How To Have A Meaningful Gap Year (Step 1: Turn Off Netflix)

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
Rest assured, you’re not the only one thinking about taking a gap year. The world has flipped upside down since Frosh Week 2019, and with so much uncertainty (plus the giant headache that is online learning), more than 40% of students entering college and university are considering hitting the snooze button on their academic future. Totally understandable, btw. “COVID-19 has thrown the rulebook out the window,” says Michelle Dittmer, president of the Canadian Gap Year Association. “A lot of young people are wanting to take a beat and a gap year can be a good way to do that.” But is there still time to change plans? And how can you make sure that your time off is time well spent? Here’s everything you need to know about taking a gap year.* 
(*Step one: step away from your Netflix account.) 

I’m supposed to start school, like, now. But frankly, I’m just not feeling it.

No question 2020 is a trash fire that just keeps on burning. But to quote that cringey cat poster in your guidance counsellor’s office: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Point is, global pandemic notwithstanding, you’ve got some decisions to make and watching just one more episode of Love Island isn’t going to help. Assuming you were supposed to start college or university this month, the first step to taking a gap year is seeing if you qualify for a deferral.

It’s already September. Isn’t it too late?

You’re cutting it close (normally schools field deferral requests in the winter), but there is nothing normal about the current reality and — good news! — a lot of schools are accepting requests into the month. Keep in mind that with the way-higher-than-normal number of gap-year applicants, “because COVID” probably won’t cut it. If you have a more-specific reason (COVID-related mental health struggles, high-risk health issues, or financial hardships), be sure to include it in your rationale.

What if my school says no?  

Without an official deferral you lose both your place and the deposit you put down back in the spring — usually around $500. Which totally sucks. But if back to school is definitely not where you want to be, then losing a few hundred bucks is preferable to failing out after paying full tuition.

How is a gap year different than just playing hooky?  

A gap year is less time off than a purposeful timeout. “You’re setting the intention to reflect on next steps while learning more about the world and how you see yourself fitting into it,” says Dittmer. To gap year successfully, she says, you need to have a goal: Get an internship to learn more about an industry you’re interested in, get a job, volunteer, launch your billion-dollar business idea, or devote time to a personal passion project (that extra-horny romance novel isn’t going to write itself). The plan can be pretty much whatever you make it, as long as it’s in line with the larger goal of coming out of the gap year with a better understanding of where you see yourself in the future.

What if I have no freaking idea?

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
That’s okay. Some students finish Grade 12 feeling dead certain of their destiny as the next Meredith Grey, but for the rest of us, the pressure to find our life’s purpose can be paralyzing. “I try to avoid terms like passion and dream job,” says Toronto-based career counsellor Kathryn Meisner. Staring into an as-yet unstructured gap year can be similarly stressful, she adds. “I tell people to find something that engages them and start from there.” One technique is to try setting up informal interviews with people who work in the fields that interest you. “Hearing about how someone spends their day, the good and bad parts about their job, can be really useful,” says Meisner, “even if that means understanding what you don’t want to do.” Still lost? There are organizations that can connect you with companies (as well as internships, volunteer positions, and informational interviews).

Is it okay to just chill for a second? I’m feeling pretty burned out. 

Absolutely. These are stressful times and if you need time to address your mental health, take it. A gap year can be a good time for “active rest” which is taking a break from big-picture pressures (what am I doing on this place called earth?) and instead committing to a less-intense itinerary.

Isn’t a gap year supposed to be about seeing the world? Kind of hard in the middle of COVID, no?

It’s true, says Dittmer, that a lot of people hear gap year and think, “rich kid strapping on a backpack and heading to Europe.” Absolutely exploring the world — via fancy hotels or budget-friendly hostels — is one way to expand your worldview, but there are others. (See: startups scooping up "fall interns.") Still dying to add some stamps to your passport? Maybe spend the next few months learning a new language or volunteering for an organization that teaches you more about your dream destination. When the world opens up, you can be ready.

Okay, but what if I’m stuck living in my parents’ basement?

Start by taking comfort in the fact that you are not alone. A lot of students who were planning to go away to school now find themselves boarding at the U of Mom and/or Dad. “It might not be the fresh start you were anticipating, but it should still be a fresh start,” says Dittmer. Physical changes to your surroundings, she adds, can be an important mental health reset. “Even if you’re in the same bedroom, it’s not your childhood bedroom anymore.” Try a new wall colour or update those Bieber4Ever posters with something a little less embarrassing. If you’re doing a home reno project you’re building skills like budgeting, project management, and design. It’s experience, and it’s all transferable.

What if I get a job I love and I don’t want to go back to school?

That does happen and if it happens to you, congrats in advance. Post-secondary education is one of many paths to potential success and if it’s not yours, no problem. More often though, taking a timeout makes your academic future seem more appealing (just ask Greta Thunberg). A gap year puts the rest of your life in context, so it’s not just about going to classes and making good grades, it’s about working towards something you care about. “Having experience under your belt and seeing how the world works makes school make sense,” says Dittmer.  

My parents are worried about the gap on my resume. Should I be?

This is definitely a common concern amongst older people who may have grown up in an era when a university degree was a ticket to success and stability. But this, as they say, is not your mother’s job market. “We are moving away from a knowledge-based economy into an experiential economy,” says Dittmer, which basically means that now that everyone has the internet in their pocket, “employers want to hire self-starters, young people who have done more than just get straight As.” As for your parents, show them this research about how students who take a gap year graduate with higher GPAs in fewer years. They’re more involved on campus and — ding, ding, ding! — get better jobs after graduation. Good luck and happy gapping.

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