How Should I Spend my Gap Year?

By School House

7 years ago

Has the gap year had its day or evolved to rise again from the ashes? James Barton finds out...

Are you deciding whether to take a year out or not? You might want to consider the pros and cons first. 

Ask an ageing gappy about their year off from academic studies during the ’80s or ’90s and they would have given you a very different definition of a gap year to a millennial traveller. Back then, the idea was to finish A-levels, then sling everything into a rucksack and set off to learn about the world, and yourself, along the way.

Gap Year Pros and Cons

Hikes in university tuition fees, student loans, travel safety, world security, and career considerations in a much more competitive job market have changed the gap year, and caused its popularity to fluctuate. The recession and a concurrent rise in tuition fees nearly destroyed it eight or nine years ago. But it’s currently riding high again, albeit with a somewhat different feel.

Gap year companies have adapted to the market demand for more productive experiences found in a more secure environment. The are no longer taken for granted and the motivation for taking one needs to be much more comprehensible than before. Welcome to the era of the more conservative gap year student.

Why take a gap year?

Around 230,000 young adults aged 18 to 25 will take time out this year but they will do well to consider their motivation before booking their vaccinations. It is imperative to know why you are taking a gap year. God forbid you return without something to show for it on the all-important CV. Or, at worst, without an explanation for a year away from work. Thankfully, it still seems acceptable to return with the time-honoured excuse of time to decide what you want to do.

Many ask whether it might be more canny to get straight into the jobs’ market after school. Especially as statistics suggest that most people will change careers at least once, hence raising the question of whether they couldn’t take time out later to travel when they are older, wiser and have a little more money?

The University of Bath puts the ball in the student’s court in a recent article on the pros and cons published on its website, stating, ‘The decision of whether to take a gap year is an individual one’.

School leaver Nicola defends her decision to take a gap year:

‘With tuition fees rising year on year, the argument is not about whether we should be delaying going into the real world, but rather whether university is worth the investment required for three years. However, by taking a gap year I gave myself the time and space to think about the answer to that question, and it was life-changing.’

The maturity accumulated through her experiences abroad helped her make the decision to eschew university in favour of getting straight onto the career ladder, an increasingly attractive option these days.

Gap year pros

Putting aside the issue of whether or not going to university is the right path, the gap year does offer students the opportunity to take time out, grow up. As such, it is approached positively by many universities and future employers. ‘Taking a gap year gives you a rare opportunity to enjoy new experiences and learn new skills,’ says a spokesperson for UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), which extolls the virtues of the gap year. ‘Many employers and universities will look favourably on applicants who have used their year out to gain valuable experience.’

It is widely agreed that for students applying to study medicine, dentistry, veterinary science or engineering, a gap year is in their best interests, because it gives them the opportunity to gain relevant work experience required for such specialist applications.

‘It’s not about the content, but the initiative shown by the student,’ says a medical professor who sits on the admissions panel for UCL. ‘Organised gap years in themselves do not necessarily indicate a self-starter.’ He is looking for the student who stands out from the crowd and how the applicant uses their gap year will help highlight this.

James Catterall, manager at Gap Force, which organises bespoke gap year courses, concurs:

‘The rise in students achieving top grades means that universities and employers can afford to be more selective and are increasingly looking for candidates who bring something different to the table. Employers say they want more than just grades. They seek a confident and motivated applicant, equipped with life skills, who can work positively in any environment.’

There are other advantages to taking a gap year too. For a student with poor results in their AS, there is something to be said for waiting to apply when their results have come through. As the University of Edinburgh states, ‘Please note that competition for places is extremely high and applicants who apply during their year out with qualifications achieved, may be in a stronger position than those who apply for deferred entry with predicted grades.’

Gap year cons

A gap year can be expensive, it takes time out from study to organise. Without focus, it can cause lethargy, complacency and demotivation, making it harder to get back into studies in a year’s time. Some suggest it is less than impressive to would-be employers.

Some admissions tutors do not look favourably on gap years as students can forget the knowledge or skills that are essential to studying their subject. As one admissions tutor put it, ‘by all means undertake a gap year. But for mathematical courses, including physics, you will be expected to prove during the year that you have continued to develop your skills which, from experience, we know can so quickly diminish over a prolonged period of inactivity.’

So with such differing viewpoints, it is no wonder that students have ditched the carefree attitudes of old and are approaching their gap year planning with a somewhat more conservative attitude, even searching for ways of having the ‘gap year experience’ without actually taking the 12 months out.

But sensible employers might do well to heed the words of Sarah, an HR business partner for a leading financial services company in the City, who gave a very different slant to the above when asked the same question. ‘No, they don’t improve employability,’ she said but, perhaps more pertinently, she contends that ‘[they] do reduce the risk of losing candidates early in their careers.’ Which is perhaps the best point of all: ‘take a gap year if it helps to satisfy that itch before starting down the career line.’

Gap Year programs

There has never been more variety or, indeed, more opportunity to explore diverse experiences than there is for students leaving school today, from charity work to pursuing foreign adventures.

Many of these experiences can be sandwiched into three months, between the first and second, or second and third year of university. The ‘mini-gap’, as it has been called, suits those resistant to the idea of taking so much time out from studies and who have an eye on the job market. It is taken either after re-sitting exams, after university or, more commonly, during one of the university’s lengthy holidays.

Gap Year Pros

Set up by John Hall in 1965, this cultural program is now primarily run by his son, Charlie, and encourages students from all subjects who want to discuss ‘a broad sweep of interesting ideas without a syllabus’. The original idea didn’t involve art at all; it was set up for Oxbridge students to study subjects such as Greek philosophy and history in preparation for university. ‘Now it’s often called a cultural finishing school,’ says Hall of the course, which takes place for nine weeks in London, Venice, Florence and Rome.

2017 marks the first year of the company’s summer program. With access to some of the world’s best collections, events and a host of international experts, the course is perfect for those planning to study history of art at university, or for those who want to immerse themselves for 21 days in an amazing city. Not only are there specialist lectures, there will be trips to churches and galleries, with options to take up Italian cookery, photography and painting classes.

Variety is at the core of The Leaps gap year philosophy with a wide choice of locations and different projects available in any chosen country. With eight to 15 members on each programme, volunteers are always in good company. The UK support team works 24/7 and has been working with the in-country project leaders for many years.

One choice for this summer includes Madagascar with forest conservation, island hopping on a 50-foot catamaran and teaching English in remote villages.

A cultural exchange programme that hires students to look after children in the states. School leavers are given the chance to spend their summer living and working on a summer camp in the USA. After the camp placement ends, teachers have the added bonus of being able to travel for up to 30 days around the country.

Fundraises for various causes in the UK. The list is extensive but, crucially, it is varied and the movement has progressed from fearless adventure to careful pragmatism.

Students spend six weeks travelling through Italy, having tutorials in groups of ten or less in front of paintings in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or on a private visit to St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. ‘It might not be the most obvious thing but, to use an American phrase, cultural capital is really useful,’ says director Nick Ross. ‘If a young person can talk about culture, they stick out like a gilded thumb to a potential employer.’

If you’re looking to combine work and play in the summer break between school and university, then Real Gap Experience has some options. Embark on its Ultimate Australia Mini Gap for outback ranch training (which guarantees you a paid job offer at the end), learn to surf, tour the East Coast of Australia from Sydney to Cairns, and do a scuba course on the Great Barrier Reef. You will be part of a group throughout the entire trip so a social life is guaranteed and the trip is completely flexible and can be tailored to your dates and desires.

READ MORE: Five Steps to Planning the Perfect Gap Year/ How to Travel Safe on a Gap Year