Skip to main content

Gap year volunteers hike to Wli Todzi, a mountain village in Ghana with Operation Groundswell, a Toronto-based not-for-profit.DANA HINDING

As a new generation of Canadian students prepares to make the transition from high school to college or university, a small number will consider taking a year off to travel, work, volunteer and carefully consider some of the most important decisions they will need to make in their young lives – though many more would benefit from doing so.

Unlike many countries in Europe and around the world where taking a year off between high school and university is considered a rite of passage, taking a "gap year" is rare among Canadian students.

In Norway, Turkey and Denmark, for example, more than half of students take a year off before starting their postsecondary education, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education. While 30 per cent of Canadian students took more than four months off from school before entering a postsecondary institution, according to a 2008 study by Statistics Canada, most of them did so for financial reasons.

Taking a year off before college or university, however, often leads to better grades, increased job satisfaction and even higher pay later in life, according to the American Gap Association.

While many Canadians appear to believe that a gap year will merely delay a student's entrance into the work force, the fact that 38 per cent of college and university students will drop out or change majors – according to a 2008 study co-written by the Canadian Education Project, a Toronto-based education policy and research association – exemplifies how taking a year to explore interests and possible career paths could potentially save parents and students a lot of tuition fees and career angst.

"One of the problems is that in society we just assume that everybody matures at the exact same rate and the exact same age," said Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, an online resource and job board for students and recent graduates. "The idea is that when you graduate high school at age 17 or 18, you're automatically ready to go to university or college, and that's generally false."

As someone who helps young Canadians to find meaningful work, Ms. Friese says that taking a gap year can actually help students stand out to future employers.

"The biggest problem for students post-graduation when they're applying for jobs is that they all look like clones; there's not a lot to differentiate business grad one from business grad two, or sociology grad one from sociology grad two," she said. "Taking the initiative to work with a charity, or travel the world or whatever it is, those things stand out."

Ms. Friese says that those who accomplish little during the time they take off between high school and their postsecondary years will similarly have to answer to future employers who will expect to see some personal growth during that time.

In the U.K., where Ms. Friese earned her master's degree in economic history, she said there are plenty of websites, travel agencies, businesses and other infrastructure in place to support students taking a gap year, something that "doesn't really exist in Canada." She said she thinks the idea would likely gain more support from Canadian parents if there were similar resources and support networks here.

While some programs, such as Mygapyear, do provide resources and structured programming for Canadian students taking a year off, they remain few and far between.

"It's sort of a chicken-and-the-egg thing. Do we need society to think more highly of gap years, or do we need the institutions to acknowledge that gap years are an educational opportunity?" said Madelyn Steed, the director of gapper services for Mygapyear, an organization that coaches students wanting to get the most out of their year off. Ms. Steed says the concept is more entrenched in the United States, where institutions such as Harvard and Princeton allow applicants to defer their acceptance by one year, a luxury that is scarce among Canadian postsecondary institutions.

Over the past seven years, Mygapyear has provided personal life coaching and other resources to about 90 Canadian students, but remains among the only options for Canadians interested in pursuing a structured gap year.

Another recently launched program, however, seeks to provide Canadian students with a more highly structured gap year, in hopes of seeing them return to school more confident, accomplished and prepared for postsecondary life.

Created by Joel Nicholson – the co-founder of – the Global Leadership Academy is built on four pillars: discover, design, build and achieve. During the eight-month program, students are required to solve a problem in their community, organize an event, volunteer abroad, overcome a physical challenge, complete an internship and create something from nothing.

"We aim for the student to set these goals and achievements as lofty as possible, because then it brings a little bit more of a challenge and excitement for us as instructors to help them reach those," said Mr. Nicholson, adding that the program also puts an emphasis on teaching soft skills. "Creativity, problem-solving skills, structured communications, these are the courses in the training programs that I was given in management consulting, and Google and GE and other highly successful organizations do deliver these skills-based training to their employees, but it's really missing in education right now, and that's why I'm trying to incorporate it into the Global Leadership Academy."

After four months in a classroom setting, students will spend four months completing the goals they've set out for themselves, with regular check-ins and progress reports from Mr. Nicholson and his staff. Mr. Nicholson adds that while the program costs approximately $5,000 – not including the cost of volunteering abroad – the program is structured in a way that allows students to break even through paid internships and by organizing a fundraising event.

"Gap years can be a good way to gain a year of maturity while also answering some key questions about yourself and what you want in life," said Ms. Friese, adding that many who take a gap year are still at risk of not spending that time effectively, and that parents remain rightfully concerned that it could prove a wasted opportunity.

"[Global Leadership Academy] is solving both of those problems – providing structure for those young people who may otherwise struggle to find it, and providing legitimacy to the concept of a gap year."

Interact with The Globe