A year out of the ordinary

Constructive gap years, as opposed to extended holidays, improve CVs

For many graduates, landing a job on graduation means breathing a sigh of relief, and enjoying some financial security. For others, the prospect of eternal nine-to-five is more terrifying than sitting their finals. "The thought of just taking up a job and getting on with it, just seemed like such a waste," says Elly Kent, who took a year after graduating to travel. "I didn't want my life to be this clichéd trajectory of 'leave college, go to university, get a job'. So I took some time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. And, generally, just did all the things I never had time for at university."

Elly is certainly not alone in her choice to expand her horizons. Many students are weighing up a lifetime behind a desk, with the chance to do something different. And it seems that in the current competitive jobs market, a year out after graduating can be a clear advantage for later employment. Research by the Chartered Institute of Managers shows that almost half of HR Managers believe graduates' preparedness for the world of work has decreased. One-third think graduates have poor interpersonal skills, with diplomacy and team-working cited as key areas of concern. Understandably then, graduates who appear to have proved their maturity through considered sabbaticals can be at an advantage.

"Organisations have high expectations of their graduates' preparedness for their professional roles," says Petra Cook, Managing Director of the Chartered Institute. "However, many university-leavers enter the marketplace without transferring classroom confidence into practical business skills. By participating in a gap year which expands their horizons and enhances their problem-solving skills, graduates will be better able to meet the needs of business and help smooth their entry into the UK job market."

Travel is the obvious choice for a fulfilling and diverse gap year. And with the market for student travel expanding exponentially, options range from round the world tickets, to working on a cocoa plantation. Andrew Fidler has recently set up www.findagap.com to help students assess the overwhelming range of gap year choices available. He recommends that graduates capitalise on the range available, by making more than one choice.

"In terms of employment, I'd say the best idea is to go for a mix of independent travelling and volunteer placements. For today's multi-cultural employers, learning about different cultures can be a real advantage, particularly if you pick up some language skills. Then you've got the added confidence you gain from meeting new people, and that can add to your employability."

Alternatively, there are a number of structured placements which can easily keep you occupied for the entire year - particularly when you take saving the money into account.

Projects like Raleigh International (www.raleigh.org.uk) offer participants the chance for hands-on involvement with a local community, which can prove both challenging and rewarding. "The opportunity to take a gap year doesn't come about all that often," explains Christine Kent, Expedition Co-ordinator for Raleigh. "But I would advise anyone considering it to think about what they want to get out of the experience. Travel does broaden the mind, but you should use the opportunity wisely. Anybody can go and sit on a beach for a couple of months. The projects we run get people interacting with the community, and really learning something about the country they're in. Personally, I'm always impressed when someone's taken the time to find out more about themselves, but I'm a great deal more impressed if someone's done something constructive."

And time-out after university need not necessarily be all about travelling the world, or tracking a spiritual awakening. A few motivated graduates use the break to write a novel, explore extra qualifications, or even start up their own business. "Graduation is not such a bad time to start out in business as many students seem to think," says Martijn Mugge, who runs the government-sponsored Entrepreneurs Summer School, where students develop potential business ideas. "Now is a time when they don't have family commitments, and they haven't invested their time into the pay structure of a company." Many universities now have enterprise centres on campus which can help students with business ideas. They can also advise students on funding opportunities open to young entrepreneurs, such as the Shell LiveWire scheme.

So, will a year out give your CV that magical X-factor? Or simply hint to employers a lack of direction? "The short answer is: 'It depends what you do with it'," says Kerry Hallard, Managing Director of Buffalo Management Consultancy. "A year's empty space on a CV will not impress anyone, but a well-planned gap year backed up with the ability to say how the experiences gained will assist you in your chosen career will certainly be helpful. A gap year can prove all sorts of attractive qualities - creativity, perseverance, confidence. However, it can also provide ammunition for some pretty heavy interview questions. If you have valid reasons to take time out, this should not be a problem. But if you've had a year's holiday and learned nothing, it will show."

Perhaps most importantly, if you are nurturing a dream to take some quality "me time", you should consider how much more difficult this will be to achieve in later life. Many graduates step onto the first rung of the ladder without considering how far up they have to climb before stepping off is an option. "Taking a year out after university is something I always wished I'd done," explains Nick Fulford, managing director of CanCan Communications. "But, partly because of student debts, I went straight into a career path. Now I'm 30, and it gets harder and harder to just take off and see the world. Apart from anything else, I think I'm used to home comforts now, and it wouldn't be so easy for me."

For Elly Kent, the decision to take a year out helped her to realise what career she would be best suited to, proving that in the end, the decision was well worth the wait. "Spending that year working through my options helped me to understand that I want a more academic career," she explains. "I enrolled to do an MA in history, which I love, and hope to go on to a PhD. If I'd have taken a graduate job after university, I'd still be there now. And I wouldn't have a clue what I'd be missing!"

'I became proficient in spoken Japanese'

Sam Morley works as a PR account manager at Big Group PR

I went to Japan for a year, two weeks after finishing my finals on the JET government teaching scheme. I knew I wanted to take a year off, but wanted to do something constructive that would give me a new skill and bridge the gap between university and 'real life'.

As a result of my year abroad, I became proficient in spoken Japanese and vastly boosted my confidence to be creative on the spot and present in front of a crowd. I was often called upon to make speeches at the last minute or find a way to while away an hour in a busy classroom.

I also volunteered working at a school for blind and disabled kids. Four years later, I am looking for a role in charity PR.

Potential employers are impressed by my ability to pick up skills quickly and the experience I gained in volunteering. I went to Oxford with loads of friends from more affluent backgrounds who did the travelling thing before working in the city but I would recommend doing something constructive which helps you progress on a personal and professional level.

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