For Zöe Abbott, who spent 10 weeks in Costa Rica and Nicaragua with Raleigh International, the way in which her time was divided into different projects meant that she really was able to get what she wanted out of her gap year.

"I spent the first six weeks in Costa Rica, working on two projects. The environmental project saw us building a path to enable disabled access to a national park, to improve the country's eco-tourism. We spent the second three-week period trekking, during which we climbed Costa Rica's second highest mountain.

"For my final three weeks I worked on a community project in Nicaragua and lived with a local family. I did not speak Spanish but picked up enough to get me through my subsequent travels through Central America."

Zöe, who starts at Birmingham University in the autumn, says of her time abroad: "It gives you time to think about what you want to do and to get to know yourself better. Some of the people I worked with now know me better than people at home."

"The group of 150 (which is split into smaller groups of 15 for the projects) was predominantly British, but included young people from Holland and Egypt. I got on really well with my fellow volunteers, who were all like-minded and there for similar reasons."