'Constructive gap years help students stand out to employers and universities'

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The Independent Online

Some nasty facts are facing the class of 2009. Graduate jobs are thin on the ground – and may continue to be so for years to come. The Bank of Mum and Dad is under pressure, and the yellow brick road to university and a career that will pay off student debt is being questioned. And quite rightly so.

Taking a gap year – this year, more than any other – has become a serious option for many. It's not about travel and volunteering. Far from it. It's about a constructive use of time that will enable young people to find and demonstrate focus, showcase their abilities, and discover a life path that works for them, both financially and emotionally.

Constructive gap years help students stand out to employers and universities.

Admissions tutors point out that, while gap-year experiences will never be a substitute for not having the required grades, a constructive year can often add weight to an individual's case, particularly for vocational degrees. What marine biology course wouldn't choose a candidate fresh from a year on a Malaysian reef project over an identical student unable to show even a basic interest?

An ability to demonstrate genuine interest and to talk knowledgeably in an interview around the subject based on real experiences will fast-track you on to the shortlists.

Graduate recruiters, who now have demand outstripping supply, also place enormous value on gap-year experiences. Sitting in a bath of cat food to raise money for a six-month placement shadowing a vet on a lion project in Kenya, or a 10,000-mile adventure in a pink tuk-tuk raising funds for charity – both real examples, two of the thousands I see each year – jump out from the mass of bland, identical, CVs.

Demonstration of character, ambition, achievement, key skills and life experiences trump a generic degree every time. Employers want young people keen to follow a well thought-out life path, not robotic exam-factory clones.

Students need more than just good results to take that important first step on their chosen life path, no matter what they're aiming for. Work experience and proof of an interest in a career are a necessity. The gap year is an ideal time to "test-drive" jobs to get this experience.