The term gap year has gained popularity recently thanks to the announcement that Barack Obama's oldest daughter Malia is deferring her entrance into Harvard until 2017. As a result, discussions have sprung up around the pros and cons of taking a year to refocus and recharge.
So what is a gap year, exactly? It's taking a year off between two intensive time commitments. Some are taking time off after high school, while others are taking time between college and their first job.
When it comes to applicants with that particular gap year on their resume, however, HR should consider a few questions.
Why the Gap Year?
The most important question to ask is why your prospective candidate decided to take a year off rather than apply to jobs immediately after finishing college, especially if they achieved notable success or were at the top of their class? Ideal applicants will be able to articulate their need for a break; perhaps they needed time to decide on their preferred career path, discover how to better manage stress or even improve their qualifications through extracurricular training. Be wary, however, of any prospective employee who simply wanted some time off for nebulous reasons like "travel" or "to blow off steam." If the year had no plan and ultimately no purpose, it could be an indicator of larger issues with motivation, goal-setting and the drive to succeed.
What Did You Do and How Did You Do It?
Of course, superb articulation only goes so far. When it comes to the gap year after college, hiring teams need to ask specific questions: What did candidates do during the year, and what was the outcome? USA Today also notes that the key to getting the most from a gap year is having a plan in place. Many students choose to travel abroad, volunteer or work as unpaid interns; doing so effectively, however, requires planning.
For example, a candidate who made and executed plans to visit multiple countries — even as a tourist — is often a better choice than one who had big ideas about volunteering or interning somewhere but simply didn't invest the necessary time and energy to make it all happen. Sound organization and overarching plans indicate that a gap year was well thought out and the candidate has a strong attention to detail. Be wary of gappers with little ambition and follow-through.
Are You Ready for What's Next?
While a gap year typically describes a 12-month period, this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, meaning your organization could be just another stop on the tour. Make sure to ask prospective employees why they're interested in working for your organization. In addition, look for telltale signs that don't add up.
For example, if the applicant has little to no training or experience in your field or is particularly glib with their answers, it's possible they're not really looking for a place to grow. Other tip-offs include current living arrangements, how long they've been in the city and the presence of local family and friends. Stability is often key to long-term success.
Although you need to spend more time making sure prospective employees who have taken a gap year are serious about a career opportunity, the right applicant brings an emotional maturity and worldliness lacking in straight out of school hires. For those who do it well, a year away from the specialized environment of post-secondary schooling often improves focus, increases work ethic and makes these applicants more adaptable in the long run.
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