Skip to Content

Large Image
By Filip Mroz via Unsplash

Should you take a gap year?

We wrote a while back about how taking a gap year between school and university is a great opportunity to grow up quickly. But is it right for everyone?

The short answer is: of course not.

So what should a pupil consider if they are thinking about taking a year off?

It mustn’t be a “year off”

Just as America is waking up to the value of the gap year – with even Malia Obama taking time out before going to Harvard – we have seen a rising fear in this country that travelling the world before uni simply isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Sure, there may be an element here of grumpy old(ish) people saying “it’s not like it was in my day”. Still, the common thread in the video is that all those people worked hard in their time away to earn money for when they became a student, or to fund their own travels.

In this video from the BBC in 2014, the accusation (as in the Loose Women discussion) is that so many gap year students seem to tread the same paths, seeing the same things, and in such a structured way that it’s almost like a package holiday:


Certainly, if mummy and daddy pay for you to go volunteering somewhere remote in South America then you will probably have a great time doing something worthwhile. If you do it as part of a group of 20 well-off, English-speaking people of your own age, organised by a specialist gap year company and with 24-hour Skype access, then perhaps less so. It’s hardly far outside your comfort zone.

So the gap year, which used to be the preserve of the privileged, almost seems to have become least valuable for the ones who can pay most for it.

A pupil who wants to take a gap year should stop thinking about it as a “year off”, and make it a “year on“.

That’s what this American student did, as he tells in a TEDx seminar from 2014:

Weigh up the benefits

Brandon Hill, in the video above, came to his gap year because one of his grades slipped and he was urged to take a year to improve it.

That’s a perfectly valid and common reason for UK students to think about taking another year before going to uni, too. If a pupil is determined to follow a particular path and needs a better grade to do it, then resitting the exam and applying again through UCAS is perfectly sensible.

The key thing is determination. Brandon Hill had plenty of that.

UCAS has a great list of pros and cons to think through before deciding to tick the “deferred entry” box on the application form.

Among UCAS’s warnings is the possibility that the gap year won’t add anything much of value. It’s only a pro if it’s “productive”.

Gap years were always supposed to be about pushing your limits and seeing something of the world outside the bubble of your childhood. If you’re not going to earn money, you’re not going to make a contribution and you’re not going to learn anything you couldn’t learn on a Saturday night out with your mates, what’s the point?

Learn and earn

A gap year ought to be successful if:

  • the pupil is organised about it, and can do their research and get valuable activities set up in advance, which is not the same as getting someone else to organise it all;
  • he or she is determined to do something worthwhile – not just to “see the world” but actually experience and learn from it;
  • the pupil is going to work hard. Volunteering somewhere exotic at your parents’ expense is all well and good, but independence comes from earning your own keep;
  • it points you back towards your studies and helps to clarify or move you along your career path. (It’s also worthwhile if it helps you decide that you’ve got it all wrong and reveals a new path.) The year could include some kind of part-time course, or have an element of contributing to an academic study.

We’re not all like Malia Obama, and we can’t just walk into an internship in the US Embassy in Spain. Still, a pupil who wants to take a “year on” ought to be looking at who they know, and where they are around the world (remembering, too, that the world is also on your doorstep). They might see that working in their uncle’s garage down the road is going to help their engineering studies. Maybe they want to study sports science and could offer to help with groundskeeping at the French football club they once played against. If they’re going to do English, why not ask to work for six months in their great aunt’s bookshop in Vancouver? A would-be chemist could gain a lot from chipping in with their friend’s mother’s wedding catering company, while spending their evenings trying to master Heston Blumenthal’s recipes.

It seems curmudgeonly to urge young people not to undertake anything that won’t look good on their CVs. But maybe that’s not a bad yardstick. It’s going to sound better if they can say “I travelled the world working on cruise ships, having a blast with some great people” than if they say “I travelled the world Instagramming beach parties”.

If it’s a year spend drifting, then it’s worthless. A pupil who can’t see a valuable way to spend the year should think seriously about whether it’s the right choice , because they may find it hard to get back into the discipline of study or wander away from that university place completely.

And a pupil who knows what they want to study and is keen to get on with it might simply be better off… getting on with it.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

comments powered by Disqus

Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

View Profile