Should you encourage your child to take a gap year before college?

Should you (would you?) encourage your child to take a “gap year” before starting college (i.e. after 12th)? If no, why not? If yes, how would you suggest the child plan the year? What activities/experiences would you hope for the child to take up? Does your answer change depending upon whether the child is going to do college in India vs the US?

My friend Suvikas Bhandari’s daughter just finished a very successful gap year. And she has written about her experience. In addition, I wanted the opinions of others who have gone through this in the past, or are thinking about it.

So I posted this question on my Facebook page and got a bunch of great responses, some of which I’m reproducing below.

Note: I am NOT talking about taking an year off to “study for the JEE.” The gap year is not about studying and academics. Studying in an Indian college becomes all about just the subjects, and that too, often theory. A gap year is about taking an year off so the child can travel alone, take up one or more jobs/internships, learn some out-of-the-way skills, and generally get life experience. A gap year helps with giving a sense of perspective, a sense of responsibility, and most importantly, an idea of what matters in the real world (which can help a lot in college to make you focus on the right things).

Gap is Good – But should it be well planned or not?

In general, most people felt that a gap year is good – but many qualified the statement by saying something like “gap with proper guidance for a limited time frame would be really productive” or “gap year but should have full plan on hand before u decide on it”.

On the other hand, Rujuta disagrees:

However, I am against having a detailed plan – I would say have a plan but be prepared to throw it out of the window when you think it isn’t working or your experience along the way takes you in a different direction. Plan to be out of your comfort zone…plan to do things you have never done before….don’t preplan what you want to learn….don’t get demotivated if all of the year wasn’t ‘productive’. I wish I had the opportunity to do this.

First Hand Experiences

The best comments I felt were first-hand accounts from my friends who themselves took a gap year (intentionally, or forced due to circumstances) and wrote about that.

For example, Idea Smith shared her own experience:

I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ll share something. I had a gap year of sorts just before I graduated (long story involving science-vs-arts battle with family, low attendance and ATKTs). In that time, I worked out, lived in another city for 3 months, interned with an ad agency, did a life program called the Landmark Forum and found my first boyfriend. Having that year really changed the course of my life because it gave me a chance to think and explore outside the rigid social construct I was in. After I graduated, I actually worked for a year alongside preparing for CAT. I didn’t need a gap year that someone like me normally would have, because I had had it the year earlier.

It also helped me discover that I would always need periodic breaks of that sort to collect my thoughts and refocus my attention. That’s what kept me from getting desperate in 2003, after the recession and when jobs were scarce. It’s also what allowed me to take a sabbatical in 2005 at a time when people were holding on to their jobs. And finally, all these helped me quit my corporate job in 2009 to do other things – knowing that it was okay to stop running, think and even do something else, without always having a 10-step plan and bulletpointed details down.

That was 15 years ago and I know a lot of things have changed. It might be good if the family/parents did not impose a lot of activities on their child. Instead, if possible it might make a lot of sense to encourage the child to think about what interests him/her and then help him/her find activities that let him/her explore it.

And Ankit Saxena had a similar story:

I have my own interesting experience on this one. I was forced to take a gap year in between my engineering because of attendance shortage, which meant I had to lose an year and also a complete 9 months free time without college.I was an electronic engg. student but always wanted to learn computer science (as I was good at it since childhood days) , but you dont necessarily get to choose the college and branch at your will.

So in my “gap” months , I had the best time of my life. I joined a tech startup based out of my college E-cell and learned how to write bigger softwares and not just palindrome programs. We implemented ERP for a Bangalore based company and made a POS solution for the hospitality sector – with Windows Mobile App for stewards in restaurant to take orders and implemented the system in a couple of big restaurants in Mumbai.

I learned about softwares, startups, business, execution and everything about sustaining chaos. Six months later I was leading software development for the company with a team of 6 engineers. All before I turned 20.

PS: I went back to studies after 9 months and topped my branch that semester and did my own startup from the same E-cell a year later.

So in hindsight, according to me, its always good to take a break from the social norm stream and explore what you like.

In Depth Reading on this topic

Manish Kumar suggests a couple of books that you could read, about Indian kids who took a gap year and wrote about it:

I have taken such break myself and I recently wrote about my experience here in a note. I also know many people who have taken “gap year” for various reasons…

If you’re curious, I would highly recommend 2 books by Indian kids who have taken “gap year” long ago.

(1) Free From School by Rahul Alvares.
(2) Learning the Heart Way by Samyukta

The printed copies are not available for these books, but I guess Gutenberg project has soft copies. Both are highly recommended for older children – maybe 8th standard & up!

(Manish also points out that Marathi hardcopies of these books are available from BookGanga.com)

Avinash Punekar pointed out one possible downside of a gap year:

BTW, most Indian companies tend to reject candidates with education/career gap automatically.

Note, however, that some companies do it, not all or even many. Also, if a company has a stupid policy like this, I am not entirely sure of whether you should be joining this company.

There are many other interesting comments which I’m not reproducing in the interest of keeping this short, but please check out the original discussion.

Quitting Engineering

I recently heard of a friend’s son who quit engineering (COEP) after 1 year, to pursue design (DSK). This comes on the heels of someone else I know who quit engineering (PICT) to go for Liberal Arts (SSLA) and is much happier there.

So, note to 12th std students and parents: please do not box yourself into a corner and assume that there is no alternative to engineering. You might regret it an year or two from now.

Thankfully, the situation (in terms of educational options) for this generation is far better than for our generation. If you’re unsure of what to do, then a Liberal Arts program (which gives you flexibility of deciding on what degree you want after 1 or 2 years of study) might be worth considering. See FLAME or Ashoka or even SSLA.

I posted this on my Facebook page and got a bunch of insightful comments, some of which I’ve reproduced here:

Joel Xavier gave some more examples:

More examples from my personal experience. In a BBA class at Symbi where I taught marketing, I had someone who had dropped out after two years of studying dentistry, someone who had chucked engineering studies after 3 years of grappling with it and someone with a diploma in computer engineering who didnt want to continue down that path.

I’m glad its happening.

Ravindra Jaju pointed out that:

Regretting in a year or two much better than regretting much later in life.

Which is true. Just because you’ve sunk an year and some fees in engineering, doesn’t mean that you have to stick to it for another 3 years.

To this, Makarand Sahasrabudhe (talking from personal experience) responded that you can “quit engineering” even after completing it:

Just because you have sunk 4 years , does not also mean that you have to stick to it for life

Another important point. Just looking at my batchmates, I know metallurgical engineers who are in advertising agencies, mechanical engineers who are into banking and finance, chemical engineers working on Bollywood movies, and computer scientists in the insurance industry doing non-computer stuff. Your degree in is forgotten within 5 years of graduating.

Makarand also pointed out that engineering is only ONE of the things you learn in university (if you have the right temperament, that is). I’d say that actual classroom education counts for less than 20% of our real education in college. Most of your education is happening in group projects, and the extracurricular groups you join, and other activities you participate in. Relevant quote:

“Everything I needed to know about politics, I learnt as a Mess Co-ordinator of my hostel in IIT-Bombay”

  • Manohar Parrikar, CM of Goa.

Does this mean that it is OK for students to quit after an year or two of engineering? Most parents will rebel at the idea of allowing this. And with good reason. As Sanjay Sarkar said:

Having a passion and following that is most welcome but fear of a tough road ahead and taking thr first escape route is losing the battle before starting. We as parents have 2 help our children try overcome that fear.

And this is a tricky problem to solve. On the one hand, I feel that many kids of this generation have the problem of giving up too easily; of taking up interests and ditching at the first signs of difficulties. On the other hand, I’ve also seen parents pushing too hard and spoiling a significant chunk of the kid’s life. So as parents, we need to play a difficult balancing act of pushing, but not too much.

There are many more comments, so read the full discussion if this is an area of interest for you.

In short, I don’t know what is the correct answer, but at least I hope that if you find yourself in a situation like this, some of this discussion will help you think it through carefully, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction.

Research: Which skills result in increased salary/career success

LessWrong.com has an interesting article about a study of what skills/tactics correlate with higher salaries. Specifically, the authors analyzed 200 studies of career success and their causes, and tried to figure out what skills have the highest correlation with higher salaries.

According to the article, here is what results in highest chances of success:

  • Find managers (or other seniors) who will “sponsor” you (i.e. take an interest in advancing your career)
  • Be politically savvy
  • Convincing people with rational arguments works better than lying to them
  • Flattery works (especially if the target does not realize you’re trying to flatter them; but even when the target realizes it)
  • Act modest
  • Avoid blatant self-promotion

Here are some interesting excerpts which give interesting data-points and actual numbers from the study:

Ng et al. performed a metastudy of over 200 individual studies of objective and subjective career success. Here are the variables they found best correlated with salary:

Predictor

Correlation

Political Knowledge & Skills

0.29

Education Level

0.29

Cognitive Ability (as measured by standardized tests)

0.27

Age

0.26

Training and Skill Development Opportunities

0.24

Hours Worked

0.24

Career Sponsorship

0.22

(all significant at p = .05)


(For reference, the “Big 5” personality traits all have a correlation under 0.12.)

Before you get carried away, remember this:

Before we go on, a few caveats: while these correlations are significant and important, none are overwhelming (the authors cite Cohen as saying the range 0.24-0.36 is “medium” and correlations over 0.37 are “large”).

This table gives an idea of which tactics work best for career success. Higher numbers are good. Lower numbers indicate that those tactics don’t really work. Negative numbers indicate that those tactics will actually hurt your chances.

Recently, Higgins et al. reviewed 23 individual studies of these tactics and how they relate to career success. Their results:


Tactic

Correlation

Definition (From Higgins et al.)

Rationality

0.26

Using data and information to make a logical argument supporting one’s request

Ingratiation

0.23

Using behaviors designed to increase the target’s liking of oneself or to make oneself appear friendly in order to get what one wants

Upward Appeal

0.05

Relying on the chain of command, calling in superiors to help get one’s way

Self-Promotion

0.01

Attempting to create an appearance of competence or that you are capable

of completing a task

Assertiveness

-0.02

Using a forceful manner to get what one wants

Exchange

-0.03

Making an explicit offer to do something for another in exchange for their doing what

one wants

(Only ingratiation and rationality are significant.)

This site has a lot of information on how to make rational appeals, so I will focus on the less-talked-about ingratiation techniques.

So, modesty is good, self-promotion is bad. Here are details of how to present yourself:

Self-presentation is split further:

Tactic

Weighted Effect Size

Comment

Modesty

0.77

Apology

0.59

Apologizing for poor performance

Generic

0.28

When the participant is told in generic terms to improve their self-presentation

Self-promotion

-0.17

Nonverbal behavior and name usage

-0.14

Nonverbal behavior includes things like wearing perfume. Name usage means referring to people by name instead of a pronoun.

And finally some more details about flattery:

If you are talking to your boss, your tactics should be different than if you’re talking to a subordinate. Other-enhancement (flattery) is always the best tactic no matter who you’re talking to, but when talking to superiors it’s by far the best. When talking to those at similar levels to you, opinion conformity comes close to flattery, and the other techniques aren’t far behind.

Unsurprisingly, when the target realizes you’re being ingratiating, the tactic is less effective. (Although effectiveness doesn’t go to zero – even when people realize you’re flattering them just to suck up, they generally still appreciate it.) Also, women are better at being ingratiating than men, and men are more influenced by these ingratiating tactics than women.

Read the full article, it has a bunch of interesting references that the motivated reader is urged to read.