By Jay Gosselin

Experiential learning, nurturing of self-awareness and skill development should frame every student’s planning for a gap year

Since 1973, Harvard College (yes, THAT Harvard) has been offering admitted students the opportunity to take a year “off” prior to engaging in their post-secondary education. The admissions office is so committed to this pathway that they suggest a gap year directly in their offers of admission. The reason for this approach is simple ─ Harvard students who complete a meaningful gap year return to their studies motivated, are high-performing and see purpose in their academic endeavours. Furthermore, professors speak highly of their engagement and maturity, both within and outside the classroom.

Every year, between 80-110 students delay the start of their education at Harvard. Until recently, they were the only institution in North America to support this path so earnestly. In recent years, schools such as Princeton and Tufts have followed suit, having witnessed first-hand the benefits that a year off before starting university offered their students. Unfortunately, Canadian institutions, by and large, have not yet embraced this approach to admissions. That is not to say, however, that Canadian students are not choosing this path.

Gap culture in Ontario

According to Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey, 43% of Ontario students took more than four months off between their high school graduation and entrance into post-secondary studies. While these statistics seem to indicate that we have embraced the “gap” culture here in Ontario, I would argue that our perspective is one more of tolerance than embrace. Having met roughly 12,000 high school students across the province during my three years as a recruiter for a large Ontario university, it is abundantly clear to me that the general consensus among students is that direct entry into post-secondary represented a “successful” transition to post-high school life. The 43% of students who decided to take some time between high school and post-secondary don’t quite radiate the same enthusiasm and pride as did a student who accepted early admission to, say, Queen’s University or the University of Toronto.

Understated successes

Ironically, I meet successful professionals every week who beam with pride and accomplishment when they tell me about their gap year experiences. In fact, many identify their year of self-discovery as a defining period in their life – a time when they learned what was important to them and built the character required to pursue those values. While there is still very little scientific research assessing the actual academic and career outcomes for students who choose this track, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly positive. These former “gappers” echo the sentiment of Harvard’s students, professors and admissions officers: their year away enabled them to build motivation, maturity and self-awareness, and, perhaps most importantly, it helped them connect concretely with their purpose for attending university or college. They returned to their studies curious, determined and empowered to understand how academic principles could be applied in “real life.”

Creating meaning

Understanding that an intentional gap year can have significant positive impacts on a young person’s future studies, it is important to offer guidance as to how a student can go about creating meaningful experiences for themselves during this year of exploration. In this sense, meaning relates to the value of activities undertaken in helping the individual build intrinsic motivation, crucial skills and an optimistic mindset towards their future and the world around them.

Adaptability and identity

In today’s global economy, adaptability and “sense of identity” are often highlighted as crucial meta-competencies for successful career transitions. This age of rapid technological advancement necessitates ongoing adaptation to the constantly changing demands of the labour market. Adaptability requires confidence, critical thinking, creativity and resilience. It also requires a deep self-understanding of individual talents, preferences and values. Building these two meta-competencies should be at the core of any student’s plan for a meaningful gap year. At Discover Year, the development of these skills is woven into the fabric of our culture.

The three pillars of a meaningful gap year

Our innovative program was built around the three foundational values of our company, MentorU:  Action, Openness and Authenticity. We believe that the pursuit of these principles is important not only during a gap year, but throughout every stage of life. Our students integrate these values into their year through three pillars of growth: Experiential Learning, Self-Awareness and Skill Development.

Experiential learning

Practical experience enables learners to apply theoretical knowledge to their lives. Our students gain this experience in three important realms: paid work, volunteerism and travel. The merits of each of these outlets are well documented, but very few students are able to engage in all three in a purposeful manner prior to their foray into full-time employment. By supporting them in their navigation of the job market, offering travel resources and advice and re-framing the concept of charitable work, we empower our students to integrate all three of these important endeavours into a comprehensive learning experience.


According to the Youth in Transition Survey, only 17% of students still identify the same career objective or track at age 25 as they did when they were 17. This seems logical – adolescents simply haven’t been exposed to enough experiences to truly understand their likes and dislikes, or how their natural abilities and values relate to different occupational fields. Therefore, we offer our students monthly individual coaching sessions with a career coach, as well as access to over 100 incredible mentors from a plethora of fields and occupations. These interactions help shape both the students’ understanding of their own interests and their awareness of what different fields offer and, how to integrate them.

Skill development

There have been hundreds of articles published in the popular media related to the “skills gap” we are experiencing here in Canada. Much of this literature relates to the so-called “soft” skills needed to perform at a high level in today’s economy. Communication, teamwork, creativity and critical thinking are among the skills that employers identify as increasingly important but claim are sorely lacking in recent graduates. Our weekly Discovery Days – held each Wednesday over the course of the year revolve around these core competencies. These days include targeted workshops, career mentorship and group discussion.

Dedicated, successful professionals from our volunteer committee of over 100 mentors and educators help our students identify, contextualize and practice these skills. In our targeted workshops, subject matter experts help our students understand and practice crucial skills for their careers and lives. We cover topics such as active listening, professional writing, public speaking, receiving feedback, time management, entrepreneurship and many others. During the mentorship-oriented career panels, two to three different mentors share their journeys with us every week – their career path, failures and lessons learned as well as the skills that are most important in their line of work. They also explain the tasks and responsibilities of their current career, so that our students better understand the nature of various careers and industries. The facilitated group discussions cover a wide expanse of topics, and their intention is to help our students further develop their confidence, curiosity, communication and critical thinking skills.

While a Discover Year is not the solution for every young person, many students stand to benefit from a meaningful year away from school before the completion of post-secondary studies. I believe that experiential learning, nurturing of self-awareness and skill development should frame every student’s planning for a gap year. The pursuit of these principles necessitates action, openness and identification of the student’s authentic self. A Discover Year is not a guaranteed one-year journey to success, but this one year IS the start of a lifelong journey to significance. Let’s walk together.

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Jay Gosselin is the founder of MentorU and the Discover Year program. He believes that significant lives are built through character and community development, and he has shared his message with over 13,000 students and professionals to date. Jay helps individuals and teams build effective communication and leadership skills through humanistic counselling and positive psychology interventions.


Statistics Canada, Youth in Transition Survey (YITS). 2011.