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Gap Years Aren't Just for Brits Anymore

A gap year is when high school graduates take time off to work, travel or volunteer before they go to college or university. Gap years are common in other parts of the world like the U.K. or Australia, where they are treated like a rite of passage. They've only recently picked up steam in Canada.

When students graduate high school they are generally naïve and inexperienced -- yes they can drive, and some can even drink legally, but they haven't seen the world or likely been left to fend for themselves. It seems comical, then, to ask a 17- or 18-year-old to decide on a post-secondary institution, as well as a career path that will withstand the next 40 to 50 years of their life.

When I was 18, I was worried about whether my fake ID would fool anyone, since 19 is the legal drinking age in Ontario. I was also concerned about the correct rules of beer pong -- specifically, the elbow/wrist rule where players MUST keep their elbows and wrists behind the edge of the table or risk disqualification; this tends to be the most argued rule at college parties.

Was I equipped to make major decisions that would likely affect the rest of my life? Across Canada this has been the expectation, now and in the previous century. However, millennials have thrown a wrench in that plan because many of them are choosing to embark on a gap year instead.

A gap year is when high school graduates take time off to work, travel or volunteer before they go to college or university. Gap years are common in other parts of the world like the U.K. or Australia, where they are treated like a rite of passage. They've only recently picked up steam in Canada. According to a

Statistics Canada survey of approximately 8,500 high school graduates, from 2000 to 2008, only half of students had started college or university within the usual three months, whereas 30 per cent had taken a gap year.

There are no earlier statistics available regarding gap years, but Michelle Dittmer, director of leadership and outreach at My Gap Year, says it is an increasingly popular trend for a few reasons. "Teenagers are more connected globally because of the internet and they want to fit into a local and global community. They also want to make sure they are on the right path because post-secondary is such a huge investment."

Sarah Carruthers, 18, graduated from Westmount Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario in the spring and is currently starting her gap year. "I'll be living at home and working at McMaster University. I worked there in grade 11 for my co-op and they welcomed me back."

Carruthers is concerned about finances and wants to save money for tuition before she enrolls in a post-secondary program, either to become a veterinary technician or learn a trade. "I know they're at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I have time to decide."

Choosing to work like Carruthers has done can be valuable in order to save money for anticipated educational expenditures says Paul Seipp, regional vice president at BMO Bank of Montreal.

Here are a few ideas for people considering a gap year to help them save money:

Take advantage of "student status." Even though someone like Carruthers isn't technically in school, she can still take advantage of offers that are applicable to students and teens. For example, BMO offers a free chequing account to persons between the ages of 13 and 18. The bottom line is to read the fine print; even though a deal is marketed toward students, you may still apply.

Figure out a budget. CIBC has a nifty student budget calculator that takes the guessing out of budgeting. The calculator covers all school-related expenditures and personal costs and even breaks down income and expenses into a monthly summary. This tool is ideal for students looking to figure out precisely how much they will need for school.

Start a savings plan. One of the most effective ways to save is to set up a preauthorized savings plan, which all of the major banks offer for free. Choose one that automatically withdraws money from your chequing account and transfers it to your savings account. The transfer is done for you weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending on how you decide to set up your account. That way, there is no excuse not to save money for school.

Open a TFSA. If you are a savvy student investor, are 18 years of age or older and have a valid Canadian social insurance number, then you can open a Tax Free Savings Account. You can contribute $5,500 a year to the account and hold cash, GICs, bonds, mutual funds, stocks and exchange-traded funds, among other options. The benefit of this account is that any income or capital gain it generates is free of taxes. If you decide to take this route, read this article to know the rules.

Some of the advantages that Seipp sees with a gap year dedicated to working include the chance to gain perspective on various career choices by being involved in a field that interests you. As well, you get the opportunity to gain insight into personal motivators -- figure out what inspires you to do your best every day.

If money is less of an issue and full-time work is not essential, then volunteering or travelling are two options that will potentially beef up your resume by giving you global experience.

Universities across Canada haven even started to recognize the gap year as a legitimate learning experience, and some are even embracing it. York University's Ken Withers, director of recruitment and applicant relations, released this statement in 2013:

"We at York University are pleased to be the first Canadian university to formalize the process of deferment based on a gap year. We have done this because we believe so strongly in the importance of taking a gap year before jumping into university."

Whatever you decide to do with your gap year, whether it's working, travelling or volunteering, make sure that your goal is to gain experience; experience is the first thing that employers look for and the only thing that school can't give you.

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There's no better time to go
You have the rest of your life ahead of you, what better time is there than after university? You don't have any big commitments like a mortgage or a job, so take some time out whilst you can.
Discover some of the world
Everyone needs to experience other parts of the world. Go and discover places you've always wanted to go to and cultures you've always wanted to see first hand.
You can afford to go
You can afford both the time and money. If you are deep in your overdraft then work for a couple of months to save up enough money before you go. Otherwise look into working abroad, you can travel whilst earning enough money to support yourself on the road.
It will enhance your CV
A well-structured gap year will go a long way with employers as it shows initiative and organisation amongst other things. It is particularly useful if you've done paid work abroad or learnt a new language whilst on your travels, these will give your career prospects a massive boost.
You're well prepared
Use all that newfound independence from university, along with your budgeting and cooking skills that you've hopefully picked up along the way. These will make sure you have few problems on the road.
It's a chance to relax
After the stress of university and final year I'm sure most people are ready for a break! Take life easy for a while and soak up some rays on a sunny beach somewhere.
It's a chance to reflect
Going travelling will give you plenty of time to reflect on what you want to do when you return home. When you do finally get back you might well find that your ideas have changed a lot since you first left university, and you now have a much clearer idea of what appeals to you.
It will give you valuable skills
Backpacking or any other form of travelling will greatly enhance your self-confidence, problem solving, communication and teamwork skills. You'll learn a lot from constantly meeting new people and interacting with those for whom english is not their first language. That time you got stuck on the border will help you realise you can get yourself out of difficult situations. It's very cliche but travelling really does open your eyes to what you can achieve.
You'll get some good stories out of it
Whether you saved a dying lion, almost died on a perilous bus journey or your best mate got with a ladyboy you'll be guaranteed to have some to worthwhile stories to tell when you get back.
Personal acheivement
Prove to yourself that you can stand on your own two feet and take anything that life throws at you. You'll get a huge sense of pride and achievement out of any adventure you choose to undertake.
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