The 21st-century gap industry is big business, with many rival outfits jostling for position, making it seem like a crowded, bewildering proposition. But, at its core, the concept of a gap year is reassuringly stable – as are the potential benefits of taking one. There's the lure of the open road for those inclined to travel; the chance to challenge yourself; plus it's an opportunity to learn new skills and have life-altering experiences along the way.
"A gap year is still one of the most worthwhile experiences you can have," says Marcus Sherifi, travel editor at Gapyear.com. "You learn about yourself, gain independence, learn about other cultures and societies... it really makes you a more rounded person."
Gap years can benefit students starting university, according to Martha Holland, head of student recruitment at St George's, University of London. "Going straight from school to university doesn't suit everyone, and a gap year can make the difference in adjusting to the freedom and independence that university gives you."
An extra year of maturity and the experience of independent work or travel can also make arriving at a large university less daunting, and those applying later – perhaps as a result of clearing or resits – can use a gap to their advantage. According to Holland, using the time to get course-related experience (either through work or volunteering) can also be helpful.
The same is true for those seeking work. Gustaf Nordback, senior director of global consumer strategy at graduate employer Rosetta Stone, believes travel can help candidates ready themselves for the working world. "They have travelled, have taken on a personal challenge and have gone out of their comfort zone. They are therefore more confident."
For those considering a gap year, the first thing to know is that the term is a misnomer, conjuring as it does images of 12 months of hammocks and hangovers. In fact, a gap can be of any length and, according to Sherifi, small can sometimes be beautiful. He gives an example of working during the summer before university, then taking a month off to visit Thailand before returning for Freshers' Week. "It refreshes and rejuvenates you, and gives you a new perspective. If you've had a break from education, you really tackle it head-on once you get back into it."
Whether you're taking a few months out or a full year, the classic gap options fall into three broad categories – work, volunteering and independent travel – with lots of room for individual interpretation. Many gappers combine a couple of these, or perhaps even all three.
"Work" can refer to the job you take to save up for your four-month trek through China, of course, but in the gap context it's generally about more exotic employment, often overseas. It can be something you arrange for yourself, or you might go through an agency such as Bunac, who have a range of overseas work programmes in Australia, Canada and New Zealand; or Camp America, who will place you on summer camps in the US where you could do anything from teaching tennis to acting as a lifeguard.
For something different, you might enjoy the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (Wwoof) programmes, available all over the world. They are popular in Australia and combine travel Down Under with the chance to work on farms and retreats in return for food and board. There's also the ever-popular Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl) option.
Volunteering can offer similarly diverse opportunities to get up close with a new culture, while making a difference to a community. Organisations offer opportunities around everything from sea turtle conservation to working with aboriginal communities in Northern Canada.
Alas, with such variety on offer there can be varying quality, so putting time in upfront is essential, according to Sherifi, especially if you're paying a lot to take part in a programme. "You have to spend hours doing your research. Ask questions of companies to find out where your money is going and speak to people who have been there to see if it's the right experience for you."
Social networks are your ally when it comes to finding out about any volunteer organisations you're interested in. Look for reviews on Gapyear.com or travel forums such as Thorn Tree (lonelyplanet.com/thorntree). Travel shows are also good places to meet companies in the flesh.
By far the most popular option for pre-uni gappers is still independent travel, perhaps incorporating time for working or volunteering too. Tom Hall, travel editor for Lonely Planet, believes that for school leavers this kind of travel is more important than ever. "They come out of school under incredible pressure. It's important they see the world and understand that there's a lot more to life than grades and exams. I think you can tell the difference between someone who has seen the world, travelled and challenged themselves, and someone who hasn't."
Taking some time to clear her head is the main reason Ellie Lofts, 17, has decided to take a gap year after A-levels, while she considers what path to follow at university. "I came to realise that a gap year was the best way of not putting pressure on myself to choose a subject to study," she says. Her plan is to travel through Australia and South-east Asia.
To reassure first-time solo travellers like Lofts, Hall stresses that "independent" does not have to mean "alone". "Small group adventure tourism has grown in popularity. Lots of people do those trips. They guarantee you'll have people around," he says. Even if you strike out independently you'll meet people, whether that's before you arrive via social media or on location. "You're not going to have to spend significant periods of time on your own," says Hall. "You can go to popular places where travellers hang out, or stay in hostels, and you'll make friends. It's very social – and everyone is in the same boat."
To begin planning a round-the-world or independent trip, Hall is an advocate of the atlas approach: sit down with it (or fire up Google Earth) and start exploring places you'd like to go. It was Lofts' approach, too: "I spent time with my friend discussing the places we most wanted to experience, and what we will get out of each place," she says.
Current gapper favourites are in South-east Asia, but stalwart locations such as Australia and New Zealand remain popular – and don't forget that Europe offers a huge variety of adventures, including the budget-friendly InterRail option.
It's then time to investigate round-the-world tickets, details of destinations and start planning timescales and budgets. There are many guides to help with every kind of gap year, either online through gapyear.com or gap-year.com (two different sites) or in print courtesy of Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or The Gap-year Guidebook. All offer unbiased advice. The key is to start planning early and save hard for as long as possible.
Whatever you do with your gap year, however, with careful planning it can be a powerful and life-changing experience that will set you up for the future. Lofts definitely thinks that it's the right time for an adventure. "I feel that before I can decide what I want to do with my life I need to explore and see the world," she says.
Wherever you end up, a gap year is a unique opportunity. "It's a time in your life where you can be a little bit selfish and think about the things you've always wanted to do," says Hall. "The world is your oyster and there aren't many times in your life like that."