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Education & Training

Plan a Gap Year That Works for You

Finished school and wondering what’s next? Studying but not sure if you’re on the right path? Find out how a planned gap year can help you explore options.

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What’s a gap year?

“Through my high school senior year, I struggled with what my future would look like. There wasn’t any specific career that piqued my interest enough to commit to and I didn’t want to waste my time or money in college pursuing something I wasn’t passionate about. I finally chose to take a gap year abroad with a nonprofit mission organization.”

A gap year is a break you take from studying some time between graduating high school and completing your post-secondary program. While it’s called a gap year, it doesn’t have to be 12 months. It can be as short as a semester or longer than a year, depending on what you decide to do and how well you are able to finance your plan.

A well planned gap year is a chance to pause and learn about yourself and the world in a new way. It can give you an opportunity to consider your SMARTER goals and how you can achieve them. After your gap year, you can return to your previous educational path, refreshed and with purpose. Or you may discover an entirely new goal for your life.

But a gap year should not be a way of putting off the hard work of being a student.

What are the pros and cons to taking a gap year?

Before you jump into a gap year, you should think about some of its advantages and disadvantages.

Gap year pros

A gap year can help you:

  • Know yourself more
  • Reassess your education options
  • Add new skills to your resumé to make it stand out
  • Gain more independence and practice solving problems on your own
  • Learn to manage your finances and save for the next step
  • Recharge before you dive (back) into studies
  • Develop new contacts and networks 

Gap year cons

Some issues to consider if you take a year off school include:

  • Losing your school routine, “study muscles,” and exam skills
  • Giving up a scholarship
  • Falling behind your classmates
  • Feeling homesick if you’re travelling abroad
  • Running out of money to fund your travel or projects
  • Fear of returning to school after a long break

Some of these issues may not apply to you, and planning can help you overcome them. For example, if finances are a concern, start saving sooner or plan a gap year that includes earning money. If you are worried about falling behind in your future field of study, read online and keep ties with any connections you have in that field.

In this video, consider how Tiffany used a gap year to help her clarify and prepare for her career path:

Studying Theatre at College (2:47)

Tiffany is studying theatre at a public college. Learn how she chose her program, how she's paying for school, and why she took a gap year after high school.

Caution: If you’re eligible for student financial assistance or awards, check if you can delay your studies and still qualify later. Other types of studies during your gap year could also affect your future eligibility for student funding.

How do I plan a gap year?

Thinking about what your gap year looks like now will mean fewer bumps down the road. Ask yourself:

  • What do I want to do?
  • What skills do I want to pick up?
  • Where and how will I do it?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How will I get there (if you plan to go away) and where will I stay?

With so many options to pursue, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices. Focus on the main objectives you’d like to achieve in your gap year to help narrow your options.

Many organizations plan gap year projects for those under age 30. Some are non-profit, while others are for-profit. In either case, most charge a fee. Some offer international experiences that appear to align with your values and goals but may have unintended consequences. For example, even if you’d like to get experience with construction work, helping build a school in a developing country may take much needed work or training opportunities away from local residents and that may not fit with your values.

Maybe you want to work in Alberta, travel across Canada, or volunteer abroad. Once you have an idea of what you want your gap year to look like, search online for “gap year,” along with keywords like “volunteer” or “work experience” to help identify opportunities that align with what you want to do. Or search for the experience itself and plan your own details. For example, if you want to teach English in a foreign country, research what schools are available there and contact them directly for details.

You can plan unique adventures that mix volunteering with travelling, or working with learning. The earlier you start planning, the smoother your experience will be.

What does a working gap year look like?

“I worked full time during my gap year. I knew I didn’t want to make a career out of that type of [gap year] work, because there wasn’t much more room for growth. But I could save up money and meet new people and talk to them about their jobs and university experiences.”

Taking a break to try work options is a great way to build your resumé and put money in your pocket—always a bonus. A working gap year can be:

  • A stopgap job that earns you a wage while you learn new work skills
  • An internship you’ve arranged on your own. Remember that internships, co-ops, or on-the-job training arranged through your post-secondary school can feel like a gap year, but they’re part of your education program.
  • A Canadian or international job that allows you to work online from Alberta
  • A job that means temporarily moving outside Alberta or even Canada
  • A chance to try something very different, such as working on an alpaca farm or a shrimp boat

A working gap year can help you:

  • Develop job search skills
  • Build transferable work-related or core skills
  • Decide on the occupation, profession, or industry you want to work in
  • Explore the education and training you may need to take the next step
  • Earn money to help pay your expenses if you choose to live away from home or if you’re travelling
  • Widen your network

How can I work abroad for my gap year?

Working outside Canada lets you see more of the world and meet others from different cultures. Some countries offer special working holiday visas for adults under 35. By doing the research before you leave, you’ll find what is legally required to work in other countries. Check out Working Abroad for details about passports, visas, and sites to search for more information. Don’t forget travel health insurance. You’ll also need to find a way to get to your new job and a place to live while you’re there. If you’re contacting employers directly, they may help with living spaces.

Maybe you can take on a job at a farm or hostel, give tours to English-speaking tourists (you’ll have to brush up on local history), or wait tables (your customers may be curious about your accent). As a nanny or au pair, you’ll experience a different culture firsthand. Or maybe you can find a paid internship that will help you explore and develop skills in your field of study.

You can also find opportunities to do online work. Activities like blogging, coding, social media marketing, or data analysis can be done wherever your tablet or laptop can connect to the Internet, allowing you to continue travelling as you work.

What does a volunteering gap year look like?

Giving back to the local or global community is a great way to make the world a better place and to feel good about yourself. Think about what you can offer or learn within a homeless shelter, a newcomers’ centre, an animal rescue home, or a political organization, for example. Because volunteering builds skills, it can also help you land good jobs later.

You can find a cause and a location, or you can consider what you’re passionate about and search on your own. Ask friends and family about their experiences, or search keywords online for whatever you want to explore. But remember to check whether the organization’s goals and methods fit with your own values before committing.

How can I volunteer abroad for my gap year?

If you want to volunteer abroad, the things you would need to consider when working abroad may apply. Also check:

You may find unpaid internship opportunities, which is another form of volunteering, in your search.

If you’re concerned about the travel costs or being in unfamiliar places, but still want to volunteer with an organization that’s based outside Alberta, look for volunteer roles that can be done from home.

What does a learning gap year look like?

Wait. You’re asking yourself, why would you step away from post-secondary learning to do more learning? Answer: Because the world is full of opportunities to discover new facts, skills, and ideas, and now may be a good time to explore them.

Choose what you’ve been curious about. It might be reading, writing, and speaking another language. You may want to learn about how to help communities reduce waste and be self-sustainable.

You can also use the time to take online courses. Search using your interests as the keywords along with “course” or “free course.” Some, such as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), are free and provide certificates or badges that may be worth listing in your resumé or on your social media portfolio.

How can I learn abroad for my gap year?

Sometimes the best way to learn something may be by travelling. You may need to be on location for an archaeological dig or in a foreign country to immerse yourself in the local language. You can arrange this through organizations that offer these experiences or through your own planning.

Learning abroad during a gap year is a bit different than studying abroad as an international student. Some schools in other countries require a student visa or study permit. To learn more about studying abroad, check:

What does a travelling gap year look like?

“I have plenty of friends who have gone straight to university from high school, or into the trades like me. They went immediately into full-time jobs, bought a nice car, a house, had dogs and kids. All these people have said they wish they could’ve travelled more, but now they’re unable to do more than a small vacation.”

You don't have to leave the country to have a travelling gap year. Travelling within Canada is a great option. You won’t have to worry about changing currency, though the distances can put a dent in your bank account. You can even consider travelling within Alberta.

If you’re travelling outside of Canada, you’ll need a passport. Some countries also want travel visas. They may also want to see a departure ticket, a record of immunizations, or proof that you have enough money for your travels. You should also get travel health insurance since the standard Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP) benefits won’t cover you outside Canada. Good travel health insurance will cover everything from diagnosing a weird rash to getting you home during a health crisis.

To learn more, check:

How can I afford a gap year?

If you’re earning now, set some money aside with each paycheque. Budgeting and building up your savings will make your decisions easier.

If saving for your gap year is not an option, consider swapping your skills for meals or a place to stay during your gap year. This type of exchange is known as bartering. Some examples of services you can swap include doing repairs or housekeeping, pet sitting, or cutting hair. Explore side gigs or some of the ideas in the working gap year section.

A gap year can be a great way to think about and approach your future. Planning one is an exciting first step to seeing what the world has to offer. Take that step today and see what a gap year will do for you.

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