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Thinking about a gap year? Here are some questions to ask yourself (and a note for anxious parents)

Many year 12 students who are receiving their exam results at the moment will go straight to further study and training next year. But others may be planning or dreaming about a break.

As a professor of education with a focus on positive psychology, I think of a gap year as a dynamic transition time that allows you to be your own person. It is a chance to reconnect to who you are and what you want in life. It is so much more than a break!

It can mean working, volunteering, doing a program with the Australian Defence Force or travelling.

Despite what some assume, it is not a year of doing nothing, or slacking off. Nor is it an indication you won’t return to further study. Here are some things to consider if you are thinking about a gap year.


Read more: 'They don’t expect a lot of me, they just want me to go to uni': first-in-family students show how we need a broader definition of 'success' in year 12


Gap years in Australia

Although a gap can be taken at any time, the first real opportunity for most is at the end of high school.

Each year, about one in seven Australian year 12 students who then do a bachelors degree take a gap year (although the proportion fell from 16% in 2009 to 11% in 2016).

A young woman takes a photograph.
Gap years often involve travel overseas or in Australia. Wanaporn Yangsiri/Unsplash

For some students, this is a practical reality. Students from regional and remote areas are more likely than city students to take a gap year. And students from less advantaged areas are more likely to do paid work during this time.

Every university will have a support team to advise you on how to defer for a year once you are accepted, and can let you know when you need to make a decision. You can also change your course preferences if you want to.

It can be a form of self-care

Taking a gap year can be dedicated time to explore who you are as a person, build new connections and relationships, and be curious. You can gain confidence, perspective, and open-mindedness.

From a self-care perspective, it is important to tune into how you are feeling about yourself and moving ahead with future studies now or not.

Finishing high school and the stress of exams is draining at the best of times. Studying during the pandemic – away from teachers and friends and with so many disruptions and uncertainties – has been exhausting.


Read more: 5 reasons students should consider taking a gap year now


How to set up a gap year

If you take a gap year, this is likely to be a precious and unusual time in your life. The pandemic has also changed priorities for some people. So what is it that you want to change, interrupt or do differently? Ask yourself honestly:

  • what do I want?
  • what’s working in my life?
  • what have I learned from things that haven’t been working?
  • what will the year look like?
  • what will success look and feel like at the end?

According to US education researcher Joseph O’Shea, you need to pay attention to the organisation, resourcing and quality of your gap year. Think about these questions:

  • how much money will I need?
  • how will I support myself?
  • has someone else done the same type of gap year activity before? What did they learn that can help?
  • who can be a mentor for me?

A note for parents

And for parents and carers who may be hesitant to support a gap year, it does not mean your child will turn their back on study forever. Figures show students taking a gap year are just as likely to complete their degree within six years than students who do not.

Three young people walk in the bush.
A gap year does not mean you will ‘lose momentum’ for study. Karlis Reimanis/Unsplash

As a university lecturer I have also taught many students who have taken a gap year. For me, what stands out with every single one of them is that on return they are super focused, ask thought-provoking questions in class and know exactly what their purpose is.

Research also suggests a gap year has a positive impact on academic performance once you return to university, with the greatest impact on those who performed less well at school. It has also shown to increase students’ motivation to study when they come back.

So, tune into what you are curious about and how it will help you become the best person you want to be. Don’t compare yourself with others. There are so many pathways to finding meaning and purpose in life – a gap year might be exactly what you need.


Read more: Disappointed by your year 12 result? A university expert and a clinical psychologist share advice on what to do next


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