Taking a Gap Year

Why take a gap year?

There are all sorts of reasons why people who have got their mind set on going to university in the next couple of years opt to spend a year outside of education before resuming studies as an undergraduate. Some people take one because they’d like a bit of mental breathing space from the pressures of study. Others have a specific idea for an adventure they’d like to embark on. And some simply want to use that time to save up a bit of money or because they didn’t get the offers they were hoping for.

With so many different possible reasons to delay going to university to do something else, it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s something that thousands of students opt for each year. In fact, it’s become so popular that for a good few decades now it has had its own special name: the gap year. As this title implies, it’s a set period that fills the space in between leaving school and going to university, as opposed to being an open-ended thing.

Summer time

And being a period with a strict time limit of one year, the gap year is something that shouldn’t–but sadly all too often can–be wasted by those who choose to do one. For all the many stories you hear of people who tasted life on five different continents, helped build an orphanage or completed a prestigious internship, there are just as many gap-year stories that go untold of unsatisfying jobs in supermarkets and vague hopes of travelling that never come to fruition. And after the people who fall into this category have got over the excitement of the first days at uni the following year, very often they soon realise that they just wasted an opportunity that they might not have again.

Whatever the reason that has led you to decide to take a gap year, it’s important to make sure you create a plan so that you use that precious time wisely. But when you are making this plan–hopefully with the help of this guide–do bear in mind that it’s you and you alone who controls the definition of ‘wisely’. So long as you commit to doing what you want to do, whatever that may be, your time has more than likely been well spent.

Getting inspiration

Although many people plump for a gap year because they have a specific idea in mind, it’s certainly not unusual for people to not have any set ideas, especially if they take one because they didn’t get the results they needed to get into uni or didn’t get any offers. If this applies to you, the best thing to do is get some inspiration and advice from those who’ve been there and done it.

In an ideal world you’ll have friends, friends of friends or relatives who you can sit down with and discuss their own gap-year experience. Doing this is as much a great way to learn mistakes to avoid as it is to get inspiration. Some people, for example, find that they didn’t do enough research into where they would go travelling, or did voluntary work on a scheme that wasn’t what they hoped it would be. Any mistakes they’ve made are ones you can avoid, just as any great experiences they had are ones you could enjoy yourself.

The internet and your gap year

But your inspiration and ideas for a gap year don’t have to come from people you know. As with virtually anything, the Internet is a great place to be able to learn about people’s gap-year adventures and experiences, whether it’s through reading forums, blogs or the sites of organisations that run gap-year schemes. Just make sure you read everything with a critical eye rather than blindly accepting it all as truth. Don’t be put off visiting a particular country, for example, just because one person had a terrible experience there. And by the same token don’t believe all of the superlatives you’ll find in the marketing for gap-year packages.

A final thought on people to contact regarding a gap year is the admissions tutors for the courses you plan on applying for. This isn’t necessary in many cases, but if you are going to apply for a course that needs specific work or voluntary experience that you plan on getting during your gap year, these are the best people to provide you with guidance on organising it.

Possible gap-year options

If you’ve still not managed to pick up any concrete ideas after talking things over with people or having a nose around on the Internet, why not try one of these ideas as a template from which to tailor your own gap-year plan?

Template one: Work followed by travel

This is a tried-and-tested gap-year path, and a solid option if you don’t need to use your gap year to get any form of professional experience. Simply divide your year up into two parts (how big each portion is is down to you): spend the first part working full-time–any job will do, but obviously the more highly paid the better!–and then the second part travelling abroad, which you can pay for with the money you’ve saved up while working.

The beauty of this template is you don’t need to choose where you travel to that far in advance, and you can enjoy the process of leafing through brochures and travel guides while you’re doing the work part of the year. It is wise, however, that you pick a time at which to start travelling and more or less stick to it. People who don’t do this often find they never get round to the travelling part, unless you count a two-week holiday in Greece just before you go off to uni as a gap-year adventure!

Template Two: a ‘proper’ job

Well, a job within an industry that interests you, at least. Obviously you’re unlikely to be doing a stint as the CEO of a bank before you pop off to university! But even being around the workplace of an organisation that does something that appeals to you will give you a great chance to learn more about what life in that area is really like.

Now, there’s two ways you can get such a position. The first is apply for a specific internship scheme in advance, or even write speculative letters to companies asking for an extended work placement during your gap year. Alternatively–and this is more likely if your gap year is a last-minute thing–you contact recruitment agencies in that sector at the start of your gap year, making your objectives clear to them. It might take a bit of time, but within a few months you could be experiencing life in a busy law firm or working at the reception desk of an architecture firm.

Template Three: a year-long work or volunteering experience abroad

In many ways this is a mixture of bits of templates one and two, depending on how you approach things. You might try and get an internship abroad in a work sector that interests you; or you could simply do a job to pay the bills and save up a bit of cash for an adventure in another country. Many of the countries in the Commonwealth, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, offer year-long work permits to people on gap years. And whichever way you look at it, even working in a supermarket or a call centre would be a lot more exciting if you’re also living in Melbourne or Toronto rather than stuck at home with your parents.

Doing a voluntary project abroad is also a possibility. The big plus side of this is that it’s likely to be more satisfying than an ordinary job, though the downside is you’ll need to have funds to live off before you go. Still unsure about what to do? Don’t worry, so are many, many other people that take gap years. Great gap-year ideas can’t be plucked out of the air; they require careful research. But as a final though, consider this: even if you can’t decide which is the best of several different options, surely biting the bullet and committing to just one of them will be infinitely more rewarding than succumbing to indecision and ultimately doing nothing.