Every year as convocation approaches, the question of what to do next understandably looms large in the minds of those about to graduate. Many may be wondering about graduate school or planning on launching their careers. Still others may be unsure of what to do next and looking to take at least a year off, or “gap year” to figure things out.
What is a Gap Year?
What is exactly a gap year and why would I take one? The term "gap year" refers to the practice of taking a year (or more) away from studying to do other things, often a combination of travelling and working/volunteering abroad. A gap year can be directed towards career goals or purely personal pursuits. It can be highly planned or completely unstructured, but the common thread is the sense of exploration, adventure and possibility. A gap year can provide:
A break from the academic routine. It can allow you to try out and investigate different career interests and options first-hand, by gaining direct experience in an industry or population of interest.
Knowledge about how the world functions outside of academia. If you do return to graduate school, this new knowledge will allow you to do so rejuvenated and replenished with new motivation and perspectives to share.
The time to follow a personal dream…of travelling, living overseas, learning a new skill or a new language, pursuing an artistic or athletic passion etc., time that is often much easier to come by when you are young and relatively free to follow your own individual passions and goals.
Time away from academia can also help you to focus your goals and interests so that you have a much clearer idea of what you would like to study if you do eventually decide to enter a graduate program.
Gap Year FAQ
1. Is a gap year a “year off?”
A gap year is more of a year out, from school and your regular routine, a great opportunity to try something new, to expand your comfort zone and to learn.
2. Do you have to travel to have a gap year?
Gap Years are traditionally associated with travel and adventure as the idea is to spread your wings and trying something new. However, if overseas travel is not do-able for you, with a little effort you can definitely learn new things and expand your comfort zone in your home city through experiences such as volunteering.
3. But what about graduate school? Will my time off look bad when I do eventually apply?
Time off is only problematic if you have not done, experienced, or learned anything with the time. While strictly research graduate programs may be more challenging to get back into if you have spent many years away from the field and subject matter, most professional programs practically mandate that you take a year or more off in order to fulfill work experience requirements. Additionally, if you apply to graduate school after a year or two off you will be able to submit a complete academic transcript with your application, and will likely have more experience to draw upon in your personal statement.
4. What if I lose my momentum and never go back to school?
Some people never do return to graduate school…and this is OK. Many people find that time away from school helps them to become more focused and confident about their direction, and, if they choose to enter a graduate program, they do so motivated and revitalized. Graduate and professional training programs are not the only route to a “good” job and to success in life and work. Going to graduate school requires a substantial commitment of time, money and energy on your part, so before you make this commitment, you want to be sure that you are spending the above resources in the right place, and that you actually want to be there.
5. I can’t possibly do anything useful with just a Bachelor’s degree can I?
While some careers (i.e. Professor, Psychologist) absolutely require graduate-level training, there are myriad options open to those with a Bachelor’s degree and in many fields experience is often prized more highly than a particular diploma. The vast majority of the jobs currently most in demand in Quebec do not require graduate training.
6. When do I need to start planning?
This depends slightly on the type of gap year you wish to have:
A highly structured gap year spent volunteering and/or working overseas with some sort of organized program tends to require you to begin the planning process a year or so in advance in order to research options and finding out about relevant deadlines and give you plenty of time to sort out applications/visas.
Application deadlines for organized programs vary widely – for example, for the Odyssey Language Assistant program beginning in September applications are generally due by mid-February. For Canadians applying to the JET program for July/August, applications are due towards the end of November of the previous year.
A less structured gap year that you organize yourself, such as one spent travelling or picking up jobs here and there with a working holiday visa requires much less lead-time, but it is still advisable to research your destination in advance.
7. How do I know if an organization or program is reputable and is a good fit for me?
It is extremely important to thoroughly research any organization and/or project you are considering and don’t shy away from contacting local representatives to ask questions and find out further details. Things you might want to know include:
- Whether the organization is a charity or for-profit company
- Safety/emergency procedures
- The kind of support/supervision provided during the project
- A breakdown of any costs involved and what they cover
What to do during a gap year?
Your gap year(s) could involve a wide variety of experiences. Traditionally, a gap year is viewed as a chance to experience a different part of the world, through travel, working holidays, volunteering, or education/exchange programs. The following are a handful of ideas to get you started and give you a sense of the range of possibilities out there!
Explore the World - Travel, work or volunteer overseas
- Transitions Abroad
- SWAP Working Holidays
- International Volunteer HQ
- World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
Volunteer - In another country or for your local literacy organization or on an environmental project
- CUSO International
- Teach for America
- Katimavik: Canada’s Youth Volunteer-Service Program
- Volunteer Bureau of Montreal
Work - To gain experience, to become financially independent, to pay off loans, to save up money to travel or all of the above!
Language - Take a language course or be a language assistant
- Explore Program - Learning French/English
- Odyssey - Language Assistant Program
- CleP - Foreign Language Assistants in France
- French Embassy - Teach English in France
- JET (The Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme
Be Creative - Do something completely different!
The period immediately following graduation is both an exciting and tumultuous time for new grads. Take some time to savour your achievement and the accompanying celebrations, and also to consider what you have learned about yourself over the past several years. It is not necessary (and awfully stressful!) to “figure out your entire life” at this point, but you do need to be asking yourself some of the big questions around who you are, the kind of person you would like to become and the areas, industries, careers and tasks you would like to try out and explore in the near future. Resources to help you wrestle with these questions are:
- Google Books - Turbulent twenties survival guide: Figuring out who you are, what you want, & where you're going after college. Salazar, M. (2006).
- Self-Assessment - Programs and resources to learn more about yourself.
- Meet an Advisor - To discuss possible options during a gap year, make an appointment at 514-398-3304.
Books & Websites
For more information on gap year, consult the following websites and books.
- Planning a Gap Year - Things to consider when choosing a programme. (Year Out Group)
- Ethical Volunteering - How to volunteer abraod ethically and avoid volunteer scams. (volunteer forever)
- Taking Time Off - Thoughts and advantages of taking time off before college. (Harvard College)
- Info for Parents - Gap year: Why your kids shouldn't go to school in the fall. (The Globe and Mail)
- Gap Year 100 company directory - Directory of the best gap year travel companies and websites.
- E-Books on gap year (Available in the McGill Library)
- Books (Available at CaPS)