Gap Year – Is It Right for Me?
This popular concept has spread throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until the past decade that the high school gap year began gaining traction in North America. In 2011, the Higher Education Research Institute estimated that 1.2 per cent of first-time United States college freshmen deferred admission to take a gap year.
In Canada, a Statistics Canada Survey found that between 2000 and 2008, 50 per cent of high school graduates entered college or university the fall after graduation, but 73 per cent were enrolled a year later.
What is a Gap Year?
The term, gap year, refers to a year between high school and university or university and the job market that is spent enriching oneself and having new experiences. This essentially means taking a year off before college or right before/after graduation. Students in Britain first adopted taking a gap year after high school in the 1960s and, these days, they take part in droves.
Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services in Britain indicate that seven per cent of high school graduates deferred their university admission to take advantage of a gap year.
Gap Year Pros and Cons
After four years of intense high school courses, part-time jobs and myriad extracurricular activities, some students may be burned out.
Other students graduate from high school unclear about the shape they want their lives to take. They may find that taking a year off to gain perspective and clarify their goals is more practical than aimlessly pursuing post-secondary education.
Today, given the uncertain job market, many recent university graduates are also opting for a gap year, finding the break welcome and the experience useful in demonstrating additional skills to employers.
Although parents may fear that their children will lose hard-won skills if they take time off and may never go on to post-secondary education, the Wall Street Journal reported that 90 per cent of students who take a gap year go to college or university within a year.
In fact, a number of universities, such as Harvard, have begun to encourage gap years or, like the University of North Carolina, offer funding toward gap year programs, realizing that gap year participants return having gained in maturity and focus. After all, there is a lot of gap year opportunities if students make the most out of their break from school!
Benefits of a Gap Year
A gap year offers opportunities for personal growth and skills development, among other advantages. The University of Toronto lists a number of benefits that can result from taking a gap year:
- Learn or improve on skills in another language
- Reflect on your life, values, interests and future goals
- Gain clarity regarding a potential career direction
- Meet new friends, gain contacts and build your resume. There are gap year jobs that can aid this
- Expand your horizons and explore other cultures, customs, beliefs and professional practices
- Test a different career area, or try something you’ve always wanted to do
- Discover things that cannot be taught in a classroom
How Do I Arrange a Gap Year?
Taking a gap year requires planning; it’s not something to be decided upon a few weeks prior to graduation. Most high school students apply to universities, accept the university of their choice and request a deferral.
This approach reassures everyone involved of the intent to pursue higher education. Some students do use a gap year to gain admission to a school that has previously rejected them, but they generally have a plan to accomplish an unusual goal during their year off.
Consider the costs. First, think about whether you can afford to participate in an organized gap year program, whether you need a program that pays expenses or whether you need to work for six months in order to spend the remainder of the year absorbing new experiences. Explore the options for scholarships or outside funding for gap year programs. These are all components to consider when you’re considering the question “should i take a gap year?”
What to Do During a Gap Year?
There are many gap year options in terms of what you can do. Set some goals. What are you hoping to gain from your gap year, other than maturity? Do you want career experience in a particular field, the chance to live in another culture or the opportunity to make a contribution to society?
Do your homework. There are myriad organized gap year programs, both those that cost money and those that offer volunteer experiences in exchange for room and board or a stipend, such as the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Find and research those that meet your objectives and your financial needs.
Create a budget. Consider and list all of the expenses you’ll incur during the year, including travel, food and lodging. This will help you narrow down your choices and help you keep track of your money.
If you prepare properly, a gap year can become a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons. Make the most of it.
Taking a Break from College
So we’ve taken a look at planned breaks before and after college. But what about breaks during your degree?
When you are eagerly preparing to enter college or university, it probably never crosses your mind that you won’t plough ahead and finish your degree in the standard three or four years your program requires. That’s just the way it’s done, right? Well, not always….
Expectations notwithstanding, many post-secondary students today don’t finish their degrees without taking a break somewhere along the way. In the United States, for example, research published in 2014 by the non-profit organization, Complete College America, showed that at most public universities, only 19 per cent of students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years and only 50 of 580 public institutions surveyed graduate a majority of full-time students on time. Taking a semester off college is getting more and more common.
The percentage of students who finish their degrees on time is so small that the report is entitled, “The Four Year Myth.” Although comparable statistics for Canada aren’t readily available, it is possible that the same holds true.
Taking Time Off During College
Contrary to popular notions, students who take a break for college or university aren’t bums, lazy-good-for-nothings or dropouts. Most people don’t enter post-secondary programs thinking, “Okay, I’ll do this for a year or two and then find a beach somewhere to sunbathe.”
Sometimes, the circumstances aren’t right to forge ahead, no matter how much you’d like to have that degree framed and hanging on your wall. Let’s explore some of the reasons students take some time off from their pursuit of a degree:
- Family illness/crisis. You can’t plan for dire illnesses in the family; cancer can crop up at any time or a parent can die unexpectedly. Whether it’s grief or the need to lend a helping hand at home that beckons you, it’s not unreasonable to set your studies aside until life rights itself.
- Depression. Depression is an illness, just like the measles. You can’t wish it away or simply “pull up your socks,” no matter what anyone advises. If it has you in its grip, you may not be able to function as you normally would. This is a good time to get professional help from a counsellor and focus on getting well.
- Finances. Not everyone comes from a family that can fund a university education. If you’ve plumbed the grants and scholarships available and still come up short, it may mean taking a break to earn enough money to finish your degree.
- No direction/Wrong direction. If you’re in the thick of a program that you don’t like or aren’t really sure what your goals are, you may want to take time to achieve some clarity. A gap year or semester can work wonders, especially if you spend it trying out volunteer opportunities or internships in areas that are of potential interest.
College Break – Remaining on Track
One of the gap year disadvantages of taking a break from university or college can be forcing yourself to return. Once you’re away from the classroom, school may seem like another world and not one to which you can picture yourself returning. However, in today’s job market, a post-secondary degree is a necessity if you want to have good job opportunities; many doors will be closed to you without one. Follow these suggestions to keep yourself on the education track:
- Contact the campus counselling centre. Universities and colleges want you to succeed and have counselling centres in place to support you. Let a counsellor know that your plans have changed and ask for help in figuring out next steps. Author Ellen Bremen suggests that you ask your counsellor whether you can keep in touch while you’re away as a way to stay involved with the school and motivate yourself to return.
- Understand the process. Talk to the admissions or academic counselling staff to find out what taking a leave from school requires. Will you have to re-apply? What about financial aid and scholarships? Ascertain the registration periods for the coming year or two so you will know what you’ll need to do when. Be sure to take notes or ask them to put it in writing for you, since you may be too upset to remember the details.
- Buddy up. Friends are there for you through thick or thin, so draw on their support. They can help you keep tabs on what is happening on campus so you don’t feel out of the loop, and they will encourage you to return when you’re ready – especially if you can bring yourself to ask for their help. Don’t shy away; you’d do the same for them.
- Enlist a prof or two. Like your friends, professors want to see you succeed. Touch base with one or two whom you’ve chatted with previously and explain that you’ll be away for a period of time, but you’d like to stay connected to the university. Ask if you can email them to get a feel for what is happening. You’ll feel more a part of the institution as a result and won’t find returning quite as scary.
Remember, a year away from school isn’t forever. Don’t look at it as a departure; view it as a sabbatical. You’ll undoubtedly come back stronger and more focused, once you’ve put your other concerns to rest.