In the 17th and 18th centuries the concept of the “grand tour” gained popularity among wealthy young members of the British nobility. An early ancestor of the gap year, the fashion was to travel overland through Europe gaining a cultural and personal education, returning with trinkets and scholarly artefacts as a souvenir of your experiences.
Nowadays, gap years have evolved and no longer require an army of valets accompanying their masters’ rakish progress towards Italy, although the idea of dedicating some time to self-improvement before beginning a career or continuing education has remained. But with university fees rising, competition for places more energetic than ever and the global economic situation looking determinedly gloomy, it could be easy to dismiss the gap year as a frivolous waste of time.
However, a gap year – whatever form it takes – still has a lot to offer. For a start, both universities and employers value the boost it can give a candidate’s CV. “Most recruiters look favourably upon graduates who have taken gap years,” explains Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. “Employers are looking for graduates who can demonstrate skills such as team work, communication and leadership, and these kinds of transferable skills can be developed on well-planned and productive gap years.”
A well-planned and productive gap year can come in many different shapes and sizes, and certainly doesn’t have to be about backpacking through Asia for several months (although this remains a popular option). It’s all about the preparation, and that means beginning at the end, says Tom Hall, of the guidebook publisher Lonely Planet. “The best way to approach the gap year is to picture yourself at the end of it, and think about what you want to have done and seen and what skills and experiences you’d like to pick up,” he explains.
This might mean ending up with a wishlist of countries to visit or discovering that gaining some work-based skills is top of your priority list; and it’s perfectly possible for you to do both.
One popular option is voluntary work, which could be a local activity or something that takes you to the other side of the world. In the UK, Volunteering England ( volunteering.org.uk) co-ordinates projects all over the country: you could help the National Trust keep an historic property in good condition, join St John’s Ambulance as a first aider or carry out small tasks via Orange’s Do Some Good mobile app.
If you’d like to roam further afield, some organisations run community projects overseas, perhaps carrying out conservation or humanitarian work. They usually charge a project fee that can run into several thousands of pounds, which volunteers are expected to raise themselves. Careful research into the organisation you travel with is vital, but a well-run project can make a lasting difference to an area, as well as giving volunteers the chance to work with local people and visit parts of the world that might otherwise be inaccessible. Agencies worth checking out include Raleigh International ( raleighinternational.org), and Camps International ( campsinternational.com). It’s useful to visit the forums on gapyear.com to hear about a company’s reputation before committing to a project.
Another popular option is Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl), which gives participants qualifications to instruct students overseas. It can be a good way of picking up some language skills and experiencing daily life in a new culture. Organisations offering courses include i-to-i ( onlinetefl.com) and Cactus ( cactustefl.com). A slightly different angle is spending time working with young people on a summer camp in the US, instructing them in areas such as sports, music or drama and gaining teamwork and communication skills along the way. The fixed length of the camps might appeal to those who also want to travel in the country afterwards, or who want to spend the remainder of their gap year working. Several companies recruit camp staff, including Bunac ( bunac.org) and Camp America ( campamerica.co.uk).
Moving away from structured programmes, a gap year can emphasise independent travel and remain worthwhile, with or without periods of volunteering or working. There are countless options, from exploring Europe by rail to cruising around New Zealand in a camper van, or taking an around the world backpacking trip, building up passport stamps and self-confidence. Using your gap year simply to travel is still valid, believes Hall. “A classic backpacking trip still has much to offer. It’ll equip you with skills in budgeting, learning languages and often teamwork, communication and problem solving.”
Importantly, none of these options exists in isolation. Whether you’re hoping to head to university or start a career at the end of it, a gap year can allow you to work and play, gaining skills that will impress employers or universities while earning money for the future. It can teach you how to make friends and influence people, but also let you stop for breath after years of full-time education and decide on your next step. You don’t need to carouse through Venice like the grand tourists of old and return with marble statues under your arm; but you can end the year with a collection of experiences that leave you feeling better prepared for the road ahead.
“There’s a visible difference between people who’ve taken a gap year and those who haven’t,” says Hall in conclusion. “Post-gappers come across as being more worldly, experienced and confident. They tend to show greater independence and drive, all of which are a huge help in either establishing yourself at university or getting that crucial foot in the door. Plus, you’re never short of something to talk about!”
"I now have more life experience, more friends and more confidence"
Zoe Buller's gap year, spent between home and the US, helped her decide on a career and gave her the experience she needed to enter university. She’s currently studying primary education at the University of Derby.
“My gap year began as soon as I finished sixth form, when I went to a Salvation Army summer camp in the US to work as a lifeguard. It was a great experience, working with people from around the world on a 400-acre camp with children from urban New Jersey.
I then came back from camp and continued working as a waitress at a restaurant, then worked part-time as a teaching assistant and used my free time to do youth work, travel and assist Duke of Edinburgh canoeing expeditions.
I decided to take a gap year because I hadn’t truly made up my mind as to what I was going to do with the rest of my life. But after my experience at camp, spending every waking minute surrounded by children, teaching them to swim and interacting with them day in day out, it seemed pretty clear my future career must involve children.
My year then had a focus: gain experience for uni while using my free time to have fun, visit people and enjoy my freedom! I’m very glad I took a gap year, it’s the reason I got into university and I now have more life experience, more friends and more confidence in myself. It was the best decision I could have made - without Camp Tecumseh and my gap year, my life would not be the same. Simple as that!”