Courses Guide: How to get the best from a year's gap: Karen Gold looks at the benefits and pitfalls of taking time off before study

Half-way through Clearing with a handful of rejections and no definite prospect of a course this autumn, desperation may set in. Youngsters who have always assumed the road from A- levels leads straight to higher education may find themselves questioning why they ever wanted to do a degree at all.

The idea of taking a year off frequently follows. A time to reconsider assumptions, widen experience and get away from it all. Yet the 'gap' year has acquired a mixed reputation: parents, admissions officers and employers may regard it as admirably character-building, or a complete waste of time.

The worst possible start to a year off is to embark on a degree course you don't want, at a college you don't like, and then have nine months to fill because you abandon it all by Christmas. The best possible start is to have planned your year off at least six months ago. The compromise is to think and plan as quickly but thoroughly as possible now.

'There are fewer opportunities at the last minute after A- level results come out,' says Rachel Bull of the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, the government-

funded repository of expertise on voluntary work, paid jobs, courses, far-flung adventures and everything else.

'We get inundated with inquiries after A-levels, and some of them are more realistic than others. People quite often have no idea what's available, and our publications try to help them decide if they should do it, why they should do it and how to get the best out of it. There are still opportunities available if people are prepared to look for them.'

Why not take a year off? Your future colleges or employer may regard it as a waste of time; you may end up doing dead-end jobs; you may get rusty or disillusioned with studying. When you return to college you will be a year older than your fellow students and a year behind your friends.

If a year off attracts you, check with course tutors at colleges that this will not count against you. Then work out what you want to achieve.

The Central Bureau publishes 20 leaflets on different options for the 'gap' year, plus a number of books including one called A Year Between and another called Working Holidays listing possible work abroad. (These can be ordered by post - see details below - and should be in libraries and careers offices.)

For Central Bureau's 20 leaflets, send two first-class stamps to The Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, Seymour Mews, London W1H 9PE. Tel: 071-486 5101. A Year Between, from the same address, costs pounds 7.99.

Community Service Volunteers: tel 071-278-6601.

Raleigh International: tel 071-351-7541.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Independent on 10 September.