By Mina Todosijevic

University of Toronto  graduates celebrate their convocation.

Photo courtesy U of T Digital Media Bank/Ken Jones

The notion of a fifth year is entertained by most students at some point in their university careers. Whether to take a year off to travel or work, to add in a co-op placement or a semester abroad, or to catch up on credits or grades, extending a “four-year” undergraduate degree is a popular decision.

Time reports that less than 40% of students follow the traditional four-year timeline. You are most definitely not alone in choosing to extend your undergraduate years.

One of the big obstacles to deciding to take a fifth year is the fact that most of us set into university with the intention of completing the degree in four years. Despite the greater variety of opportunities that extending our degrees can afford us, sometimes it’s difficult to get out of the mindset that a variation on our four-year plan means we did not attain our goal.

In reality, students often find it difficult to make changes to their program of study without slipping on a few required courses. Juggling several majors/minors or switching your major after second year all create a crunch for time to fill in prerequisites. Having a plan for where you want to go from the beginning of your undergrad helps with this, but at the end of the day, university is a time for exploration and learning, and it’s important to not feel too constrained by your plan.

In the long term, some students find a fifth year helpful in terms of graduate school applications. Having a year to focus on getting into graduate school allows you the opportunity to take a few classes to bring up your GPA, give the LSAT/MCAT/GRE all your attention and gain some lab/research assistant experience, all of which make your application more competitive.

Finally, if you’re in the same boat as me, you may just be short on credits and end up having no choice but to do a fifth year. In the question of quantity versus quality, it might be worth sacrificing your desire to finish school faster if it means you’ve done your absolute best in the courses you did take.

If you’re committed to completing your degree in four years, that’s great. However, if you’re considering taking—or have to take—a fifth year, that’s okay, too. At the end of the day, it’s important to give yourself the time you need to do what you want with your degree. There is a push to get universities and high schools to acknowledge that the four-year degree is becoming an obsolete idea. Getting yourself out of the mindset that an undergraduate degree is a four-year degree can hopefully push you to explore options that can enrich your university experience.