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Gap Years: Thinking Outside the Box

Definition of a Gap Year: a life changing experience between high school and university, college, work and beyond

So what’s a Gap Year and why is taking one thinking outside the box?

Well, a gap year is a rite of passage. It allows young people to regroup, to reflect and to experience life while learning more about themselves – the kind of thing you can’t do in the classroom. It’s only just starting to make an appearance in North America. That’s why taking a year out is still seen as an unusual destination after high school or university, and feels like it’s an innovative way to approach the next chapter in a young adult’s life – it’s “Out of the Box” thinking!

The gap year has been around for decades in Europe and Australia where it’s a household term. You’re considered weird if you don’t take a gap year. In the UK alone, each year approximately 230,000 people take a gap year. In fact employers in the UK are more interested in what you did in your gap year than what you did for an undergraduate degree. Generally the gap experience includes mixing academics, volunteer work and travel. It is supported by British Universities and colleges where students with gap year plans are regularly granted deferred admission – you don’t have to reapply or negotiate individual deferment. The chief executive of the UK Universities and Colleges Admission Services, Tony Higgins says “we believe that students who take a well planned structured year are more likely to be satisfied with, and complete their chosen course.” That’s because they see the value in learning outside the classroom – and they know that these young adults will return to University more mature, confident and ready for the learning. The gap year is regarded as a chance for students to develop skills and to take personal responsibility as an adult.

Back in North America, the trend is beginning. Harvard’s doing it. Princeton loves it. Our own York University is on board. These universities are thinking outside the box and recognizing the value of taking a gap year after high school.

Harvard believes so much in the gap year that they encourage every enrolled student to consider a year off. Princeton has a program called the “bridge year” where students spend a year performing public service abroad before beginning their freshman year. York University announced their Bridging the Gap program that allows students to defer admission on the basis of a gap year.

And no wonder! Here’s what mygapyear – a Toronto based company that plans gap years – has to say about the benefits of a gap year.

“A gap year provides an unparalleled growth opportunity to develop soft skills before making the transition to the next chapter of life. Soft skills like decision making, relationship building, problem solving, communication, organisation, self reliance, responsibility, team work, independence, and, maturity are developed through experiences at home or abroad, the opportunity to work with other cultures, the chance to perfect a foreign language, a break to serve others in a voluntary capacity, a time to grow and mature, and a chance to reflect on one’s own personality, skills, values and desires before fully committing to a course or career.”

Today, many post secondary students enter university or college at a younger age, some as young as seventeen years old. Although often intellectually capable of higher education, students are not yet mature, self confident or independent enough to embrace this next educational step. "A gap year can prepare students for a more meaningful university experience" says Diane Crocker, Registrar and Director of Enrolment Management, University of Toronto.

That lack of maturity is having an impact. Statistics Canada reports a drop out rate of 30% amongst first year university students, and one in seven young Canadians who pursue college drop out before they graduate, with most making the call by the time they've finished their first year. Creating a gap year plan that provides opportunities for personal and professional growth has a significant correlation to future educational and employment success. Taking a gap year can actually make young adults more focused and ready for the challenges of academic life, and provides an opportunity to strengthen soft skills and develop emotional intelligence.

Harvard's daily student newspaper, The Crimson reported (5/19/2000) that students who had taken a year off found the experience "so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it." Harvard's overall graduation rate of 98% is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off. One student, noting that the majority of her friends will simply spend eight consecutive terms at Harvard, "wondered if they ever get the chance to catch their breath."

A company in Toronto has embraced the value of a gap year for Canadian students. mygapyear provides a unique service - creating meaningful gap years for young adults. They develop a structured, well-planned gap experience based on their client’s individual desires and outcomes. Using personal coaching as a tool, mygapyear guides clients to create personal development and gap year goals and make informed choices about their gap year experiences. Mygapyear has researched and developed a range of gap year experiences and provides options to create a meaningful and cost effective gap year for their clients. Mygapyear also makes sure plans are implemented and goals are reached through follow up sessions with their clients throughout their gap experience.

Each gap year plan is unique. Some clients chose to stay close to home, take up hobbies or things they never had time for – like guitar, photography, piano or yoga – or get their drivers license. Others combine working at home or away, volunteering abroad, learning a language or a new skill like surfing or cooking. The following are testimonials from some of mygapyear’s clients.

“Although I love to travel, I had too many personal commitments at home and was not able to take a trip during my year off. Instead I remained in Toronto, and surprisingly still had an amazing year. It was precisely the decision to stay at home that made my year so rewarding: I was able to balance working part-time, creating a portfolio for university, going out with friends, and spending time with family. Mygapyear even found me volunteer opportunities and a very educational online course to take in my spare time. It was a year full of self-discovery; I learned that when I’m faced with obstacles (no matter how big or small) I will always power through with determination. I am more independent, resilient, and confident in my ability to deal with stress. I no longer dread starting school and I look forward to new challenges and opportunities. The people at mygapyear were extremely helpful and encouraging, they kept me motivated and offered advice when I was under pressure. I recommend mygapyear to anyone who wants to experience new things and learn about their true personality and goals, but isn’t sure where to begin. They will be with you every step of the way.” Marianne

“I learned that I will never know what I am capable of if I don’t take that step beyond my comfort zone. With the help of mygapyear, I have definitely learned a lot about myself, strengthened my character and discovered my own independence and individuality. You don’t have to follow the crowd and mygapyear helps you find those other options. Taking the year with mygapyear has given me confidence in where my education and future are going. mygapyear gave me the opportunity to discover on my own what it is I want to do.” Melissa

So why are we rushing our young people to a post secondary destination they may not be ready for? North American attitudes towards a gap year are changing, but slowly. Many parents worry that their sons and daughters will be sidetracked from post secondary education, and may never enroll. They fear that taking time off can cause students to "fall behind" or lose their study skills irrevocably. That fear is rarely justified, and when asked, many parents say that they wish they had taken a gap year. Parents and high schools are starting to embrace the value of this transition year, starting to unpack the box and jump out!

Here are some testimonials from parents.

“After being accepted at McGill, my daughter S* decided to defer her start date at university for a year. She wanted a break from the routine of academics while she explored some of her other interests. As a parent, this kind of break can be worrying; I was interested in making sure S* didn’t just waste her time off school, but I also knew that my influence would only go so far. mygapyear helped S* make the most of her time off. Their ability to accurately probe S*’s objectives and then to bring forward ideas that on our own we would never have discovered, was exceptional. Just have a quick look at the internet; there seem to be a million opportunities for young people, but sorting through all the prospects is daunting. Besides the pure volume of information, there is always the concern that what you are looking at may not be quite as it seems. mygapyear acts as a resource to work through all the possibilities much more efficiently. They bring focus and credibility to what is available and they were able to help S* find personal meaning throughout her experience. In the end, mygapyear helped S* enact a plan that included local (hobby) classes, volunteer work and the culmination – a job overseas (as a camp counselor). Besides the service they provide in building a program to meet the client’s objectives, mygapyear also showed great commitment to seeing things right through to the finish. They maintained regular contact with S* directly and through that relationship were aware of how things were developing as the year moved on. I always felt they took a real and direct interest in S’s* success”. Lynn

“The past year has truly been one of growth and discovery for M*. Formerly a bit tentative and uncertain about her future, she has matured into a clearly confident and independent young adult. With the help of mygapyear, her time spent studying and travelling in Europe enhanced not only her understanding and appreciation of other cultures and languages, but contributed to her sense of independence and direction in life. As parents, we had the opportunity to watch M* grow over the course of the year, and feel reassured that she is ready to tackle her freshman year at McGill University with a new sense of purpose and motivation. We could not be more delighted with the outcome of M’*s gap year, and the guidance she received from MyGapYear Inc.” Celia

Taking a gap year is not only time well spent. It is a life-changing opportunity that merges the individual world with global awareness. In the world of tomorrow, international perspectives and experiences will be more important than ever before. Those that take a gap year are indeed thinking out of the box. However – with so much to be gained – perhaps gap years will soon become an accepted rite of passage here in North America.

“It’s a time to step back and reflect, gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of, one’s accustomed pressures and expectations” – Harvard Dean of Admissions, William R.Fitzsimmons

Written by mygapyear, now on Facebook. Reproduced with permission.