A beginner’s guide to Gap Years
Whether you want to spend a year on the road or a few weeks getting some work experience, there’s a gap for you. Here’s all the info you need to start planning
What is a gap year?
A gap year can describe any period of structured activity between leaving school and going on to the next stage, whatever it might be. It doesn’t actually have to be a full year – it’s just a catchy phrase that can apply to any length of activity. You can have a meaningful gap experience in just a few weeks, for example.
The key thing is that a gap year is planned. It’s not a gap year to leave school and then sit aimlessly watching every box set on Netflix until your eyeballs shatter. With proper planning, you’ll end your gap with new skills and experiences under your belt, ready to take the next step – whether that’s into work, education or training.
Five reasons to take one
Gap years aren’t for everyone. Some people might prefer the continuity of going straight into higher education, for example, or starting an Apprenticeship. Those that do choose a gap might do it for a few different reasons, though. Here are some of the best ones:
1 – Because it’s fun, and you can. You’re uniquely positioned to take a bit of time out and do something for yourself when you leave school. A gap year can have lots of practical benefits, but perhaps most importantly it can just be a lot of fun, and that’s always a good thing.
2 – You can get out there. Gap years don’t have to be about seeing the world, but the nature of gap travel – including cheap multi-stop plane tickets and budget accommodation – means that it’s an affordable chance to visit places you might never reach otherwise.
3 – Get some valuable work experience. Many people use gap years to get work experience before going on to uni or applying for jobs. Without the pressure of school or college, you can spend a bit of time learning about work, making contacts and deciding what kind of career interests you.
4 – Have a break. You’ve been in education for a long time. Why not put your feet up? Again, this doesn’t mean spending six months in bed, but taking a break as part of your gap will refresh you for the next stage of your life.
5 – Learn some important life lessons. The idea of ‘finding yourself’ on a gap year is a bit of a hippy cliché. However, travelling or working can teach you things that will be useful for the rest of your life: about people, being organised, looking after yourself, and situations where you do (and don’t) feel confident and comfortable.
The different types of gap year
There isn’t a standard gap year. Everyone is different and wants different things. But there are some broad groups of options that will help you get started.
Independent travel is the one where you strap on a backpack and head off to see the world. It’s never been easier to arrange thanks to the internet and social media, and there’s loads of information out there on where to go and how to go there safely. If flying totally solo isn’t for you, you can also join group tours in countries as diverse as Peru, Australia and Africa.
Volunteering is another popular option. You can give your time, energy and enthusiasm to projects here in the UK, or travel overseas with groups like Raleigh International or CSV. These projects vary massively and it’s important to do your research, but they can offer a chance to help communities all over the world and also challenge yourself.
Seasonal work. The summer camp tradition isn’t something we really have in the UK, but it’s a US institution that requires new staff every year. You might be teaching sports, supervising children with learning difficulties, cooking, singing…it’s pretty varied. Alternatively you might work in chalets during a ski season to get experience, some mountain air and all the hot chocolate you can drink. Related to this is teaching English to overseas students – visit tefl.org.uk for more info.
Staycations to get experience and earn some money. Alternatively, you might prefer staying at home, with a few short breaks around the UK, while you work part-time to save up for uni, or whatever you’re planning to do next.
All of the above. Usually, though, a gap year is a combination of a few of these: maybe a few months’ work to save up, then six travelling; or volunteering overseas before going on to travel by yourself for a bit. There’s no one way of doing it, you can mix and match as much as you like.
But what do employers and unis think?
The vast majority of employers and unis that we speak to here at Careermap are in favour of gap years. They give you a chance to broaden your horizons, meet people from other cultures, pick up new skills, become more independent, clear your head and become more focused, learn how to be organised (those planes don’t catch themselves) and generally experience a bit more of life. Who wouldn’t want a student or employee like that? All you need to do is explain why you took a gap year and what you got out of it on your CV, and people will be on board.
How do I plan my gap year?
Think about the basics. What kind of gap appeals to you? Once you know that, you can think about the amount of time you have, and what you’d like to fill that time with. Then you can start going into detail: if you want to travel, where do you want to go? One country or several? Around the world by plane or around Europe by train? It’s the same for all the options: start with the big picture, then gradually work out the small stuff. The sites in our ‘More, please!’ box will help you with the planning stages.
Most importantly, take the gap year you want. Not the one your friends are taking, or the one you think you should take: you’ll get more out of it if you’re following your heart. Get planning, get excited and get ready to change your life. Enjoy!
Going backpacking? The ‘backpack’ bit is important, as it will basically contain your whole life for the time you’re away. So:
– Spend some proper money on it, and take your time finding the right one
– Make sure it fits properly and doesn’t put all the weight on your shoulders
– It must be easy to get things into and out of, but with zips you can padlock closed
– Make sure it’s small enough. Not big enough! The bigger it is, the more you’ll cram into it, and the harder it will be to live with. Go as small as you can bear, always leave space inside, and apply the ‘could I run for a train with this on my back?’ test.
Here are some essential sites:
gap-year.com (not the same one!)