How to Take a Gap Year

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As I get more exposure to a better data set of young professionals who know what they want to do and don’t waste time floating around between different skills and jobs, one of the constants that has come up as been gap years. A gap year provides an opportunity for a young person or young professional an opportunity to focus on building and learning that they may not otherwise have. It’s a reprieve from the stress of the classroom or the minutiae of office politics.

Generally speaking, there are two types of gap years:

  • Academic gap years: These are gap years off in between study. E.g., a recent high school grad may take a year off between high school and college.
  • Professional gap years: These are gap years off in between different stints of work. A young professional may leave their startup and spend a year studying, writing, traveling, consulting, etc., before settling into a new job or career track.

I haven’t yet met somebody who has taken a gap year and regretted it. It’s a chance to focus on learning skills that the typical work or university incentive structure doesn’t lead you to learn. I even took a gap year of sorts in between leaving one job and starting on the investment team at 1517.

Here’s how to organize a gap year. First, we’ll look at what’s applicable to both an academic and professional gap year. Then we’ll look at each of those to make the most out of them.

I’ll update this article if I find any new insights for organizing a gap year that I haven’t covered here.

General Guidelines

Have some planned structure. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to enroll in some kind of program, but make sure you have positive constraints on your calendar and your schedule. You want to make sure that you’re not relying on your own willpower to get through the days. You could enroll in a program that keeps you accountable, like a study program or a fellowship, or you could even just get a normal job that pays the bills but allows you extra time away from work to do what you want. I’ve met people who impose this structure with regimented travel schedules. If you know you only have a few weeks in one city before you go to another, you’re more likely to plan out those weeks and stick to that plan than if you were just sitting at home.

Have an end-date. Know when you’re going to be done with your gap year. Maybe your plans will change by the end of it, but you don’t want the gap year to be open-ended. Like planned structure, this imposes a sense of scarcity on your schedule and makes you have to choose what you want to spend your time doing. You don’t have to be wedded to the end-date, but choose one at first.

Have (or develop) a goal. You can set out on a gap year without a clear or obvious goal in mind, but if that’s the case, then your goal should be to develop a goal for your time off. Otherwise, spend the time focusing on something tangible that you can say you did or built when you were done. This doesn’t have to be professional, per se, it can be improved relationships with family or a soft skill, but you want some kind of way of tracking your progress. One of the things about professional and academic life is that they provide this to you by giving you a fiscal or academic calendar you work off of, grades you can use, quarterly reviews, etc. A goal works as a substitute for these.

Proactively network by reaching out to people who interest you. Even if you’re in some kind of fellowship or program, a gap year can be lonely. Proactively reach out to people who can help you or just give you feedback. One of the concepts I talk about in my book is the “Cabinet of (role) Models” that you can build. Consider getting good at email outreach and sending people emails regularly throughout your gap year.

Get your health and wellness straight. I’ve seen a terrible diet, awful sleep schedule, and general lack of fitness ruin too many otherwise competent young people. Get yourself to a place where you can reliably sleep eight hours every night, not eat garbage, know how to cook a decent meal for yourself, and are in a fitness regimen that you enjoy. This is fundamental. If you leave a gap year with only fixing these things, it will have been worth it.

How to Organize an Academic Gap Year

An academic gap year means taking a year off of school. That can be undergrad or grad school, but the ones I have seen be best for folks are in between high school and college. If you’re considering one of these, chances are you have to convince other people (i.e., your family) to get on board and you can’t just make the decision yourself. A big chunk of organizing an academic gap year is just doing that. Here’re a few things to consider.

Get in to a school — then defer your admission. Most schools will happily allow you to defer your admission. This means that if you were to start in Fall 2021, you’ll start in Fall 2022 and you don’t have to apply again to get in. That buys you a year to do whatever you want and makes the other people in your life less anxious about what you’ll do.

Apply for some kind of fellowship or funding program. While you can easily do a gap year entirely on your own, fellowships or funding programs lend credibility and structure to what you’re working on. Search online for “gap year programs” and check out resources like Next Gen for different programs you can apply to. If you’re already working on something, reach out to us at 1517 to see if you’re a fit for our grants or community.

(Or, get a job. A year working in the real world after high school can give you a great perspective on what you really need to learn if and when you go to college. I wish I had done this.)

Set some project sprints at the beginning. In other words, prove to those around you that you’ll be plenty of productive outside of school. Focus on a few side projects and get something launched. Build up your professional portfolio — whether that’s writing on your personal website or populating your GitHub — and show you’ll be productive. A huge reason people go to school is for credentials. Credentials are substitute signals for quality of work. If you have high quality work, you can offset the need for a credential entirely.

How to Organize a Professional Gap Year

A professional gap year is some time off of work. In startup circles, you’ll see people saying, “I’m taking time off to do something new,” or simply “I’m taking time off.” In the corporate world, I see people go get MBAs for this reason. It can be after an exit or simply after you get bored with what you’re working on.

Planning a professional gap year is less about convincing other people that you’ll be productive and more about convincing yourself that you’re spending your time well instead of working.

What I’ve seen work for people:

Have a way to provide for yourself. If you didn’t just sell your company or cash out on options, you’ll want to have some kind of way of supporting yourself. That can mean picking up some freelance clients that cover your living expenses, applying for grant funding if there’s something very specific you want to work on, or even just working a “normal” service job that can help offset your expenses and let you differentiate between “work” and “not-work” more easily.

Set up some social accountability. Don’t just fall off the map. Have a social routine that involves people who care about you and whom you care about. These people can check in on you and you can tell them, “oh, I’m taking some time off to work on X.” That also allows you to set clear standards for when you’ll be done with your gap year.

If possible, receive a standing job offer. The best way to take a professional gap year is to have somebody in the wings who has told you that they would love to hire you when you’re available. Cull through your professional network before taking time off and meet up with people with whom you’d like to work and who like you. Chat with them about their growth plans for their companies and what they’d like to do in a year or two. Give them some soft signals that you may be on the job market in a year. If you are, you’re sitting pretty. If after a year you decide to pursue your own venture, nothing lost.

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