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Early Career Transitions

Planning a successful gap year or internship.


Taking time off, whether before starting college or for personal and financial reasons, can be a difficult decision to make. Most students grapple with questions like how to effectively prepare for this “gap year” and transition, how U.S. universities and potential employers would see these gaps in their résumé and how to effectively leverage this time to make bold decisions about their future direction.

Transitions are periods of change, but more importantly, they can unlock your most creative self. At key turning points in your education and careers—and there will be many—it is important to be aware of the process of change in order to tap its potential for deep personal growth. Three key approaches can help you plan a successful gap year: reflect, plan and act.


Opportunities Through the Exchange Visitor Program

The Exchange Visitor Program (J-1 visa) provides a wide range of opportunities for international candidates who want to travel and gain experience in the United States.

Secondary School Student Program: Secondary school students travel to the United States to study at an accredited public or private high school and live with an American host family or at an accredited boarding school. Benefits include sponsored extracurricular activities as well as the chance to live with a host family or at a U.S. boarding school.

Summer Work Travel Program: College and university students pursuing full-time studies at accredited academic institutions outside the United States come to the country to share their culture and ideas through temporary work and travel opportunities. Benefits include an opportunity to live and work in the United States during summer vacations and exposure to the people and way of life in the country.

Intern Program: Internships are designed to allow foreign college and university students and recent graduates to visit the United States to gain exposure to its culture and to receive hands-on experience in U.S. business practices in their chosen field. Benefits include effectively bridging the gap between formal education and practical work experience.

Au Pair Program: Through the Au Pair program, participants and host families take part in a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity. Participants can continue their education while experiencing everyday life with an American family, and hosts receive reliable and responsible childcare from them. Benefits include up to $500 toward the cost of required academic coursework, room and board, and compensation for childcare work.

Source: J1visa.state.gov

Transitions occur for a wide range of reasons in our early careers, but the implications are often the same. There will be periods of uncertainty. This should not be considered abnormal or reflective of weakness. Taking time to reflect on where you are in the transition process can help reduce fear, stress and the likelihood of taking wrong decisions. Self-reflection is a key strategy to understand past and present changes in order to make informed decisions. Take time to explore your ideas, identify available resources and discuss them with friends and mentors.


Whatever your situation, there is no shortage of opportunities where you can contribute. Before making a commitment, consider your long-term goals and how this time can be used to take you further in that direction. For example, gap year students considering graduate school in the United States may think that an internship with a prestigious company is the golden ticket to admission, as it would strengthen their professional experience and résumé. However, this is an oversimplification and a common misconception among international students.

Professional experience is not about big-name institutions; it is about the quality of your contribution. Launching your own small business and failing can be more rewarding and meaningful than an internship experience. It is important to plan and consider the full range of options before making assumptions. Focus on the quality of your learning and professional experience, not on name recognition alone. Along these lines, the U.S. Exchange Visitor Program offers a range of opportunities for intercultural learning and professional development (see sidebar). 


During periods of transition, your first plan may not work. A key approach to successful transitions is to be patient, yet persistent. There are many students who took a gap year because they were not accepted to a U.S. university, but spent the time retraining and improving themselves through massive open online courses (MOOCs), community service and even international exchange experience.

One last point—relax. Not every year of your life needs an action plan. The points above are not about “strategic planning,” they are about being intentional about your future success by focusing on the present. Whether you are short on finances or planning an exciting paid internship in the United States, there are multiple fulfilling paths to reach your goals.

Wesley Teter is a former regional coordinator of EducationUSA in India and Central Asia, supported by the U.S. Department of State.

Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern, and author of “Road Map for Graduate Study.”