After the last 18 months, who could blame any young person from wanting to step off the education treadmill? Disrupted learning, uncertainty over exams, and a lack of opportunities for work experience and other activities have all taken their toll. As Ellie puts it, “The stress caused by Covid was the biggest factor in my decision to take a gap year. There’s definitely been an impact on my mental health, so I’m very glad I’m taking a break.”
Over the next few months you may be asked for advice by students who are considering a year out. This article looks at the main gap year options, the value of taking one and some of the issues to be considered, and gives some tips for advising students.
It’s hard to predict what impact Covid will have on gap year plans, but let’s hope experiences like Sam’s are not repeated. “I completed my A levels in 2019 and always wanted to take a year out. After working for a few months, at the beginning of 2020 I set off for a tour of New Zealand. I had an amazing time but found myself unable to get back to the UK. Luckily, a few weeks later than planned (albeit at significant cost), I boarded a repatriation flight.”
Why take a gap year?
Some students will have found course choices hard to make or may be questioning whether uni is right for them at all. A gap year can allow a young person to take a step back to think through their options. Ellie explains, “I was really pleased with my A level results and have a firm offer of a uni place to study law in 2022, but during my gap year I want to visit some unis to find out more about the courses and ensure I’m making the right decision.”
A gap year can spice up a young person’s CV and future applications. It can develop their maturity, confidence and transferable skills – from the ability to organise to the capacity to communicate with a diverse range of people. If related to a career, it can also develop job-specific skills, essential for training in certain careers, such as social work.
For some, the main reason to take a gap year is to earn money to help fund future plans – whether that’s travel, uni study or moving forward with a business idea.
TIP: Suggest students set themselves goals. What exactly do they want to get out of their year?
What are the options?
A gap year can involve travelling, volunteering, working, studying or, more usually, a mixture of these. As Ellie says, “I have kept my plans loose to allow for some spontaneity, but I plan to get a paid job initially and then travel around Europe with a friend. I also want to get some experience in the legal profession as that’s what I want to do in the future.”
Time spent travelling is often an important part of a gap year. It can involve seeing new parts of the world, learning about different cultures, interacting with all sorts of people and developing language skills.
We can’t predict what the future holds in terms of Covid, but travellers may need to be prepared to reschedule their plans, take Covid tests, produce proof of vaccination and/or quarantine when travelling between countries.
TIP: Stress the importance of getting the latest travel advice from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and on the situation regarding Coronavirus. There’s also information on keeping safe during a gap year on GOV.UK.
Whether teaching in Africa or helping with a local conservation project, volunteering can provide personal satisfaction and a valuable way to develop skills. Students can search for opportunities in the UK through sites such as Do IT. There are also agencies that organise gap year projects, many of which involve volunteering.
TIP: Make sure that students check an agency’s reputation, what they include in their fees and what support they provide. Advice is available through the Year Out Group (YOG); YOG approved member organisations can evidence programme quality, authenticity and safety.
Time spent in the workplace can allow a young person to explore whether they might be suited to a career, to gain some useful or necessary skills and, perhaps, to earn some money.
Some employers run paid gap year programmes. The Year in Industry offers paid placements with employers in the world of business, finance, engineering, technology and science.
Gap year internships/work placements are available in the UK and in countries such as Australia, Canada and the US. BUNAC, for example, offers programmes that combine internships with paid work and travel.
More casual work is commonly available (Covid restrictions allowing) in the UK and abroad in the catering, leisure, hospitality and tourism sectors, or in areas such as delivery work or warehousing. Other popular options include working as an au pair, on an organic farm, in a summer camp or at a ski resort.
TIP: Stress the importance of checking the visa and work permit situations of individual countries both in Europe (post-Brexit) and further afield.
Another option during a gap year is to take a course. This could be to improve a grade in a subject already studied, in something useful for future work, such as in coding or teaching English as a foreign language, or for life in general – a language or cookery, for instance. There are intensive programmes, year-long courses and distance-learning options; some courses can be taken overseas.
Things to consider
Using time wisely
Whilst a well-used gap year may impress admissions tutors and future employers, a wasted year will not be viewed so favourably.
TIP: Explain that certain gap year opportunities have deadlines and places may be limited and in demand. To avoid disappointment, students should be encouraged to make initial enquiries sooner rather than later.
After a year off it can take time to settle back to a routine. Also, where a uni course builds on knowledge – as is the case with STEM subjects – there’s always the danger that this will become rusty. For this reason, not all unis allow students to defer their applications. On the other hand, lots of people feel refreshed after a gap year and more ready to focus on their studies or work.
TIP: Advise students to find out how a gap year might be viewed by admissions tutors for their subject.
Deferring uni entry
Some students opt to defer their uni entry by a year so that they can relax knowing that they have a course place. According to UCAS statistics, 79,860 students applied for deferred places at the January 2021 deadline.
TIP: Students should check the procedure for deferring – there’s information on the UCAS site – and need to outline their gap year rationale and plans in their personal statement; be prepared to provide support with this.
A potential disadvantage of deferring uni entry is that ideas can change, so some students apply for a uni place whilst on their gap year.
TIP: Make sure that students are able to meet UCAS application deadlines and are available to attend interviews – either in person or online – if necessary.
Students with offers can also try contacting their chosen uni to ask for their place to be deferred. Whilst there’s no guarantee that admissions tutors will agree to this, some unis actively seek students who are willing to defer and there are even reports of them offering incentives to do so.
Freya didn’t plan to take a gap year but, “After being unwell with Covid I phoned my first-choice uni before A level results day and they were happy for me to defer. I need a breather after an intense couple of years and hope that when I enrol at uni in 2022 there will be more face-to-face learning.”
Students need to factor all the possible costs of taking a year off, such as paying for flights, accommodation, visas, insurance, vaccinations and agency project fees (which can be thousands). Students often have to raise funds or get paid work to cover these costs.
TIP: In these uncertain times, advise your students to check whether any deposits paid will be refunded if their plans have to change.
‘Should I stay or should I go?’
There’s no doubt that a gap year can be an enjoyable and, possibly, life-affirming experience. From a career point of view, maximum benefit will depend on a young person’s ability to make the most of their experiences in their applications.
As valuable as a gap year can be, they aren’t for everyone. Armed with all the facts, students should be in a good position to make a decision. If anyone feels that they are missing out by not taking one, remind them that a gap year can be taken at any stage in life.
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients including Health Careers, the Royal Society of Chemistry and English Heritage.