What Should I Study – Part I – The Gap Year

(Or…..Maybe you shouldn’t go to university or college right away!)

At typical high school graduate has various post-secondary worries during his or her graduation year. Will my marks be high enough to get into university? Am I going to be able to pay for my degree? Will I be able to adjust to college life? Will I like my campus? And for about half of all students entering colleges, this question is high on the list: “What should I study?

Parents also feel the impact of all of these questions. With respect to the last question, they want their sons and daughters to move ahead purposefully into the new world of post-secondary studies with a specific objective in mind. Parents, understandably, are often concerned about the practical application of the studies their children are undertaking. Having supported a dozen years of schooling, they want their investment to start paying off and many parents experience a chill of sorts when they realize that their young graduate really doesn’t know what course of study to take and what career to prepare for.

Unfortunately, parents sometimes make an already confusing situation worse when they pressure their graduates to choose a course of study or a career too quickly. It is completely natural for an 18 year-old to be unclear about what to study; it is wise for this 18 year-old not to choose something unwittingly, just for the sake of choosing or in order to make parents happy.

There are some 18 year-olds who know what they want to do at their chosen college or university; they may have known since they were small children. This is good, but not everyone is like this. [See parts II and III of this article, coming soon, for more on these students.]

For those who do not enter university with a specific career or educational objective in mind, university is primarily about education, not job training. The vibrant, engaging milieu of a post-secondary institution inspires these students and leads them to the discovery of paths of learning and topics of interest that open their minds to possibilities never before considered. Colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions invite students to grow in themselves and to reach out to the world of knowledge and experience.

Many students fail to examine all the worthwhile options open to them in their final year of high school. For some students, a year off before entering university is a good thing. This ‘gap’ year can be spent working, travelling, learning another language, doing volunteer work, or any combination of these activities. Universities and colleges appreciate students who have taken gap years. These students come into their learning a year later than their age peers, but they often come in wiser, more mature, and more capable of time management and focus than those who entered the world of institutional education directly from high school. Still other students take a certificate or diploma in a skill area before entering an academic program. This may be the wisest course of all since academic education is expensive and having a certified skill can provide well-paid work during the school year and in the summers. Many students pay for their academic training from the ‘shop floor’.

Students graduating from high school who do not have a firm career path in mind would do well to enter their college or university with a view to focusing on expanding their learning and experience by taking a variety of courses for years 1 and 2. Two years of taking courses in various disciplines often leads these students happily to a degree choice which is then completed in the last two years of a four-year degree. If this doesn’t work for them, these undecided students would be wise to take a gap year, learn about themselves, learn about the world of work, learn from travel, and generally gain the maturity required to excel once established in a university or college.   Many of their age peers who are one year ‘ahead’ of them will wish they had done the same thing. Parents should encourage and facilitate this gap experience for their graduates when it looks like the best option.