One in eight school-leavers heading for university takes a gap year, says Stephen McCormack. But how to make the best of it?

It used to be viewed by some as a bit of a doss, and, in many cases, undertaken because something, somewhere had gone wrong on the route from school through higher education and on to the start of a career.

But now, a gap year is positively encouraged by universities, and employers look favourably on any worthwhile experiences picked up while away from home.

By far the largest proportion of gap years are taken between school and university. It is reckoned that every year about 100,000 British 18-year-olds delay starting higher education in this way. That's roughly one in eight of each annual wave of school-leavers. And taking a gap year is a big growth area. The figures have doubled in the past seven years,

But the catch-all term covers a multitude of, if not sins, then activities. The majority of young people spend their year in a fairly loosely planned manner: a few months earning money at home, followed by travel to faraway places.

But each year, as many as 23,000 undertake something more structured, with distinct aims and benefits a little more substantial than knowledge of the bar trade in Sydney or a patchy grasp of the geography of the Greek Islands.

For these more ambitious types, the Year Out Group website (www.yearoutgroup.org) offers the best starting point to plan a project. The body is an umbrella group of 30 leading gap year organisations, large and small, all of whose contact details are on the site. Also available online is abundant advice to students, parents and teachers on how best to research and plan a gap year activity.

"Start planning early, ideally in year 12," says YOG chief executive Richard Oliver. "Only if you research thoroughly, and ask the right questions, will you make sure that reality matches expectations."

There are three main categories of structured gap year activity: expeditions, often with a conservation element and usually to Third World locations; courses to learn a skill such as a language or something that can later be taught, for example windsurfing; and, finally, voluntary work, usually, but not always, overseas.

Among the organisations providing expeditions are Raleigh International, whose most famous recent participant was Prince William, and Trekforce Expeditions, whose website boasts a recommendation from Michael Palin. He describes their activities as "travel with a purpose, seeing the world and making a positive difference."

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Fitzpatrick from London has signed up to go on a five-month Trekforce trip to Central America next February. The first two months will be spent in the Belize rainforest on a conservation project, then four weeks in next-door Guatemala for a Spanish language course, followed by two months back in Belize teaching in a village school.

The whole trip costs £4,500. A useful guide to the basic cost of such activities is to reckon for between £1,000-£2,000 for each month away.

One of the biggest providers of voluntary work is Teaching and Projects Abroad, run by former geography lecturer Dr Peter Slowe. "I think that more and more young people recognise that between school and university is the one time in their lives where they'll find they have no pressure of any sort and can undertake something like this," he says.

About half this year's 2,000 participants from his company will teach English abroad. Others will work in medicine or veterinary hospitals in Third World countries, and the final group will work on conservation projects, for example growing plants for medicinal use in Indian villages. Other popular destinations include Peru, Ghana and China.

Preparation for any such gap year activity is vital. The Year Out Group site suggests questions you should ask when choosing an organisation's programme. Who can take part and how are they selected; what are the aims of the project and benefits for me; what exactly will I be doing?

There's also a link to the Foreign Office web page "Know Before You Go" detailing risks and precautions country by country.

And YOG's Richard Oliver offers a challenge to those soon to depart.

"Think of it as a year out not a year off. It should be fun but also have some personal goals attached. And, finally, don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone for some of the time."

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