Go Higher: Work out what you really want

Employers expect students to be self-motivated and responsible in their gap year, writes Tamsin Smith
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The Independent Online
One of the best things about taking a year out is that it will give you the chance to think about what you really want to do with your life, where you want to study, which degree course to follow and what sort of career you want.

If, like most of us, you are undecided about which career is for you, a gap year is the ideal time to get some work experience.

"You will have wasted your gap year if you don't do anything which challenges you," says graduate recruiter Nicole Brennan, from Proctor & Gamble.

"We see a lot of students who have taken a year out and we will look at what they have done during it."

"It is a great chance to travel the world, gain lots of experience and have fun. And it will get the wonderlust out of your system so you can settle down to your degree course."

"Students who have made the most of it have a lot more to talk about in interviews and come across as being a lot more confident, mature and interesting.

"Employers will want to know what skills you have picked up. Even the most mundane activities can demonstrate appropriate skills if they are presented properly in interview.

"For example, if you've organised and followed through a round-the-world- trip with friends and a specific itinerary, it shows you have motivation, can work well in a team and have leadership skills."

"Competition for jobs is so strong that applicants need to show some skill, talent or edge when applying and not just simply hope to develop something during their gap year," says Thom Sewell, Publishing Manager for the Central Bureau of Educational Visits and Exchanges.

"The whole point of a gap year is to give you that certain something over the others in a roomful of applicants for the job.

"That is why we say to students, get your aims and targets sorted out, and look at the opportunities that will deliver the results you need. Some students need specific work experience; accountancy, engineering, law, computing and media companies for example.

"Others may be looking at less specific work, but whatever it is it should involve the chance to develop leadership, teamworking, independence, and problem-solving skills.

"Angus Deayton, Rory Bremner and Arthur Smith all taught English during their gap years; though it didn't convince them that teaching was the profession for them, the skills needed to get up there in front of a class, to plan, prepare, hold attention and promote discussion no doubt come in very useful in their entertainment careers."

As a starting point, work shadowing is an excellent way to get to see what a particular job involves and whether it will interest you.

You will not be paid, but spending a week seeing what a lawyer, journalist, bank manager, accountant or scientist does every day will not only help you decide whether you want to do the same, but it will give you excellent insight at future interviews, and help you decide whether to continue that line of work during your gap year.

With a little research you will discover there are hundreds of companies which offer places on long or short-term work experience schemes if you contact them directly.

The key is picking one or two companies which interest you, researching them inside out so you know what kind of work they are involved with, and who to address your letter to.

The more you know about a firm, and the more enthusiasm you convey, the more likely it is that they will consider taking you on.

In addition, there are a multitude of independently run work programmes which have been set up to attract young people into a career in industry or commerce. If you are successful in applying, they will find you a place with a company to match your ambitions.

One of the largest is The Year in Industry Programme. It offers around 700 young people places in commerce and industry in any one of 250 companies which regularly take part.

"Placements span a wide variety of industries from blue-chip multinationals to small and medium sized enterprises and the nature of project work is varied," says Brian Tripp, national director of the programme.

"Whatever the differences between the placements, there is always a common thread, the work is challenging and carries responsibility: you are set objectives and have to manage yourself, your time and your projects in to achieve results."

Another important option is to work as a volunteer. The Community Service Volunteers offers people aged 16 to 35 the chance to volunteer full-time away from home for between four months and a year in one of 800 social care projects around the UK.

Although you will not be paid a great deal, all volunteers are given free accommodation, food, travel expenses and pounds 24 a week subsistence allowance.

In a recent survey of employers and careers advisers, the CVS found that 99 per cent said it was important for young people to gain experience and responsibility by helping others.

Most said it increased young people's independence and confidence, developed a sense of responsibility and citizenship and led to key skills, motivation, self-reliance, teamworking, and communication - critical for future employment.


"A Year Between" pounds 9.99, published by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, gives details of over 120 gap year schemes and companies which provide work placements.

The Bureau runs a Gap Year helpline: 0171 389 4886, and publishes a series of free leaflets giving information about projects, work and travel and working holidays.

Lifetime Careers Publishing produce a similar guide, "A Year ... A Year On?", which gives advice on how to plan your gap year as well as a list of options and guide books on student life.

A "Year Out" stand goes to every UCAS NextStep Network of Higher Education Convention throughout the UK. Over 20 organisations involved in year out activities are represented and can offer advice and information.

'My confidence soared'

MARTIN COOPER, 22, from Loughborough University, is studying an MSC in Polymer Technology after getting a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He took a year out between his second and final year to work for an engineering company.

"I decided to do a DIS diploma in Industrial Studies which involved working in the engineering industry for a year while I was at university.

"Although it is completely optional, the university encourages students to take a gap year, either before they start their degree, or while they are on the course so they have some experience and know what to expect when they graduate.

"It was left up to me to organise, so the first thing I did was visit a trade fair to find out what jobs were on offer and who to contact. I sent off three or four applications and got a couple of interviews which involved spending a weekend at an assessment centre being tested for my aptitude and ability to work as part of a team.

"It was very nerve wracking but when you got into it, it was quite good fun. On the first day we were divided into groups and given tasks to do, on the second we had our formal interviews.

"I was offered a job with Cummins Diesel Engines in Daventry on a basic salary of pounds 8,000 a year. I found somewhere to live through their personnel department and ended up sharing with three other students on the same scheme.

"It was fantastic. You do exactly the same sort of work as the other engineers. I was overwhelmed at first but after you are given projects to work on you soon get into it. My main task was to design a valve for a diesel engine which I followed through right up to production.

"It was a great challenge and good fun. My confidence soared. But the best part was that during my time there I got to see lots of different areas of engineering which helped me decide what I was interested in.