Gap year: how to make yourself stand out

Monday 11 August 2008 10:35 BST

Dynamic gap year students will always stand out from the rest of the A-list crowd, says Tom Griffiths the founder of

“Everyone is the same. It’s impossible to tell them apart!” Words I hear regularly from both university admissions tutors and graduate recruiters. Admissions tutors, especially for competitive courses such as medicine, veterinary science and law, face a stack of UCAS applications from “straight A” students all professing to have shown an interest in their subject since the age of three.

Very few, however, demonstrate relevant work experience to back up their claims. Likewise for graduate recruiters, sifting through maybe a thousand applications for less than 50 positions, “A” grades and 2.1 degrees are standard, as are the words “I’m ambitious”. Same, same.

The search for the best candidates is getting harder as great A-level grades and a degree no longer separate you from the crowd. The environment has also changed. The global economy has little time for academics. Hungry, motivated graduates full of life skills – most notably initiative, communication and decisionmaking skills – are the gold we employers now mine for.

Academic achievements and social background are irrelevant.

Sadly, while the self-belief of our 18-year-olds has never been greater, their ability to demonstrate a clearly chosen career path to fulfil their potential has never been worse.

I often ask rooms full of A-level students to stand up if they are “definitely heading to university”, and then ask those who “definitely know what they want to do in life” to sit down. With most of the room left standing (even after asking those with “serious work experience” to also sit down), you can see the depth of the problem admissions tutors and graduate recruiters have. A room of “No goals” and “Have done nothing”.

Remind the students that their decision to chase this empty goal will cost them over £10,000 and the sheepish silence descends.

So, how do you stand out? If you’ve done very little, you will struggle. However, well thought out and executed gap years jump out from thousands of identical, clone-like application forms.

Allow me to demonstrate. Imagine you are a veterinary science admissions tutor with one place left. Your three options are Sarah, who spent the full 15 months of her gap year working as an assistant at her local vet; David, who spent his gap year working at his local vet, assisting a Kenyan game ranger on a vaccination programme and some time at Singapore Zoo; Abigail, straight from school, no work experience. All are identical “straight A” students. On paper, who is your weakest candidate?

Now imagine that you are a Graduate Recruiter. One interview slot left and the choice of Stephen, who spent two years planning his gap year, to cycle the length of Chile raising £8,000 for Cystic Fibrosis; Tori, who sat in a bath of cat food to raise funds to visit a lion conservation project in South Africa and volunteered locally; Richard, who worked for 15 months at his local B&Q to save funds for university (demonstrating hard work to achieve a financial goal); and candidate four, who went straight into university, whose key selling points include “prefect” and “captain of the school football team”. Same question: the weakest candidate on paper?

Gap year experiences stand out. Fact. BT and ICI have recently lowered their accepted degree grade to a 2.2 to investigate a wider pool of candidates to find those who “stand out”. As an employer, I am after driven people who achieve in life, not those who take the train.

Like many, I am concerned about the silent majority ( research indicates over 50 per cent) who have no career plan but simply follow the crowd into university and serious debt hoping that a degree will deliver a dream future. Being part way through or at the end of a degree before realising that it is the wrong path is an expensive and unnecessary option. The luxury of changing degree courses without the burden of debt has now gone. Students need to work out what they want to do before they commit to years of study and maybe over £20,000 of debt.

Work experience gap years, one of the fastest growing options, are proven to prevent unnecessary debt. Modern gap years enable young people to make life choices, develop life skills and to find focus. Irrelevant of social background, gappers stand out on paper and in interviews and in most cases are streets ahead of the rest. The gap year should no longer be thought of in a travel or volunteer context, but a life option seriously considered by all.

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