CanGap
This student planned her gap-year trip to Banff with the help of the Canadian Gap Year Association Kael Hoffman

How to Plan a Gap Year

Interest in gap years is increasing. Here are tips to make the most of a year "off."
By ALEX MLYNEK

April 18, 2024

The seeds for Meg Somerville’s gap year were planted way back in Grade 2. Her teacher had taken a year off to travel after his teaching degree, and made a point of sharing his experiences with his students. He told them about hanging out with orangutans in Borneo and displayed paraphernalia from his trip—a rain stick from Australia, postcards from Cambodia and a big world map—in the classroom. For the young Somerville, it was a window into a world she didn’t yet know, but she knew she wanted to explore. Her interest in geography, history and other cultures blossomed throughout her school years. While her classmates were applying to universities, she planned her route: 25 countries, including the Czech Republic, Spain and Iceland. She needed money to fund her trip, so after graduating from high school, Somerville worked through the summer and fall as a cashier and at a warehouse. Then she took off.

An intentional year off between high school and university or college can be an eye-opening experience for many students, one where they gain new life skills to prepare them for school and work after graduation. For some, it’s the perfect hiatus from learning about mandatory subjects, like math and English, to learning about the world—and themselves. For others, it’s an opportunity to take a breather and self-reflect after an intense high school experience. As for what to do during those 12 months? The options are wide open. Travel. Work. Upgrade courses or take new ones. Volunteer. Start a business. This widening of perspective can help a student zero in on a career path or narrow down interests before diving into further education. 

An intentional gap year can be so helpful that Harvard College even encourages its successful first-year applicants to take one. A page on their admissions site reads, “Each year, between 90 and 130 students defer their matriculation to Harvard College, and they report their experiences to be uniformly positive.” 

People who work with high schoolers report that interest in gap years is increasing. In the past, the idea of taking a year off might have made parents, and some students, worry that the student would lose motivation to continue on to post-secondary. The sense now, in a post-pandemic world, is that not all students are ready to jump into more schooling, for reasons that range from lack of maturity or life experience to feeling ill-prepared academically. 

But even before the pandemic, many students were arriving at university unprepared for what lay ahead. When Jay Gosselin worked as a recruiter for the University of Ottawa, he met many Grade 12 students who were struggling with the looming transition to post-secondary. The main issues? They were not confident, did not have a clear focus and were not excited about life after high school. Then when he worked in the university’s co-op office, he received feedback from employers that students were missing many skills employers looked for, like dependability, curiosity, the willingness to work in teams, the ability to build interpersonal relationships and an awareness of how to prioritize tasks.

These experiences prompted Gosselin to leave the university and create Discover Year, a one-year certificate program for students who have graduated high school. During the year, students receive mentorship, participate in two work terms, attend workshops, do community service and have up to a month to travel. The idea, says Gosselin, is to help students understand who they are and get a better sense of the world, while gaining skills that will help them achieve what they want to accomplish.

Not all students need a gap year, of course. Some are excited about post-secondary, are clear on their plans and have the maturity to manage their time and handle the pressure. 

For the most part, schools only measure academic success when granting admission, so it’s up to parents and the students themselves to determine whether the student is socially, emotionally and financially ready for the next phase of their education. 

Planning a gap year

While the term “gap year” may evoke visions of languishing on a couch, scrolling TikTok and eating junk food, experts are quick to note there’s a difference between an intentional gap year and simply taking a year off. 

Michelle Dittmer is a former teacher who founded the Canadian Gap Year Association, a non-profit organization that provides resources for students and families considering a gap year. She says gap years most commonly go awry when students aren’t moving towards a clear goal—whether that’s to improve mental health, develop clarity on career aspirations or gain experience that will help reach future goals. 

Isabella Kolbasenko is now a second-year student at Queen’s University. She spent her gap year travelling to France and Italy, and later attended Discipleship Training School with an organization called Youth With a Mission in Hawaii and the Dominican Republic, which included time volunteering in pop-up health clinics. Her well-planned gap year met her goals of personal growth, deepening her faith, and resetting before she embarked on a ton of school to become a doctor; it also helped her narrow down the undergraduate program she wanted to pursue. She had been accepted into all but one of several undergrad programs she applied to in Grade 12, but discovered nursing as a pre-med program would be the best fit. “I worked alongside nurses and doctors and paramedics and it was really cool to see hands-on health care. I like learning with my hands and immersing myself in experience.”

It’s important to remember gap years can be made up of several different elements. Students may choose to travel for a few months, then also spend some time at home working or volunteering. They also don’t need to involve spending a lot of money. Working or volunteering for a local organization that aligns with a person’s interests and values can have just as much impact as a trip to a far-flung place. The mere fact that a gap year is self-directed—that the student has agency over how to spend their time—means the student is practising independence. That provides a sense of control and purpose, which will be beneficial in whatever the student decides to do next. 

Logistical considerations

Of course, taking a year off between high school and university complicates the process and timing of applying and getting into university. On the one hand, there are advantages to applying for university or college while still in Grade 12. Students have the support of the school guidance team and the comfort of going through the experience with their peers.  

That said, not all schools will allow a student to defer acceptance, so students may have to apply during their year off. Another consideration for students who plan to take courses during a gap year: many schools won’t allow students to enrol in another post-secondary program if they accept and defer an admission offer, which may be a problem if the student is planning to take a few courses during the gap year. Some scholarships will also disqualify students if they don’t attend post-secondary right after high school. 

For her part,  Somerville applied to university the November after graduation, before leaving on her trip. She went back to her high school’s guidance counsellor, who helped her with her applications. She found out she was accepted to York University while walking around a city in Spain, and has since graduated with a double major in philosophy and literature. She’s immensely grateful to that Grade 2 teacher who inspired her to see the world. “The problem-solving and planning skills that you gain from travelling are so valuable to go into university with,” she says. “I met someone in my first week of university that didn’t know how to do their own laundry. Meanwhile, I had done laundry on a different machine every week, in different languages.”


Gap year programs 

Discover Year

Students in this 10-month program receive life coaching every couple weeks, learn skills like financial planning, goal setting and resumé writing, get to meet professionals in different fields, complete community service projects, take field trips to workplaces and schools, and more. They must also work and travel.

While some of the curriculum is offered virtually, other elements are in-person (in Ottawa or Toronto). Completing the program remotely is an option, but they strongly encourage participants to attend a week-long immersive orientation in Ottawa at the beginning of the program.

Cost: $9,400; Discover Year is RESP-eligible

Projects Abroad

In Projects Abroad’s Global Gap Year Abroad program, students volunteer in organized conservation projects and health and education outreach programs, as well as sight-see, on three continents—South America, East Africa and Asia. The program runs from September to March and includes time for independent travel.

For students who can’t commit to seven months away, six- to 10-week Gap Semester programs are also available.  

Cost: $23,250 for Global Gap Year Abroad; $7,345 to $8,795 for Gap Semester, plus flights, visas and insurance 

GVI Canada

GVI Canada arranges volunteer trips specifically aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and students can easily find one that matches their interests and career aspirations, whether that’s conservation, education, public health or gender equality. 

Cost: Prices vary. For instance, an eight-week trip to Thailand to help with a conservation project for elephants and sea turtles is $11,495. In Cambodia, students can volunteer for a gender-equality project for as little as one week for $1,845, plus flights, visas and insurance.

Katimavik

Katimavik’s FuturePerfect is a 14-week program where participants get paid work in the tourism industry in a Canadian city (last year, it was Quebec City), as well as free accommodations, utilities, home phone and internet, training and workshops. Travel expenses are also covered. 

The program is open to Canadian citizens, permanent residents or landed refugees aged 18 to 30.

Cost: Free

Resources

Canadian Gap Year Association

Information and resources for those planning a gap year, and their parents, including a Gap Year Expo, budgeting and planning templates and a free program called Gap Year GPS, which includes goal-setting workshops and several months of meetings, workshops, coaching, and access to a mentor alongside a cohort of other gappers. 

International Experience Canada

A government site where Canadians aged 18 to 35 can apply to work in one of more than 30 countries, or reach out to one of the recognized organizations on IEC’s list for assistance with finding employment and more.


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This article is from the Maclean’s 2024 University Guidebook, available for purchase for $19.99 here.