Main Atrium and Grand Staircase at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (New York, NY)

Are you considering taking a year off between high school and college? This was once viewed as many as a sign of lack of focus and delaying college put students behind the eight ball. However, taking a gap year has become increasingly accepted and can actually put students ahead of the eight ball. The key is using that gap year wisely. An internship is one way to gain some real-world experience and some insight about what major to choose.

For example, let’s talk about Jason. Jason loved to build things, so he decided that he would probably major in engineering in college. As his senior year in high school approached, he became anxious about to which engineering schools he should apply. He panicked. After speaking with his guidance counselor, he realized that he really had no idea which engineering field would be best for him. Construction engineering? Materials engineering? Did he want to be hands-on or just part of the design phase? Were machines his thing, or did he want to build robots? He just didn’t know. So, after speaking with a few teachers and his parents, Jason realized that he wasn’t in a position to choose the right engineering school just yet. So he and his parents agreed it was a good idea to take a gap year and figure some things out.

During this time he secured not one—but two—internships. His first internship was at a local materials engineering company where he was exposed to metals and fabrication. He didn’t love it. His second internship, however, hit the mark. As an intern at an architectural firm, he discovered his love was in the designing and not the materials. Seeing buildings and internal structures being designed fascinated him. Subsequently he started looking into architectural schools and had a better idea about the field he was likely to enter once he got is degree. He also learned what would be expected of him during and following school if he wanted to become an architect.

Amanda is another story. As a junior, Amanda was a straight-A student who excelled in science. She loved biology and anatomy. She was fairly certain entering medical school would be the way to go. Her mother, uncle, and older brother were all in the medical field, and it seemed natural to gravitate toward that area. However, as her senior year got underway, she was unsure this was the right direction and started second-guessing herself. Medical school was expensive, and a pre-med curriculum was quite challenging. Maybe she should be a scientist in a lab setting? So, after conferring with family members and her science teacher, she came to the conclusion she wasn’t ready to make her move just yet, so she took a gap year. During that time she interned with a local pediatrician’s office. Her uncle was a pediatrician, and that seemed appealing to her. During her internship at the practice, privacy laws prevented her from doing much other than observing and assisting with some office work. However, she was able to get a feel for what it entailed to work in a pediatrician’s practice. It turned out to be less interesting than she thought. During her gap year, she also volunteered at a local hospital. It was there she discovered her love for emergency medicine and that ER medicine was a better fit than general medicine. For Amanda, this experience sealed the deal for her, and she was certain medical school was the way to go. She started actively making plans to apply to colleges for pre-med.

Taking a gap year is not for everyone; however, if the time is used constructively, it could be the right decision for a student and put him or her on the right college and career path.