OMG!   It’s Labour Day, grade 12 starts tomorrow, I know I’ll have 3 tests in 3 weeks, my friends are all talking about where they’re applying to university, and my parents are on my back for not even having a career plan.  What’ll I do?  Well, thank goodness I could always take a gap year and postpone making a decision, because I’ll never have time to do the research.

If this is you, don’t panic.  You are not alone; this happens to students every year, and though we wish you had started thinking about your options as early as grade 9 (yes, some begin earlier than that), you are not too late to begin to make a good decision.

Back when mom and dad were in secondary school in Ontario, we had grade 13, making us 18 going on 19 before entering university.  With added maturity (translate: more life experience and increased frontal lobe function), it was easier to identify what path might suit you best.  At 16/17 with only grade 12, it’s more of a challenge, since there is much you haven’t experienced and, studying day and night as you’ve been doing, you haven’t had time to think about it.  And it IS a daunting process

Indeed, in the olden days, competitive U.S. college admissions departments stated they preferred our grade 13 applicants over grade 12 – from anywhere.  In fact, a few savvy graduating U.S. students successfully enrolled in grade 13 programs in Ontario to obtain that edge over their competition even if it took them an extra year.  By remaining enrolled in secondary school, they were not taking college/university level courses that would have rendered them transfer applicants, which would have been a disadvantage for a highly selective U.S. college.  They remained first-year applicants, from which the selective colleges consistently accept the greatest number. Grade 13 became their “gap year,” and it worked.

So what’s the problem?  Simply put, to coordinate a productive and enjoyable gap year, you still need to research and devote thought and planning… in advance. People often do it, and a successful plan generally has involved committing to an area in which they have some previous experience. Six months (that’s only half the year) spent helping build a school in Guatemala might look impressive on a résumé, but your March break trip to Fort Lauderdale doesn’t really prepare you, and you will need to know plenty about what to expect.

One student, having already spent a month aboard, rejoined a Dutch windjammer experience, combining oceanic studies with a working life sailing on the high seas. She progressed to First Mate status, learned much of the language, and ultimately enrolled in university in Holland. One musical lass, with very high SAT scores and marks from grade 12, used her gap year to recruit more people to the choir she sang with, organizing benefit performances in various venues, and developing an even more professional CD portfolio.  Though she’d originally had an enviable Ivy League offer, she held out for her first choice and succeeded the second time around.   Several athletes, a fencer and two golfers come readily to mind, took the opportunity to enhance their athletic profile, and that, too, has worked.  Others, like Prince William, use the time to “give back,” possibly hooking up with one of the existing gap year programs with opportunities around the globe, often in Third World countries. Of course, in his position, he’d already travelled extensively and met with local people before embarking.  What better opportunity to help a young person develop their life’s mission?  (Or identify what they for sure don’t want to do again… ever).

One such organization we’ve worked with before is Latitude Canada (

While I seem to be making a case FOR taking a gap year, I caution that your trepidation in September of grade 12 about having to make that big decision most often dissipates by April of your final year.  Students feel they’ve been studying all their lives, and taking a break to smell the roses sounds mighty tempting.  Why, that’s probably how you feel right now.

But I do urge you to accept that grade 12 will be the busiest academic year of your life so far, and often the extracurricular activities fall by the wayside.  Avail yourself of a year-long calendar, if you haven’t already, fill in dates you know in advance, and you can then manage your time to best effect.

I also urge students considering a gap year go ahead and apply to colleges/universities in the fall anyway, just to see what happens, giving themselves time to mull things over. Then, between January and April, interesting university offers roll in, and, magically (that’s the scientific word), motivation for higher education tends to kick in and they know they’ll be ready to roll in late August to one of these exciting academic options after all.  It’s possible that creative planning needed for a productive gap year has proven more daunting, with even greater unknowns;  nonetheless, students seem to be genuinely enthusiastic when the offers start flowing.  

Even if you do opt for the gap year, many colleges/universities will defer your offer for a year and allow you to postpone your enrollment.  However, you’ll need to confirm that your favourite choice will actually do that, and it’s wise to explain your reasons and outline your plans for that year.  A phone call to your college to learn if they ever allow that can confirm or deny, and then a politely-worded email to the person or office making the offer explaining your plans, formally requesting they hold your place, is the best way maintain your desirability.   If they won’t agree, you’re stuck rejecting a desirable offer and may have to reapply next year and hope to be lucky.

How do I know what’s right for me?

Preparing for post-secondary life is a process with frequent vicissitudes.  What seems right one day can turn out to be wrong for you the next, and that’s OK.  Preferences change once you know more about what you originally believed you’d love and now find out you don’t.  

One of my students, with dual Israeli/Canadian citizenship, decided to enlist in the Israeli Air Force.  He remained longer than one gap year but is now at Columbia.  No, you don’t need to fly that high to make best use of your year.  Why, some equally brave souls have taken unglamorous jobs in grocery stores or restaurants.  Mum and dad were thrilled to have the offset for academic costs, and I can assure you that folks in admissions offices will have done something similar at some point in their august careers as well.  They know that anyone cleaning off tables and taking out garbage at age 17 and not getting fired by a crotchety boss will find college challenges a relative breeze.

The key is keeping options open, staying flexible, soliciting support and gathering information on the way.

We’re always glad to help.

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