The gap year used to be a common enough choice for high school graduates, especially baby boomers. The idea was to take a year in between high school and college to travel, work or otherwise get a taste of the real world before arriving on campus.
Since then, the gap year has largely died out in the mainstream – until now. In a survey conducted by Wakefield Research, nearly half of high school students graduating in 2020 say their plans have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those, about a third say they will now delay their entrance into college, and almost a fifth have decided to pursue a different career path.
While the circumstances are less than ideal, studies indicate that students who take a gap year actually perform better academically when they return to school. If you’re looking to make the most of your gap year, here are a few ways to do it.
Get an Internship or Mentorship
While many companies are pausing internship programs this year, some may be offering remote or socially distant opportunities.
Make a list of the industries you’d be interested in exploring, like software, advertising or accounting. Then, browse LinkedIn to find those types of companies near you.
Click on the company and go to their website to find a hiring manager or someone from human resources to contact. If that information is not readily available on the internet, you can connect with someone directly on LinkedIn.
Send a short note explaining who you are, what you’re interested in and what drew you to that particular business. If you’re able to email them, include a basic resume with your high school GPA, extracurriculars and other accomplishments. Try to personalize the message and demonstrate your understanding of what the organization does.
Because so many students are searching for internships right now, you may have to contact dozens of companies before being accepted. Don’t despair. When I was looking for a job after the 2008 financial crash, I sent out more than 100 applications before I finally got an offer.
Be persistent, follow up at least once after submitting an application and send a thank-you note after every interview. When the internship hunt is especially competitive, you have to be even more determined.
If you manage to land an internship, try to forge new relationships even if you’re working remotely. Developing your professional network is one of the most important things you can do as an intern – even if you never meet your coworkers in person.
Develop Creative Projects and New Skills
While you’re trying to find an internship or job, you can use your downtime to launch a project, enhance an existing skill or learn something new. If you’ve always wanted to learn software, find free or inexpensive classes online. If you want to improve your Spanish, connect with a tutor on a site like italki.
If you’re interested in graphic design, writing or another creative field, you can offer pro bono services for a local non-profit to build your online portfolio. Collect testimonials from your clients and ask them to endorse your skills on LinkedIn.
Take Community College Classes
Just because you can’t afford a four-year college right now, that doesn’t mean you have to delay your education. Instead, consider taking community college courses.
In 2018, the average cost of one credit hour at a two-year college is $135, compared to $325 at a four-year public college and $1,039 at a four-year private university.
Students who already know where they’re going to college should verify that their community college classes will count toward the necessary credit hours. You don’t want to waste your time and money by taking classes that won’t transfer.
This strategy works best when applying community college credits to a public university in the same state. If you’re taking classes in California and applying to a four-year college in Colorado, they may not accept your credit hours.
Find a Paid Job
Finding paid work during your gap year will be more difficult than in previous years, as there are millions of Americans unemployed right now. You should be willing to broaden your search and accept lower-paying work like mowing lawns, cleaning gutters or babysitting.
A low-paying job will still help you earn money for college and pay for any expenses you have during the gap year. Any job will build your resume and show future employers that you’re a responsible and hard-working candidate.
Look for job openings on sites like Indeed and LinkedIn. Post in neighborhood groups on Next Door and Facebook with your services and contact information. You may be surprised how many people are looking for dog walkers or someone to run basic errands.
Side hustles like delivering for Instacart and Uber Eats are still plentiful. If you choose one of these options, keep track of expenses like gas and car repairs, because you can deduct them on your taxes at the end of the year.
Make a list of all your skills, talents and hobbies and brainstorm ways to monetize them. If you’re a talented graphic designer, post your services on Fiverr. If you’re an excellent guitar player, offer to teach music lessons to kids in your area.
Research and Apply for More Scholarships
If you’re certain that college is still in your future, use this time to research and apply for more scholarships and grants. Work on your essays and collect references from people who know you well, like your high school baseball coach or your drama teacher.
You may not be able to apply for scholarships if you’re not enrolling in the fall, but you can bookmark them for later on. Create a folder or a Google doc with a link to the requirements, deadlines and any other relevant information for each scholarship you plan to apply for.
You can even write about this gap year experience for your essay. Keep a running log of what you accomplish, what you learn and how you grow throughout the year.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Conscious Coins.