Once, a gap year meant sandal-clad students travelling across continents with their worldly goods stuffed into a heavy rucksack. But, as I come to the end of my own gap year, before beginning university in October, my experience has been that today's gappers are a new breed. Rivalry for top university places as well as competitiveness in the job market means that students are increasingly using their year out to obtain new skills and qualifications, as well as working and travelling.
I've spent my gap year working in journalism and visiting New York and Italy, learning new skills along the way. Some have been a result of a formal curriculum - a course in child safety, for example, before I worked on a summer scheme; others have been less official, like how to change my niece's nappy and complete a fiendish Sudoku puzzle - although not at the same time. I also discovered that there's scope to explore almost any potential career or hobby on a gap-year course: the industry is booming.
One of the most popular and well-known options combines travel with a teaching certificate: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl). Though being qualified is not essential - in some parts of the world simply being an English speaker is enough - graduating from a Tefl course will make you far more employable.
Sifting through the selection, however, is difficult: they range from quick online courses to intensive guided teaching. You can't go wrong if you opt for a course using the Cambridge Celta or the Trinity CertTesol: both are recognised worldwide, and offer at least 100 hours of teaching, plus six hours of teaching practice. But they do come with hefty price tags of up to £1,000. Weekend courses, like one run by i-to-i, cost around £200.
A less conventional path for gappers who want to put their money-making skills to use is working towards a sports qualification. Good tennis players can enrol on the Lawn Tennis Association's coaching courses, which enable you to work as a coach around the world. A different approach is offered by Gap Sports. The Buckinghamshire-based firm gives gappers the chance to play, qualify and instruct sports overseas.
One of its schemes, in South Africa, gives gappers professional tuition from ex-internationals in cricket, rugby, golf, scuba or football. Another, lasting 10 weeks, trains participants to be skiing or snowboarding instructors in Canada. Participants - who pay £5,780 - can then get teaching jobs at the same resort. Ski Le Gap runs a similar scheme: its four-week programme costs £2,900; a three-month scheme is £6,650. Remember to research inclusions as well as the cost.
When Kate Caro, 19, went on a Sunsail watersports holiday in Greece a few years ago, she decided that she wanted to return in her gap year. "I discovered Sunsail on a family trip, and I enjoyed the atmosphere," explains Kate. "I worked for a charity for six months of my gap year, and I'm now at a resort in Turkey, working in the kids' club. I get to go sailing in my spare time, and there is free training for staff. I've already obtained my level two sailing qualification."
"I've also made friends, including other gappers, and enjoy the activities put on for staff, like fancy dress parties and trips into town," she adds. "Although we are paid, you don't work here for the money. It's very tiring and pretty hot, but great fun too."
Back on terra firma, film-loving gappers relish the chance to spend time acting, writing, producing or directing at the New York Film Academy. The school offers programmes lasting from two weeks up to a year. And, with academies in New York, Los Angeles and London, gappers can choose between travelling abroad or staying in the UK.
Leon McFarlane, who is graduating from the year-long course this month, bubbles with enthusiasm. "I've always been passionate about film: I love telling stories," says Leon. "When I started the course I had no experience, but they taught me everything I need to know. I've also made really good friends from around the world - the course has changed my life."
Students write, produce, direct and edit six films throughout the year, but at over £15,000 the course is expensive. Leon counters that it is "excellent value for money". Perhaps his investment will pay off soon: he aims to have a feature-length film under his belt by this time next year.
Further options for wannabe actors include the drama college Rada's four-week summer schools, and Year Out Drama, a course based in Stratford-Upon-Avon which teaches theatre disciplines such as directing and text study. Its students perform at the Edinburgh Festival.
Many arty students spend gap years doing an art foundation course, and Imogen Hudson, 21, says it's time well spent.
"Taking part in the course is mandatory on many university art degrees, and an art foundation course is fun. It was hard work, but I learnt a lot and made great friends."
Cookery courses are another way to make friends, and not just on the course: what fresher will refuse a dinner invite that involves more than beans on toast? Several of the UK's cookery schools offer gap year courses. Tante Marie, in Woking, offers term-long Cordon Bleu Certificate courses in September, January and April, for £4,750. Students learn cookery technique, menu planning and costing, and wine selection. Those who pass the exams at the end gain a qualification that's recognised by chalet and villa operators worldwide.
Some of the UK's other cookery schools include Belle Isle in Ireland and the Edinburgh School of Food and Wine, both of which offer four-week courses to help gappers find a job in cooking for £2,000.
Unexpected results or a sudden change of heart mean that students every year find themselves deliberating over a last-minute gap year. Those still pondering the dilemma should research all the options first, and look online for possible courses, trips and jobs. And envious non-gappers can also log on - many university students enrol for courses lasting the summer.
The writer is going up to Oxford in the autumn to study English
'The course really built up my confidence'
Tanya Hurst-Brown, who is 19 and lives in Hampshire, has a busy gap year ahead of her before she begins a course in history of art and film at Newcastle University next year.
"I've just completed Tante Marie's four-week cookery course, and am starting a job in the UK in a few weeks," Tanya explains. "After that, I'm hoping to spend a season on the slopes as a chalet girl at Meribel in France. I was hopeless in the kitchen before I came here, but yesterday I cooked a three-course lunch including beef stroganoff with wild rice and honey sauce.
"I wanted to learn how to cook because it's a life skill, and the course has been amazing in helping to build my confidence," she adds. "I signed up with a friend, but have met lots of new people in the month I've been here, especially the eight people in my cookery group."
Though the cost for the four-week course is steep - next term's fees are £2,245 - Tanya thinks it's a good investment. "It's expensive, but the training will pay dividends. All I've learnt will be useful, not just when I work in France, but also when I start at university next year."
Top tips for parents and students
Get to grips with the basics of the Clearing system before results day, just in case. Check the UCAS website ( www.ucas.com) for further details.
Things which they might forget to pack: photos for union cards; extension leads for electrical equipment; old A-level essays and notes (it's surprising how handy they can be); spare ink cartridges for the computer; small planner for wall.
Make sure they've had a meningitis jab.
Make sure they find out if there's a deadline for changing courses/ modules. It's usually two to three weeks.
Students don't get free prescriptions automatically. They have to ask for an HCI form which entitles them to free prescriptions if they're on a low income.
No summer holidays should be booked until the date of first year exam re-takes has been announced - better safe than sorry!Reuse content