if you are thinking of taking a Gap Year, remember to plan your goals with your career coach and parents, set some structure around your Gap Year and try to find work in relevant industries that appeal to your interests, so you can make connections and trial potential careers while you earn.
And above all, if you decide to take a Gap Year, make the most of this valuable time!
I'm Tracey Beard, the Chief Encouragement Officer at Career Matters - I make it my business to help students and young adults explore their career options. I use modern online tools, 1 to 1 coaching and a focus on practical, empowering solutions. Book a chat with me anytime, at www.careermatters.co.nz.