A Guide to Gap Years for Students


A gap year can be an enriching experience if you want a break from formal studying to explore your interests and discover what you want to achieve in life.

And when done right, a purposeful gap year is life-changing. Here’s a quick guide with 7 steps to help you navigate your gap year and make it one of the best experiences of your life.

1. Define what a gap year means to you

Traditionally, gap years have been popular with high school graduates. However, taking time off still counts even if you’re halfway through your university degree or years into your career. Also, it might surprise you that your gap “year” can be as short or as long as you want it to be.

So take the time to consider what a gap year personally looks like for you and what you’d like to gain from it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What would I ideally be doing during my gap year?
  • Am I running “toward” or “from” something by taking a gap year?
  • What am I looking to learn, gain, or test out?
  • How much time and money do I want to invest?

If you’re still unsure what a gap year entails, try talking to a school advisor. You can also speak with your family and friends, but know that the decision to take a gap year ultimately falls on you. Making post-secondary plans isn’t easy. But knowing you’re becoming more independent with your future choices and lifestyle is a rewarding milestone.

2. Weigh the pros and cons of a gap year

Once you’ve envisioned your ideal gap year, you should decide whether this experience is actually suitable for you. For instance, if you’re looking to hone your skills or venture out of your comfort zone, a gap year is a great next step. Filling your gap year with meaningful activities and experiences can teach you more about yourself and bring you closer to your future goals.

But don’t forget to consider any disadvantages of taking a gap year and weigh your options before making a final decision. For example, taking a gap year might take you out of your regular studying routine, put you behind a semester or year from university, and require more money and planning. So do your research and see what works best for you. An easy way to get more information is to view free resources from the Canadian Gap Year Association or watch YouTube videos made by people who have shared their personal gap year experiences.

3. Set appropriate goals for yourself

If you’ve decided to take a gap year, congratulations! Your next task is to start setting some goals for yourself and figuring out what you’d like to achieve during your gap year. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Learn a new skill (e.g. a new language, coding, sewing)
  • Travel abroad (or locally)
  • Volunteer or work abroad (or locally)
  • Make money from part-time or full-time work
  • Do an internship
  • Take care of your health and personal fitness
  • Build your career
  • Get clarity on your future
  • Start a business

Once you have some ideas of what you want to accomplish, start making SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

So if you want to volunteer or work locally or abroad, start researching options like International Experience Canada (IEC) or Volunteer.ca as early as you can. Find out how long each experience will take, the exact requirements you’ll need, and how this specific experience will serve your purpose.

And because some goals (e.g. becoming fluent in French) may take longer than others (e.g. learning how to write a cover letter for a job, aim for 1–3 major goals that you want to accomplish first before tackling any others.

4. Figure out how you’ll finance your experience

To have a successful gap year, you need a plan for how much money you’ll be spending. But if asking your family for money isn’t an option, try other methods.

For example, there are several scholarship opportunities available to students who wish to take a gap year, such as RBC Future Launch, the Travel Access Project, and the Youth Travel Foundation.

There are also plenty of other free resources. For instance, Workaway has opportunities abroad that provide room and board, Duolingo is helpful for learning languages, and Coursera has tons of free online courses.

Working an after-school job can also help you save money before you embark on your gap year. You can even apply for internships, part-time, or full-time work during your gap year to feel more financially secure.

And even if you’re working part-time or full-time during your gap year, another option is to put some money aside and spend it toward the end of your gap year as a reward for your hard work. For instance, instead of going on a trip to South East Asia at the beginning of your trip, schedule it for the last three months of your gap year.

5. Plan out your gap year using chunks of time

Scheduling the events in your gap year can be overwhelming, especially with the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions. So instead of planning out the year in its entirety, break up your gap year into three or four-month portions.

For example, sectioning off every few months allows you more flexibility to adjust your schedule if you change your mind or if plans don’t work out.

And besides taking the pressure off of planning an entire year, looking at your gap year as different components can help you keep track of smaller goals, manage your time wisely and find new skills or hobbies that you want to pursue.

6. Find a support network

If a gap year still sounds intimidating to you, talk to your trusted family members and friends about how you’re feeling and how they can best support you.

There are many online meetups these days, so try joining a Facebook community or the Gap Year Discord channel to connect with other like-minded individuals who are also embarking on gap years.

Additionally, choosing a more structured program such as Discover Year or the Canadian Gap Year Association can help you feel less alone in planning your gap year because you can speak to experts, chat with other gap year students, and join virtual and in-person events.

7. Have faith that you’ve made the right decision

Planning your gap year is both exciting and challenging, but you should also feel proud of yourself for venturing out of your comfort zone and investing in your personal and professional growth.

Check out other articles on financial reasons to go on a gap year and the best gap year destinations to see how this experience can positively change your life.

Eva Chan is a Content Writer & CPRW at CV Genius and Resume Genius who enjoys helping students find new jobs and fulfilling opportunities.

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