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The gap year – a great opportunity

Leaving school and going to university is the ultimate bit of horizon-broadening. So why not go the extra mile (or several hundred) and give that horizon a real shove?

Taking a year between school and uni is more than just a “gap yah”, the preserve of rich kids who want to bum around on a beach in Goa.

It’s a chance to give your CV an edge, to learn some life and workplace skills – and yes, to earn some money. Using your gap year constructively will demonstrate ambition and self-reliance. You might choose to do voluntary work at home or abroad, which is an excellent addition to any CV, or you might find work that is relevant to the career you wish to pursue.

It will likely mean a young person arrives at university a little more mature and confident than they might have. A Department for Education report in 2012 said that “gap year takers in the British Cohort Study [a group of students first eligible to go to university in 1988] are found to be more likely to graduate with a first or second class degree compared to those who go straight into HE”.

But perhaps most excitingly, it is an opportunity for them to discover that the world really can be their oyster.

They may want to work all year, work hard then travel as far as possible, or combine the two by working abroad. Alternatively, the best work experience might be gained by staying close to home. (According to the Department for Education, 80% of those who take a gap year will work in Britain at some point during the year.) The opportunities may be endless, but there is a core of sound advice that can make a gap year go swimmingly.

A good place to start is by asking: “Should I take a gap year?” Student careers advice website prospects.ac.uk can lead a young person through the many of the considerations. Prospects also has guidance on choosing what you want to do and planning your year, as well as links to organisations offering gap year placements around the world.

The Student Room has an advice page which outlines the hugely important business of looking after yourself on a gap year – taking care of your health and money, getting vaccinated and insured, etc. Have a look through the Gap Years forum there, too, and see what other people are asking and have experienced.

It is always good to hear from someone who’s been there and done that. You might get a recommendation about a place to go or a company to travel with.

Gap years abroad

Of course, there is a whole industry now devoted to sending young people off on exciting excursions. Many of these organisers are very experienced, entirely reputable and reasonably priced. It is a good idea to do plenty of research and be sure you are comfortable with them before you commit to paying them to take you thousands of miles away and drop you in a jungle somewhere.

Companies like STA Travel (which I used to buy cheap tickets on Balkan Bulgarian Airlines to get me to Africa and back several times, many years ago) will have plenty of information on their websites but that won’t necessarily be impartial. While tripadvisor.co.uk doesn’t do dedicated gap year travel ratings, you can always check out individual providers.

It’s a good idea to see what news sites like the Telegraph and the Guardian have to say about taking gap years. They will have stories and blog posts about the great adventures, but also the things to be cautious of.

Look out for gap year fairs happening near you, too. Again, the exhibitors will probably only want to talk about how wonderful it all is, but you can get a sense for who the better providers are.

If you do intend to travel abroad, check out the Foreign Office’s gap year page. It is really, really important, if travelling in far-flung places, to know how to get help from consular officials if you end up in trouble or dire need.

Gap years at home

With apologies to Mum and Dad, living at home is a great way to save money that you may need later in the year, or to help with living costs at uni.

Wherever you choose to spend your year, it’s important to fill it with constructive activities – even getting a job stacking shelves is better than doing nothing. You’ll meet new people (possibly from a very different background), you’ll see what a workplace is really like, and you’ll earn money.

You could try for an internship or some other kind of paid or unpaid work experience in an industry that you are interested in. Prospects.ac.uk can help point you in the right direction.

Internships can be very competitive. You’ll want to bring all your CV and cover-letter writing skills to bear, and then get letters and CVs out to lots and lots of potential employers (unless they use their own particular application processes, in which case you should follow their instructions).

If you need to brush those skills up, the National Careers Service can help.

Many companies offer sponsorships to help fund some or all of your degree, or with an industrial placement during it. Getting in with them and demonstrating your potential during a gap year can be a prerequisite for this kind of sponsorship, or may increase your chances of earning one. Either way, it can pay real dividends.

There is no definitive list of these sponsorships and bursaries. It is up to the young people and their careers advisers to find and pursue such opportunities.

This kind of job-hunting will stand a student in good stead for later life. To paraphrase Will.i.am on The Voice this week (and let’s face it, he’s a man who generally needs paraphrasing): every “no” will make your skin more bulletproof.

Whether you are counting buffalo in Botswana, helping with a South American textile art collective, husbanding a Scottish forest, pulling pints or pumping espressos, taking a year between school and university is a great chance to grow up quickly.

Just remember that however grown-up and self-reliant you may feel, it’s important to keep in touch with the folks back home who will worry about you!

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017



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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.

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