Taking a gap year
The Pros: Get work experience, get life experience, get cash.
The Cons: A year’s delay, getting back into study mode.
Why do students consider taking a year off? They're only young once, so why waste time not getting on with life? Why don't they just get a degree, get a job and get an income? Why don't they choose life, choose a pension plan, choose 2.4 kids, a Tesco loyalty card and a 34-inch telly with surround sound and a boob-job thrown in? Why don't they take the short cut and just coat themselves in compost and rot?
Why? Because it's more fun to spend a year getting up to the kind of thing they can only do when they've got the youth and the opportunity, when they haven't got kids and when slumming it round the Amazon basin doesn't leave bits of mosquito in their dentures.
But it's not all fun and opportunity-seizing, there are real practical advantages too. Far from the old view that time out is worthless bumming around, a constructive year off is now an immense asset in the competitive job market.
An extended CV is better than a brown envelope stuffed with used fifties when it comes to sending out job applications. Students who've taken a year out or spent their long vacations broadening their horizons have got more to offer to a potential employer. They stand out from the crowd at every opportunity and not just because they smell funny. It won't get them a position for which they're not qualified, but all things being equal, it helps.
With little or no real work experience, employers will have to make judgements based on qualifications and nobody's fooled for a moment into thinking that a degree in politics or an A level in physics is relevant to a career in marketing, management or merchant banking. If they can find something to pick a student out from the rest of the pack, they'll home in like missiles over Baghdad. Many employers even discriminate against students who spent long summer vacations living with their parents, staying in bed and watching Teletubbies.
Another reason some students take a year out is simply to work and store up a bit of cash to see them through university. There are very few ways to avoid being in debt after graduation, but one of them is to have cash before you start. NUS estimates that the current average student debt on graduation is around £13,000. You might not be able to stash that sort of money away in one year before college, but you could make a dent.
But during a year out, time can be even more valuable than money. Even if money's tight, with time, you can always find a way to get away or get up to something worthwhile. Time is necessary – money isn't. Even a bout of globe-trotting doesn't have to cost the earth. It's all too easy to think cash is needed for a good time and so students sit around waiting for a job that doesn't turn up. They'd be better off using that waiting time to get out of the rut and out of the country.
Of course, some ventures do require money – for example, at least a grand up front would be needed for a six-month expedition across Africa. But there are also ways of getting overseas for less than £100, such as crewing on a yacht to the Caribbean, being a youth leader at an American summer camp or picking fruit on a kibbutz in Israel. One thing leads to another and other opportunities open up. Travel breeds confidence, which breeds success.
If you plan to work and travel overseas, it's worth pausing to consider aims and objectives. To promote the environment? To conserve wildlife? To make some money? Or simply have a unique experience, filled with self-discovery? These things are all very well, but never forget the fun factor.
You shouldn't worry about what you think you should do – you should do what you really want to. Time out doesn't have to be politically correct – a year spent ski bumming in Switzerland is not inferior to one spent helping orphans in India or saving a rainforest in South East Asia.
Whatever you end up doing – even if you eventually decide to stay at home and get work experience (or re-sit exams) – you shouldn't expect non-stop action. You're unlikely to complete a trans-Africa expedition without getting stomach problems, very unlikely to sail across the Atlantic without getting sea-sick and there's no chance of going to Australia without getting hungover. But new friends, knowledge, self-confidence and experience will make the sacrifices worthwhile.
When, after a year out, a student becomes a fresher, you can always tell they're not straight from school. They're the ones for whom new challenges are not quite such a fresh experience. Or maybe they’re just the insufferably smug ones.
FUQs (Frequently Unasked Questions)
Do I have to apply to university before my gap year?
You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea for several reasons.
First off, it means you don’t have to worry about attending an interview at Bognor Regis University, when you’re more concerned with keeping your kayak afloat on the upper reaches of the Limpopo.
Secondly, if you don’t get a place that suits you first time round, taking a year out gives you a second bite at the cherry. But not if you didn’t take the first bite earlier.
Do I need to tell the universities that I intend to take a gap year?
In theory, you should. There’s a box on the UCAS form in which you should pop a big tick in the 'defer' column to delay your entry for a year, ie. if you’re applying for the year after next.
Having said that, it’s far from unknown for applicants to apply for the next year, then, once they’ve got their place, they tell the university they’ve changed their mind and now want to take a gap year.
Most universities, if they were willing to offer you place to start with, won’t feel any different about it the following year, but some say you should reapply anyway. Occasionally, they decide they don’t like being messed about and will turn you down, but that’s only likely to happen with the most uptight places and there are plenty of others that’ll take a more pragmatic attitude. But in any case, they’re under no obligation to hold your place for you if you haven’t told them.
Obviously, if you’re already on a gap year, it’ll be clear from other parts of your UCAS form that that’s what you’re up to and you should do the 'defer' thing.
My results weren’t good enough, should I take a gap year and reapply or try to get in through Clearing?
Let’s say you’ve missed your grades and phoned the university department to try to haggle with them based on whatever you did get. They still won’t take you. If your first reaction is, ‘Okay, Clearing’, then take a chill, Bill, not so fast.
What’s the hurry? What is it that makes going to university in the next few weeks so important that you’re willing to snap up some vacancy that the university couldn’t find anyone else to fill? Because that’s what Clearing is and you may well not like what you end up with.
Unless you’ve got some desperate reason why you have to start this year (such as, er, you stand to inherit a million quid so long as you’ve completed a degree in sheep breeding by your twenty-first birthday), taking a gap year is a sound alternative.
Not only are there all the benefits of a year out, but also, once you’ve got your grades – however bad they may be – you no longer an unknown quantity to the universities. You can be a bum on a seat. Which, to them, means money in the bank. Often they’ll give places to people with lower grades than they would offer to people who are yet to get them.
And if your grades really suck, you could always spend all or part of your year out retaking.
What do universities think of gap years?
Most universities reckon if you’ve had a year out, you’ll have a more responsible attitude towards work and you’ll be better able to look after yourself. In other words, you’re less trouble for them.
There are a few strange places that won’t accept deferred entries. In these cases, simply don’t bother mentioning you plan a year out and when they offer you a place, ask them how they would feel if you deferred a year. Some will says it’s fine because they can fill their courses in advance. The rest will ask you to reapply, but the fact that they’ve offered you a place before will probably work in your favour.
So what’s the downside of a gap year?
First, it’s another year out before you can start earning, career building and sitting in offices bitching about one another. But so what? As long as the time out isn’t wasted.
Also, it may be hard to get back into a studying frame of mind. But that will only last a few weeks. It’s all habit.
In fact, some students find they come back to studying with all the renewed enthusiasm of someone who never realised how much they liked Eastenders till the day the telly blew up.
What can I do in a year?
Jeez, what can’t you do? Well, take a degree, but that’s about it.
Just be sure not to waste the time. Apart from travelling and office-based work experience, how about these?
- Working with kids, the elderly, the sick or people who can’t stop humming
- Au pair-ing
- Community or charity work
- Teaching English as a foreign language abroad
- Voluntary work
- Writing your novel
- Re-taking your exams
- An art foundation course
- Saving cash
- Starting a business
- Learning a language
- Trying to break the world record for domino toppling
- Re-applying to find a better university.
Or anything that appeals to you so long as it’s constructive and bolsters your CV. Try taking a look at www.gapyear.com.
What are working Holidays?
While working holidays might sound like a contradiction in terms, they can be a good way to spend your gap year. Organisations like BUNAC can be useful in finding you work abroad.
This is a chance to experience the culture of another country from the inside, instead of as a passing tourist.
The other benefit is that you’ll be earning money which should help pay for the whole thing. Whether you want to go for an extended summer or a whole year, there are plenty of options.
A downside worth thinking about is the type of work you might have to do, so if the programmes they have on offer don’t appeal to you from a working point of view, things might be a little less happy than you imagined. As always, Push recommends that you do your research (but that’s ‘cause research gives us an almost sexual thrill).
Where can I find out about voluntary work?
Gap Activity Projects offers structured work placements and voluntary work. This ranges from helping in AIDS and leprosy clinics to conservation projects across the globe.
They also offer TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language] placements in nearly 20 countries. It’s a good way to brush up your own language skills, and with a proper qualification you can do it anywhere you like, sometimes making money along the way, anytime in your life.
Is a Gap Year just a way of delaying the inevitable?
It’s not a good idea to use a year off as an excuse not to go to university. If you don’t want to go, don’t. You can always apply later on in life as a mature student. A gap year should be used constructively and not as an excuse, but it is just about your best chance in life to take a break.