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After completing four intense years of high school with flying colours, Alexa Garrison assumed that continuing her education as an environmental science undergrad would be the obvious next step in her life. There was never any question of whether or not I'd go, she says of starting university. I never even considered taking time off after I graduated. That is until she found herself locked in her dorm room, buried under a pile of overdue assignments for a crop of classes she wasn't even interested in. Basically I woke up at midterms and realized that I didn't even know why I was there.

Alexa's story is a familiar one to guidance offices across Canada. Here in North America, most students go straight from high school to their first year of post-secondary. But in much of Europe it's normal for students to take a hiatus from school, called a gap year. Now the idea is gaining popularity here at home, and research is showing that a breather between school and more school is good in more ways than one.

Why it's a good idea

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that a student take a gap year ' especially if there's uncertainty about what they want to study, says Paul Bowman, manager of Career and Education, and a career counsellor at Queen's University. We certainly see plenty of students who are motivated and have a clear direction who haven't taken a gap year, but we also see a lot of students who aren't really sure why they're here. They're basically just putting in time."

Alexa isn't an environmental science student anymore. After those brutal midterms, she dropped out of her program, joining the one-third of Canadian students who leave school after their first year. It sucks to be part of that drop-out statistic, but it would suck even worse to waste more money on a second year of a program I wasn't into. Alexa's now getting ready to travel to northern Ontario on a three-month, tree planting stin, and while she still wants to go to school, I just need some time off to figure out what I actually want to do. Alexa plans to use the money she earns tree planting to go do some humanitarian work overseas.

A gap year is exactly what many students need to find clarity, agrees Bowman. Most people who take a gap year do return to school. It's a fear from parents, but as from all the data I've seen, it's not a credible fear. All the evidence suggests that people will come back to school.

Keep in mind that a gap year is very different from the "victory lap" that's become common since the elimination of grade thirteen from Ontario high schools. Staying in your same high school and being around the same people is not likely going to lead to the sort of growth and change that a year in a different environment, around different people, doing different things is likely to give you, says Bowman. 

Take advantage of the year off

So what exactly should you do with your gap year? Travel is cool, but it's expensive, so a year working abroad makes financial sense, and there are tons of resources, online and off, to help gappers find a position working or volunteering overseas. Then again, you could get a job or internship close to home and test-drive a career you're really interested in risk-free. The positions you can land right out of high school might not pay that well'or at all'but if you're still living with your folks, they won't have to.

In any scenario, a gap year is only worth taking if you spend it doing something productive: gaining work experience and self-knowledge, for example, rather than gaining levels on your night-elf warlock. If you do take a gap year, make some plans, says Bowman. Get out the door, meet people, get involved, try new things, learn, network. Get out of your comfort zone.

Even if you've already been accepted to a post-secondary program, universities are willing to work around your gap year. Some even have bridging programs that involve a year abroad before resuming school. Successful students who request a deferral for a gap year always present the Registrar's office with a game plan, says Bowman. Universities support students doing that because they know that students are likely to have a better academic outcome. There's growing evidence that a gap year does correlate with increased motivation for students. With that increased motivation comes greater focus and, Bowman believes, a more fulfilling career'which is kind of the point of this whole thing anyway, right?

Photo: HieronymusUkkel/Thinkstock