What To Do If You Want To Take A Semester Off

For some, having to leave college for a semester seems like the end of the world. There seems to be a taboo surrounding taking time off: the idea that you won’t return, that you’ll be too behind to continue on with your academic program. But there's a myriad of reasons that students decide to take a semester off, and it's completely doable if you take the right steps to make the transition out of and back into school as easy and seamless as possible. Of course, it's still a huge decision, one that warrants a lot of thought and planning. 

“Taking a semester off was probably one of the more difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make, just because there are so many social implications around being a ‘drop-out,’ but it ended up being the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for myself,” says Ray Connelly-Gonzalez, a sophomore at Chapman University. “Making the choice to work on yourself is the bravest and strongest thing you can do. I think taking the time off for yourself to grow, rediscover yourself, let yourself heal, or whatever you need to do is absolutely valid and if it’s something you’re even considering, it’s probably the right choice.” Putting yourself and your health first is always more important than your studies, and you should never feel ashamed of that.

With that being said, here are some steps you should take if you want to take a semester off. 

Talk to a school official

If you're planning on coming back to the same university, it's crucial that you talk to someone at your school to find out what the process is for a leave of absence. A good place to start is your academic advisor; they'll be able to point you in the right direction and figure out your next steps. Most colleges also have a dean of students or even a dean for a particular class year who can help with this exact situation. Talk to school officials to find out the exact steps you have to take to make the transition as painless as possible.

Talk to the financial aid office 

As we all know, college is expensive AF, and you have to be careful and pay attention to how taking a leave of absence is going to affect any scholarships or loans you have. Your financial aid may be tied to a contingency that you complete your semesters one after another. Talk to the financial aid office to find out what the process is like and how to transfer any financial aid, scholarships, and loans you are getting.

Have a plan, but don't push yourself too far

A lot of people are going to question your decision to take a semester off. Whether it be friends at school, professors or family members, the people who care about you are going to worry that you’re getting off track and most likely question your decision. Having a concrete plan, even if it’s just for the next couple of weeks, will placate some naysayers and hopefully give you some peace of mind.

That being said, don’t feel like you need to have the next six months of your life meticulously planned out to the minute. Yes, it’s important to know what you plan to spend your time away from school doing. But planning each and every second is unrealistic and will likely leave you feeling anxious and drained.

“My advice for someone else would be to really focus on what you need and what you need only. If you need to do absolutely nothing for a semester and that’s your way of rest or making sense of things, do it,” says Ray. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about that because they aren’t you. If you want to work or try lots of different things and use it as an exploratory time, do it. There aren’t many opportunities in life where we get to solely focus on ourselves and our personal needs, so really take advantage of the free time and do what’s going to be most beneficial for you and you only.” Try setting a list of concrete, limited goals to accomplish over the time you’re away from school and establish a routine that will help keep you calm and on track.

Related: 6 Ways You're Unintentionally Making Your Anxiety Worse 

Decide if you want to return to your current school or transfer to a new one

Usually, when transferring schools, most people decide to go straight from one semester at one school to the next semester at a new school. But going through the transfer process while taking a semester off altogether is another way to go, and it may help you get a handle on the transfer process without making you want to lose your mind.

“I ended up taking the second semester of my freshman year off for a variety of reasons. My anxiety over the course of the year was getting worse and worse which was really distracting from my school work, and I realized the university I was at was not fitting my educational goals or career needs,” says Ray. “I decided that instead of spending the money on a semester of college I wasn’t thrilled about, I would take a Leave of Absence and use the time to explore other interests and focus on my mental health.” Taking a semester off while you figure out your transfer process will take some pressure off so you’re not filling out applications on top of trying to keep up with school work.

If you have the time and the ability, get a job

Obviously, if you're taking a semester off for health reasons, getting a job isn't going to be a plausible options. After all, you're absolutely not expected to work the entire time your away from school (it’s called taking a semester off for a reason). But if you’re leaving school to focus on a transfer process, picking up a part-time job is a great way to save up money. Whether it takes some of the pressure off of paying for your next semester or just gives you a little extra pocket money, having a couple of shifts once or twice a week will give you a reason to leave the house and help you feel like you’re accomplishing something.

Figure out your return plan

After being away from school for a whole semester, planning your return is bound to seem endless and daunting. You’ll have to do everything you would be doing if you were on campus—planning your housing, class schedule, extra-curriculars—on top of all the actions necessary in order to re-enroll. Every school has a different process and set of boxes to tick off, so figure out what those are as early as you can. Having a set plan will motivate you to actually follow through with the return process. If you’re planning on transferring to another school, take an official leave of absence from your current school. That ensures that you still have a place to return if your transfer process doesn’t work out.

Making a return plan also requires being sure that you’re ready to return to school. If you’re taking off a semester for your health, you want to know that you truly have taken enough time off to heal and that you are completely ready to reintegrate yourself back into an academic setting.“I got a job, made lots of art, tried out a bunch of new things, and started therapy, which ended up being the most transformative thing,” says Ray. “It allowed me to refocus and feel out what I’m really looking for in my future and gave me the time I needed to heal.” Go to therapy, try a new treatment plan if your old one isn’t working, and give yourself a chance to slow down and heal.

You're not going to have an "ah-ha" moment where you feel completely healed and ready to reintegrate; it's okay to admit to yourself that you need more time and more professional help. These big decisions take a lot of soul searching, because there's nothing quite as all-encompassing and overwhelming as college. College students these days are facing an unprecedented amount of pressure and stress, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling like you need to take a break from all that pressure. Don’t let the social implications of “dropping out” stop you from taking a semester off. Take it one day at a time and surround yourself with people who will love and support you through every choice you make.