Taking a gap year: should you stay or should you go?

Travel, volunteering or working are the options to weigh up for an experience that could enhance your time at university

Russ Thorne
Tuesday 12 July 2016 15:55
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If you're thinking about taking a gap year before university, you're not alone. Malia Obama's decision to take time out before going to Harvard has been widely reported, and every year several thousand UK students make the same choice. But should they bother?

Gap years are not without their downside. There has long been debate over the merit of paying – sometimes a lot – to join overseas volunteering expeditions claiming to “benefit” communities in developing nations, for example. Similarly, the off-the-peg-enlightenment of the slackpacking “gap yah” circuit does open itself up to ridicule. There have even been studies from the Department for Education suggesting that those who take a gap year end up earning less than their peers by the age of 30 (although there's no suggestion the cause is excessive sarong expenditure, and on the flipside gappers tend to get better degree results).

However, much of this criticism simply highlights the importance of a well-researched, carefully-planned gap year (and perhaps suggests a dash of schadenfreude towards those backpackers daring to have a good time). There's no one route to take: it could involve travel, volunteering, work, or a combination of all three.

Either way, it can be time well spent when it comes to applying to or attending uni, argues Andrew Carter, head of Recruitment and Outreach at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). “As well as subject-specific experience, the life skills students can gain from a gap year are hugely valuable such as experience living away from home, greater cultural awareness, and better communication skills.”

There can be benefits once you start looking for jobs, too, with employers quick to see the positives in taking time out to work or travel. “There’s value in both routes,” says Ann Pickering, HR Director for O2, who says that while arranging an internship is great, a gap year can mean more than that. “It might mean testing your physical limits trekking in the Rockies, or seeing the sun rise on every continent. The really important thing is to use that time to gain perspective and focus.”

Enter a gap year with a clear plan and open mind and it can be a positive, life-changing experience. Emily Louise Key, studying logistics management at the University of Derby, lived in the Bavarian town of Abensberg for six months, combining work as an au pair with travel in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. She says that the time out really helped her prepare for student life. “It ensured I understood being independent, while still looking out for others.”

Living with a family, learning a new language and visiting places beyond the tourist hotspots also added to the highlights. “The experiences from taking a gap year are irreplaceable,” says Emily. “You develop a skillset different to those who go to university directly from school or college.”

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