Go Higher: Going for a gap year

Plan your gap year well in advance, writes Tamsin Smith
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The Independent Online
In the past, telling your parents you wanted to take a year out before going to university or college may have led to a big argument about how you were wasting your time. But the times they are a changing. Now taking a gap year is a positively good thing to do.

"I developed a different point of view, a wider mind, a stronger one, new ideas, new ambitions, memories and lifelong ambitions," says Simon McVeigh, who spent six months this summer teaching children in Tanzania, as part of a Gap Challenge project run by World Challenge Expeditions.

As well as giving you a little time to relax and think about what you want to do, taking a year out can give you the chance to explore the world outside school, grow up a bit and discover what talents you have.

Whether you work, travel or join an overseas expedition, you will probably be experiencing real independence for the first time and learning how to organise and look after yourself.

"It is an opportunity for 18-year-olds who may have never been out of education to stand back for a year and look at the world," says Ann James, senior careers advisor at the Bolton Institute of Higher Education.

"It gives them the opportunity to do something independent, learn new skills, become more self-reliant and achieve a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses."

Providing you do something positive during your year out, make a plan, follow it through and gain something from it, most universities and colleges look on your gap year favourably.

There are no right or wrong reasons for taking a gap year, but you will need to be clear why you are opting to take a gap year and what you have hoped to achieve by the end of it.

"Universities and employers will want to know precisely what you have achieved in your year out," says Thom Sewell, publishing manager for The Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, which publishes a guide listing hundreds of gap year opportunities.

"Unless you are crystal-clear on what you are setting out to achieve, there is no way you can convince teachers, parents, colleges and employers, that you will positively benefit from the experience."

He said the most important thing was to plan your year out well ahead of time.

"Eighteen months may seem a long time, but it will fly by and you will have a wider range of opportunities open to you if you start early."

As competition for places on gap year schemes is stiff, he suggests organising a short-term project in the summer before your gap year, to give you the edge.

"All students should get themselves relevant work experience, a broader outlook on life, a European if not international perspective on the world of work and a handle on essential interpersonal and teamworking skills before arriving at university."

UCAS say it is crucial that if you are still considering going to university or college and taking a gap year because you have not found a university place for this year, finding a place for next year should be your first priority. Use what you are going to do in your gap year in the personal statement section. It may well strengthen your application.

The first thing you should do is decide your course and send off your UCAS form. Then spend time in your careers, or school library and start planning what you will do with your time out. There are hundred of opportunities on offer, but the earlier you start applying, the more the choice.

As for options, the Central Bureau for Educational Visits, which gives advice and information for students thinking of taking a gap year, recommends eight types of activity: training, work experience, discovery, leadership, conservation teaching, community services, youth work, religious service and study.

The bureau also stresses the importance of fundraising, as many adventure, community and environmental projects abroad involve students footing the bill for their place.