Gap Years: Let me introduce you to the world

There are six billion people on earth, and a gap year will help you meet a few of them. It's well worth it, says Ben Bland

Every year, more and more people are opting to take a year out and, as the number of gappers increases, so does the number and breadth of opportunities available. A gap year offers the chance to gain new experiences by working, travelling, volunteering or learning new skills. While a gap year can (and should) be fun, it can also help your career prospects.

Every year, more and more people are opting to take a year out and, as the number of gappers increases, so does the number and breadth of opportunities available. A gap year offers the chance to gain new experiences by working, travelling, volunteering or learning new skills. While a gap year can (and should) be fun, it can also help your career prospects.

Before starting university, I took a year out. Wanting to travel and to do something useful, I decided to go on a voluntary placement with Gap Activity Projects (Gap). Gap is one of the largest gap-year providers, and sends 2,000 school-leavers a year around the world. Although Gap offers a wide range of opportunities, including conservation and medical work, I chose to teach English in Vietnam.

Before leaving England, all the volunteers were warned to "expect the unexpected", but despite this advice, I still found my placement very challenging. It's daunting enough arriving in a developing country without having to start teaching English to classes of at least 40 students.

However, Gap provides a good support network, with local agents in every country, and although I never needed it I knew that help was on hand.

I really enjoyed my time in Vietnam. I was able to observe a completely different culture, while my students were able to meet and speak to someone from a different background.

Ivan Wise, who is a publicity officer for Gap, says: "The benefit to a young person from taking a constructive year out is colossal. You'll grow in confidence and get better at communicating with other people, which will radically improve your prospects at university and in the workplace. You'll also realise that the world has six billion people who don't live in your home town, and some of them just might be worth meeting."

Besides teaching, conservation is another popular area for gappers. Frontier is an international conservation and research NGO (non-governmental organisation) that works in threatened tropical environments in Madagascar, Tanzania and Vietnam. It organises 28-day expeditions and longer projects and, on average, 150 of its 400 volunteers are gap-year students. Eibleis Fanning, the managing director of Frontier, says: "The training we give our volunteers is second to none, illustrated by the fact that more than 62 per cent are now working in conservation-related fields."

While some want to do volunteer work, others prefer to do work experience, and there are lots of opportunities to do something that will directly enhance your CV. As well as offering teaching and conservation, Teaching and Projects Abroad offers a range of work-experience placements in a variety of countries, from Latin America to Asia. Their most popular programme is in medicine, which gives budding medics the chance to work in hospitals and clinics abroad.

But gap years can also give you the chance to acquire new skills, such as learning a new language. Challenge Educational Services organises a range of French language courses, from a week's summer programme to a full academic year at the Sorbonne. Anyone can apply, and courses, from beginner to advanced, start at £390 for a week in Paris, including tuition and accommodation.

You can also acquire new sporting skills. Peak Leaders, a relatively new organisation, offers nine-week ski and snowboard instructor courses. As well as ski leadership and mountain safety, they also provide instruction in management training that goes towards a recognised qualification.

With so many opportunities, it is important to consider exactly what you want to do before committing to anything. Almost all gap-year organisations can put you in touch with former participants who can be useful in helping you to make up your mind. And remember, enjoy yourself!

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