A gap year won't just improve your CV, it'll open your eyes too, says Rachael Wood

So you've been studying hard for most of your life - what better way to alleviate the memory of A-level exam stress than taking some time out on a gap year? It is quite possibly a trip of a lifetime, a time to learn some life skills and enhance your CV for future employment. You want to make it an amazing adventure, but how do you get started?

Take a look at the world map, and decide which countries are at the top of your list to see. Once you have a shortlist, visit the library, get guidebooks, speak to friends, watch travel programmes and use the internet.

You also need to think about what kind of trip you want to go on - the options include immersing yourself into a country's culture and doing volunteer work, doing paid work, embarking on an adventure tour, learning a new language or doing something completely new. Your choice might well be affected by how much you can afford to spend on your trip; the minimum amount for a year away is generally around £3,000.

If you want to travel around a few different countries then you also need to work out your timings, which will be based on when you are free to leave, whether you want to travel in the height of summer or miss the rainy season and if you want to make it in time for New Year celebrations in Sydney or at the Rio Carnival!

Gap year options

You will need to put some thought into what you want to achieve from your trip, and once you have considered your finances it may become apparent that you have to work along the way to supplement your income. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, USA and Canada are good places to work and go off and explore in your spare time.

More and more young people have a desire to do something worthwhile and a volunteer placement is a very popular option. Does walking with lions in Africa, aiding orangutans in Borneo, or helping out with turtle conservation in Central America appeal? Equally you could help Aids orphans in Zambia, work in underprivileged communities or teach English in the developing world.

For the sporty, there are fantastic adventure projects to help improve your game or teach others your favourite sport. Maybe you have a passion to learn something new like a language, yoga and meditation alongside Thai monks, a PADI dive qualification, riding a horse, becoming a game warden in the African bush or even being a real-life Australian cowboy or cowgirl! There are hundreds of options to choose from and there are gap year companies out there that help young adults to get the most from their travels.

The advantages of taking a gap year

A gap year will make a positive contribution to your CV; rather than being the norm now when leaving school, a well-structured gap year will set you apart as you get yourself on the career ladder. The battle for jobs is becoming increasingly competitive, so employers are looking for something distinctive to differentiate between the many thousands of young recruits; it is the skills and qualities that are gained from challenging and rewarding gap years that are beneficial in the workplace. The benefits for those leaving home for the first time are easy to see: a broadening of horizons, greater cultural awareness, enhanced self-confidence and improved social skills. As if that isn't enough it will also be an adventure of a lifetime, where you will meet loads of new people, see and experience scores of new things and gather memories that will last forever.

When to take a gap year?

Take a gap year before university and you will come back focused and motivated to start university. You will be the envy of your friends with many stories to tell in the student union, but bear in mind that your school friends will be in their second year and you will be a year older having taken a year out.

Taking a gap year after university can be difficult financially, but gives you the chance to have a break between graduating and starting in full-time employment or postgraduate study. Whatever you decide, travelling allows you to broaden your mind, and the time away will give you the space to really think what it is you want to do for the rest of your life.

Rachael Wood is the marketing manager at Real Gap, www.realgap.co.uk