Whether you've already got a route mapped out or you're still dodging disapproving looks across the dining table, Push can help you plan out your gap year and make it beneficial as well as fun.
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 Clubcard and a 50-inch TV with surround sound and a boob-job thrown in?
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 can flash polaroids of themselves hugging baby elephants in Sri Lanka. 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 be all over it like a rash. Many employers even discriminate against students who spent long summer vacations living with their parents, staying in bed and bingeing Netflix.
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 having cash before you start is never a bad thing. The Financial Times estimates that the current average student debt on graduation is around £44,000, a whopping £28k more than the average from 5 years ago. Unless you’re interning with the Wolf of Wall Street, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stash that sort of money away in one year before college. Having savings behind you when you start uni, however, might mean the difference between affording the occasional meal out and some decent takeaways, and a strict lifestyle of 10p budget noodles and scurvy.
Money is an important factor for many, but during a year out, time can be even more valuable. 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.
FILLING THE GAP
Rather than work when you’re busy studying as a student, there’s always the possibility of taking some time out to work before you start university. There may be consequences however – the biggest of which is that you get hooked on the idea of having an income and decide that you don’t want to go back to education.
Alternatively, you may develop expensive tastes in the meantime – or if not exactly expensive, they may be more along the lines of premium brand over own brand. Something you'll need to get used to if you want to stay solvent as a student.
The other potential pitfall is that you spend all year working in order to make life more comfortable as a student, yet you don’t end up saving anything. Or worse, you actually get a head start in the debt race. What a waste of a gap year that would be.
If you’re going to spend the year saving, then save. If not, make the most of it. Travel the world, take tons of photos and maybe work on saving the planet while you're at it – just make sure you don’t get into debt before you start.
It is, of course, possible to travel while you save. Just about. Find yourself a cushy job somewhere exotic, then go have a whale of a time and come back tanned and flush.
Meanwhile, back in Blighty, there are plenty of year-out programmes that offer work, experience and even, sometimes, the possibility of earning a few crisp notes.
For example, there is an organisation called The Year in Industry that places gap year students with companies all over the UK, in jobs usually paying about £8,000-£15,000 for the year. Getting a temporary placement through this scheme can be a bit of a door-opener and may give you sound business awareness, confidence and practical skills before you even start your university course. Regional centres for The Year in Industry are all over the place, and schools and colleges usually know about these.
There are specialist organisations tailored for adventurous students interested in art, science, conservation projects, amateur dramatics, sporting activities, wilderness exploration and teaching. As well as larger organisations that arrange general gappy-type packages - just about anything that floats your canoe.
10 THINGS TO TRY ON A GAP YEAR
- Volunteer to build schools in the Himalayas (i-to-i.com)
- Travel in a truck from across the Andes and Amazonia (oasisoverland.co.uk)
- Get unpaid work experience at the BBC (gap-year.com)
- Study art history in Italy (arthistoryabroad.com)
- Conserve sea turtles in Costa Rica (realgap.co.uk)
- Develop communities by teaching deprived children in India (frontier.ac.uk)
- Go on a trans-Mongolian Adventure (madventurer.com)
- Work with kids at Robinwood Activity Centres in the UK (Gapwork.com)
- Stretch your skills by becoming a South African park ranger (gapyear.com)
- Try a placement in archaeology in Romania (projects-abroad.co.uk)
BUDGETING FOR A GAP YEAR
It’s important to have a budget and stick to it. The main costs are:
The gap year activity: If you’re joining a project, there’s usually a fee to whoever’s providing it. Even if you’re a ‘volunteer’, you’re often expected to pay.
Living expenses: Your fee might include accommodation, maybe even some meals, but clothes? Drinks? Deeply unlikely.
THE COSTS OF A GAP YEAR
Around a quarter of students take a year out before university. It’s less common to do it afterwards, but in both cases, the graph is heading north. Each year about 250,000 people under 25 go on a gap.
It’s true that many gap year activities cost hundreds, indeed thousands, of pounds. Some only last a few weeks – or days even. It wouldn’t be hard to find yourself the wrong side of £20k after some time with orangutans in Borneo, snowboarding in Denver and going transcontinental on the Orient Express.
That, however, is not what most people do. An expensive project may be part of the equation, but there are cheaper options. A round-the-world plane ticket is about £1,000. If you pick up bar work, fruit-picking, even office temping en route, it may be possible to spend the year far more cheaply than your final year at uni.
Meanwhile, so long as you’re not earning more than £15k in the year, you won’t have to start paying back any Government student loans. Banks, however, may not be so patient about overdrafts though, although most have some kind of slow repayment scheme for graduates.
Although you can buy off-the-shelf gap years, you can create your own. So they cost whatever you decide to spend. There are those that are effectively holiday packages, often to exotic places. Then there are others – like teaching if you have a TEFL certificate – where the year might not only pay for itself, you’ll also be able to save.
And at the end, what do you have to show for it? A Government report in 2004 found that employers valued the skills gappers gained. That means you may be more likely to get a job or get a higher paid one as a result of your gap. It’s an investment.
10 GAP YEAR TIPS
- Get legal: You’ll need a passport that’s valid for at least six months after you’re due home. And fill in the next of kin bit. You may need visas too and they can take months to come through, so get in there early.
- Get vaccinated: Visit the doc at least 6 weeks before travelling to get any shots you need. Keep prescribed medicines to hand and have details of any conditions you have, ideally in the local language.
- Get covered: Get insurance which covers travel plans, medical care, flying you home in an emergency and includes any special activities you might be trying (bungee jumping, white water rafting). Mind the Gap Year are a company that specialise in gap year insurance.
- Get connected: Set up an email account you can access on the go. Email yourself copies of your travel documents, itinerary, insurance, emergency phone numbers, etc. in case they get lost or stolen.
- Get intelligence: Get local knowledge of where you’re going, its customs and laws – a travel guide would be a good start.
- Get a friend: Find someone you trust back home. Give them photocopies of all your documents and access to your email. Even give them power of attorney over your bank account while you’re away, in case bills need paying or money needs to be transferred. Stay in touch while you travel.
- Get money: Take either enough money in a secure form, or take a means to get it (e.g. credit card or prepaid currency cards). ‘Enough’ means having a realistic budget of what you’ll need to live on. Don’t assume there’ll be an ATM on every corner in the jungle.
- Get a room: Even if you never book another room in advance, book at least your first night’s accommodation before you go. When you arrive, you’ll be whacked out, a bit unsure and juicy meat to scamsters for whom your passport may be worth a year’s salary.
- Get aware: Stay alert to your surroundings, especially at night, and act on feelings of unease to do what’s needed to avoid those situations.
- Get sober: Being drunk or drugged up makes you more vulnerable to accidents or getting ripped off. And it may provide a get-out for your insurance. So know your limits and the local law.
STAYING SAFE ON A GAP YEAR
Part of the point of a gap year is to get out of your comfort zone. By definition, that can open you up to danger, and in recent years there’s been mounting concern that some ‘appers are so busy embracing new challenges, they forget the old habits and self-preservation.
Common sense is a gapper’s main protection against losing possessions, having them stolen, being ripped off, falling ill, having an accident or generally having a bum trip. But common sense only goes so far and, according to the organisers of the Annual Gap Year Safety Conference, one in three gap year trips is cut short by accidents or crime.
One such accident – a coach crash in Peru – took the life of nineteen-year-old Georgia French, inspiring her parents, Ian and Pat, to set up GapAid, a charity to help gappers wise up before travelling and have access to help while they’re away.
There are also plenty of one-day courses that will leave you better equipped than simply relying on your gut instinct. In the long run, they might save you considerably more and leave you free to hang loose without fear of being left dangling.
GAP YEAR SAFETY COURSES
British Safety Council, britsafe.org (free to people on volunteer projects)
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, i.e. 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 say 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 TV license expired.
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 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
GAP YEAR RESOURCES
If you're aged bewteen 18 and 34 and have a Working Holiday Visa, you can live and work in Australia for a year.
Africa and Asia Venture (AV) has been sending gap year volunteers on gap year projects since 1993. Focusing on teaching projects, community and conservation projects in Africa and Asia.
Work, volunteer and teaching abroad programmes in various countries.
Courses and lots of information and advice on choosing the right teaching course for you.
Not the Will and Grace appreciation society but the starting point to a vacation job in the states.
Charity established to raise awareness of safety issues amongst backpackers and gappers; set up in memory of Caroline Stuttle, who was killed in Australia during her gap year.
Changing Worlds is a small business with charitable aims that provides opportunities for those wanting the challenge of living and working abroad in their gap year.
Concordia International Volunteers is a charity which offers affordable volunteering opportunities all over the world.
Full-time and 'bitesize' weekend voluntary placements in the UK for people aged 16-35.
Dive the Gap can give you invaluable experience and training in the scuba diving field.
Whether travelling for study, pleasure or lucrative arms trafficking purposes, make sure you know about the place you're going to. This site has surprisingly detailed information about some obscure and interesting destinations as well as the big cities. Don’t be put off by the 1990's look...
The Foreign Office for travel advice.
A not-for-profit charity with worldwide schemes for 17-25 year-olds. There's a bursary scheme (for struggles with cash), overseas reps (on hand with the kleenex) and a business partnership (to help you get a job when you get back.)
Independent gap year advice.
Gap year travel advisory charity.
GapGuru is passionate about meeting the needs of gappers whether they want to volunteer abroad, work or simply travel.
Find a working holiday abroad.
A good overall site including specific tips for female travellers.
Foreign Office advice specifically for gappers.
Volunteer abroad on critical conservation and community projects.
An interactive site founded by Action Without Borders. Thousands of volunteering placements are available all over the world.
Gap year placements, projects and courses. Search hundreds of paid and voluntary projects, TEFL and sports courses all in one place. Cheapest travel, accommodation, insurance, destinations - a mouth-watering buffet of information.
Information on gap year travel, volunteer abroad opportunities, TEFL Courses and working abroad as well as alternative spring breaks.
Kiya Survivors is a charity providing a new beginning for Peruvian children and young people, as well as Peru volunteer programmes.
Lattitude Global Volunteering, formerly Gap Activity Projects, is the original gap yar charity specialising in volunteering for 17-25-year-olds.
Medical Advisory Services for Travellers Abroad.
Specialist insurance, document protection and other safe travel services.
The knitty-gritty of studying abroad can be very difficult to get your head around. It's one thing to order your EHIC, but finding out how doctors, bank accounts or local property rental laws work can be as tricky as a tricky thing. Monetos provides a good guide to these headaches.
Nonstop Adventure specialises in gap years and holidays with a difference.
Specialises in trips to Africa, South America, Egypt and Peru.
Operation Wallacea offers scientific Conservation Expeditions to Indonesia, Honduras, Egypt, Cuba, Peru and South Africa.
Living in another country for a year is a fantastic experience that everyone should have the opportunity to do. However, choosing 20kg of your possessions that are important enough to take on the plane is both upsetting and futile. The peeps at Parcel2go let you have your cake and eat it by offering an international courier at student friendly prices, so you can take all of your shoes along for that year in Rome...
Pure Australia provides gap year travel advice for students visiting Australia. Information includes how to organise Visas, Flights, Travel Insurance, Backpacker Jobs and top Hostel Accommodation.
Raleigh runs four-week to ten-week expeditions to India, Borneo, Costa Rica and Nicaragua for anyone considering taking a gap year or a career break.
This site is simple, easy and has a good range of gap year ideas as well as a good indication of what they might cost (travelling round Asia for a year - for example - ain't free). Their ideas are all sorted by what you might want to do, so it's great for inspiration.
SMILE Society is a volunteer organisation looking for people to help street kids in India. They have summer programmes for volunteers, if you fancy doing something worthy in your vacation.
Challenging and rewarding 4-9 month projects in developing countries.
Much more than teaching - journalism, conservation and medical work are on offer as overseas placements.
The world’s largest real-time database of English Language Teaching Jobs.
The Leap specialises in eco-tourism gaps in Cambodia, Africa, and Borneo.
Work and travel in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe. Also volunteer work in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and work experience abroad.
Ticket to Ride is the original surfing gap year career break organisation.
Organises trips to summer camps across the USA.
Visas 4 Australia provides online visa applications and advice for students visiting Australia.
A scheme that offers worldwide volunteer opportunities. Volunteers work with local communities in a variety of programs including teaching, medical relief and community development, and last between 4 weeks and 6 months.
Information on voluntary work in Africa.
Volunteer and study abroad opportunities.
Perhaps known more for sending older professionals to placements overseas, VSO also do youth placement schemes for 18-25 year-olds, both in the UK and globally.
Varied schemes for 6-25 year-olds, with everything from team building exercises to voluntary and paid placements.
Acomprehensive online database which details voluntary projects around the world - now free to use.
Offering opportunities to people taking a gap year.
The Year in Industry is a national charity that finds work placements for gap-year students and undergrads. Placements are for 12 months, paid and relevant to your degree.
Photography credit to Lucy Harding