Gap years develop vital skills

Universities and employers agree on the benefits of a structured year out.
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The Independent Online

When Prince William recently announced his plan to take a gap year, he joined the increasing number of students who now see a year out as a rite of passage before higher education. His is just one of approximately 23,000 deferred university entries this year, an increase of 3,000 since 1996 that reflects growing recognition of the benefits of a gap between school and higher education.

When Prince William recently announced his plan to take a gap year, he joined the increasing number of students who now see a year out as a rite of passage before higher education. His is just one of approximately 23,000 deferred university entries this year, an increase of 3,000 since 1996 that reflects growing recognition of the benefits of a gap between school and higher education.

A year out - before application or with a deferred place - is a chance to catch your breath and gain experience before plunging back into academia. The desire of future students is to broaden horizons, make considered choices and enjoy a break from the books. But this is the tip of an iceberg of virtues now recognised by everyone from the Department for Education and Employment to UCAS.

In a recent survey by the Year Out Group, 93 per cent of vice-chancellors at 43 UK universities said they believed a structured year out benefited students' personal development. In addition, nearly all universities were in favour of the year out in general, and none said it would adversely affect the admissions process for a particular student.

In many cases taking a gap year can positively enhance a university application, especially if you can show relevant experience to your course, enthusiasm and an understanding of skills gained. Statistics from the Higher Education Funding Council for England also show that taking a year out can lessen the chance of being among the 80,000 students who drop out of university before the end of their course.

It's a point emphasised by Tony Higgins, Chief Executive of UCAS: "UCAS believes that students who take a well-planned and structured year out are more likely to be satisfied with, and complete, their chosen course. The benefits of a well-structured year out are now widely recognised by universities and colleges and cannot fail to stand you in good stead in later life."

Later life includes employment, and while you might not be thinking of career advancement while you're trekking through Belize or volunteering at a homeless shelter, you may be gaining a vital edge in the competitive graduate workplace. A survey of the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that many graduates are seen by employers as lacking generic skills such as initiative, communication, decision-making and problem- solving on leaving university.

Phil Jennings, managing director of graduate recruitment company graduatebase.com, says: "The phrase from employers is 'hitting the ground running'. A student who has taken a gap year is more likely to show initiative and confidence and need less hand-holding, which makes them valuable."

However, employers make a strong distinction between travelling - seen as no more than an extended holiday - and the life decision of a year out: a gap year is not a year off.

An increasingly popular choice is a structured placement with one of the specialised gap year organisations offering cultural exchanges, educational courses, expeditions, volunteering or work experience around the world.

But the freedom of planning a whole year to yourself can be overwhelming. Good starting points include the Year Out Group, an initiative supported by the DfEE and UCAS. It offers gap year guidelines and information on 20 of the leading gap year providers. Gapyear.com provides practical advice and a search engine for interesting opportunities.

For most gap year students the satisfaction of setting up and seeing through a successful year promotes confidence, independence, responsibility and perspective. However, a gap year is not necessarily the answer for everyone. Some academic departments, such as medicine or law, are often less amenable to students who take a year off than others, but a year spent doing something with direct relevance to a course can often prove positive.

There are no hard and fast rules though, and it's worth making inquiries to universities ahead of any decision. On a personal level, some students don't feel ready to take an extended break from study, while others prefer to ease themselves into personal independence at university. The right choice is the one that feels comfortable. But if it involves the gap year challenge, stop dreaming and start planning.

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