Education: Course Guidance: Getting the best from a year's gap: Karen Gold investigates the benefits and pitfalls of taking time off before study

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The Independent Online
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 characterbuilding, 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.'

So why take a year off? Perhaps in order to find a course you really want, rather than one that remains in clearing. (Candidates who just miss the required grades on oversubscribed courses are often offered a place for next year instead.) Or to rethink your study and career plans entirely. Or to earn money, travel, meet new people or gain experience relevant to your degree such as a language or paramedical skills.

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 sit down to work out what you want to achieve and how you are going to organise and, if necessary, pay for it.

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.)

Getting jobs abroad will depend on your skills and what you are prepared to do. Ski resorts (many of whom cease recruiting this month) and camp-site courier work involve long hours and may require languages skills; au-pairing is dismal if you dislike small children.

Volunteer work is available abroad through organisations like the Leonard Cheshire homes or archaeology or conservation charities. Community Service Volunteers, for example, promises to place every applicant aged 16-35 in a job away from home, full-time, with food and accommodation paid for, plus a pounds 21 per week allowance, for four to 12 months.

You could combine work with studying. A short course in word-processing or teaching English as a foreign language may increase your earning power later in the year or in future vacations. An evening class in carpentry or a new language may make you more employable or useful as a volunteer. You could attend a language course abroad or take part in a homestay scheme; some European universities allow foreign students to attend their lectures. There are also various education-swap schemes: the Central Bureau has details on all these.

If you want more adventurous travel, there are expeditionary organisations like Raleigh International (formerly Operation Raleigh). Its trips for 1993 include Zimbabwe, Mauritius and Mongolia. But for these and similar adventures you have to raise considerable sponsorship. Alternatively, by taking a short-service commission of four to 18 months with the Army or Royal Marines, you can travel and be paid a salary too.

Whatever you do, don't regard it as an escape from the phone calls, interviews, hassle and disappointment involved in staying in clearing. The skills and determination needed for arranging a worthwhile year off are exactly the same.

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 is available from the same address, cost pounds 7.99.

Community Service Volunteers: tel 071-278-6601.

Raleigh International: tel 071-351-7541.

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