Give Yourself a Break – Taking Time Off from College or Grad School

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You slaved over SATs or GREs. You stressed over letters of recommendations, dorm room arrangements, term papers and group projects. You’ve been in school for months or maybe years, and burnout is seeping in. You’ve hit a stumbling block -a looming thesis, a financial crisis or an emotional meltdown, and you need a break. But does taking a hiatus from your education really throwing it all away?

Luckily, more students than ever are deciding to take a hiatus from their college or graduate school careers. Once seen as the realm of slackers or failures, the stigma of “taking a break” has eroded as the community takes a more serious look at students’ mental health. Far from being the death knell of your educational career, your job prospects or your life, taking a break from school can open doors you never thought existed – and clear the way for a more productive and constructive educational experience.

Should I Go?

If you’ve considered taking a leave of absence, the first step is to get serious and ask yourself a few questions about the nature of your discontentment. Why are you considering leaving? Is this merely a matter of finals stress or a serious issue? Take stock of your situation. Are your grades suffering because of an unexpected setback? Are you unhappy with a particular course or professor? What is your living situation like? Have you made a good effort to mediate the stress that inevitably comes with school?

Try to specify what the problem is, how it affects you, and whether it can realistically be solved. Can you get tutoring or other assistance? Can you switch majors, classes or dorms? Can you take out a loan to minimize financial pressure? If such changes can’t be made, it might be time to consider a leave of absence.

How Do I Do It?

Every school’s policy on deferred studies and leaves of absence is different. Check with an advisor or professor about your school’s policy. Most schools offer more than one option, with the possibility of taking anywhere from a semester to several years off. Or you may decide that transferring schools is the best option – once again, check with an advisor about policies for transferring students.

Breaking The News

The choice to take time off from school might be very unpopular with your parents and friends. When breaking the news, try to use neutral language and remain as calm and adult as possible. If you’re making this decision without the support of your family, enlist other people in your life to fill the gap and encourage you through this confusing time. If you’ve really done some soul-searching, you’ll know you’re making the right decision for you. Just acknowledge that it might not be compatible with the expectations and wishes of others.

What Now?

Taking time off of school presents two issues – the short and long term. Make sure that you have clearly defined goals for your time off, whether you choose to travel, work or relax, and that you have thought about your possible re-entry into your studies. How long do you envision your break lasting? What do you want to spend your free time accomplishing? A break from school is a great time to get in some international travel, work at an interesting internship or job in another field, or even do some temp work and begin a savings. Sometimes a change in location is all you need to help redefine your personal goals and aspirations, but going home might be just what you need to regroup and recharge. This is your time – make good use of it.

Whatever you choose for your time off, make sure that your emotional and mental needs are being supported. Be prepared for a period of confusion, resentment and discomfort as you make this transition and prepare for the ones ahead. A committed group of friends and contact with advisors who encourage and support you is key for your time off. These contacts can also keep you motivated and on track for your return to school.

Going Back

Whether your break was one semester or several years, returning to school after a break can be daunting. Remind yourself that you’re not required to answer for your choices to anyone but yourself and surround yourself with supportive friends who understand the hard transition you’re about to undertake. It may not be smooth, but with time and perseverance you can make a successful transition back to school – with the knowledge that you made a decision that was right for you.

A break from your education won’t necessarily solve all of your problems, but it can give you the space you need to reorient yourself around your educational goals. With a clear purpose and a little help from your friends, you can survive a break from school – and run into invaluable experiences and opportunities along the way.

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