what is a gap year?

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Manuel Delgado

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Aug 2017

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what is a gap year

A gap year, broadly speaking, is a break taken out by students between sixth form, or college, and university. This period away from ‘formal education’ doesn’t have to be a year, and it can be taken while at university or when you finish your degree.

What is a gap year?

Predominantly, a gap year involves travelling to another part of the globe, be that Australia, Thailand, USA or Peru (the most common destinations for gap year travellers) and taking part in summer camps, volunteer programs, teaching English or doing some conservation work.

Inverted commas are used to highlight 'formal education' because a gap year can be, and generally is, an educating experience - but not in the formal sense of the word.

A gap year is a time of learning. During this time you will acquire many skills that will enhance your university experience, or get you career ready. But instead of a lecture hall, the world will be your classroom.

Why take a gap year?

A gap year is about one of the most exciting, exhilarating, life-changing experiences that you can have. One of the best ways I know to open your mind to the amazing possibilities that lay in front of you is by travelling.

The American musician, activist, and filmmaker Frank Zappa once said “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” Don’t know who Frank Zappa is? Check this video out. It’s got nothing to do with gap years, but what he says is empowering.

Here are some of the reasons why you should take a gap year:

Develop your Transferable Life Skills - Taking a gap year will give you the time to hone some important transferable life skills such as problem-solving, money management, time management, and being self-sufficient.

These are some of the skills that employers want. Also they will make your transition into university life smoother. If you take a gap year you will return with some awesome skills and be more than ready to take advantage of what university life has to offer.

Explore your Interests - Naturally you will want to do some things that interest you, such as volunteering in some area that you would like to study, or feel strongly about.

Alternatively (or also) apply for an internship in the industry that you would like to work in after university, helping you gain a better understanding before committing all that time and money.

Acquire a New Skill Set – Study to teach English, learn a new language or perfect one that you already know. Or do you want to learn a new skill like becoming a diving or snowboarding Instructor?

Set yourself some challenges and you will reap the rewards of growth, confidence, and fulfilment for many years to come.

Increased Cultural Awareness - A gap year will give you a well-rounded view of the world and you will be much more culturally, politically and economically aware than before you left.

Your Confidence will Skyrocket - You will be better informed and have a deeper knowledge of yourself and be clearer about what you really want.

Gain Clarity About your Career Path - This, in turn, means that you will be more certain about your career and academic path, giving you more satisfaction in your career prospects.

Make Money and Pay Some of your Tuition Fees - You didn’t expect this one, did you? As a young UK citizen (18 to 30 yrs.) you are eligible to apply for a Working Holiday Visa in any EU country and another 7 international countries, including Australia, the USA, and Canada.

If you want more details on this read ‘Which Countries Offer Working Holiday Visas for British People?’ by Global Goose.

Did you know that working as a caterer in the mining industry in the Australian outback could net you 16,000 AUD for three months work! That’s about £9,500, equal to a year of tuition fees.

Should I take a gap year?

Gap years are not for everybody, the decision is only for you to make. But, if you do decide that it is the right thing for you then the benefits of a taking a gap year can prove invaluable.

Here are some of the more common reasons for taking a gap year that I have heard over the years while working as an expedition leader for gap year providers:

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    You would like to gain life experiences.
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    Your mate/cousin/brother/sister did it and loved it.
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    You want to travel and experience other cultures.
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    You would like to volunteer and make the world a better place
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    “I didn’t get a university placement” or “I had a placement but want to try and get a placement at a better university.” 
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    You need a break from full-time classroom education (I say ‘classroom’ as your education will continue while travelling).
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    You don't know what to do and feel uninspired - a gap year might help you to find your passion.
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    Because you can! You seek fun, challenges and inspiration.
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    You want to explore career options, learn other languages and gain work experience.

Maybe you can relate to one of these, or maybe you identify with a combination of the above. The important factor here is that you discover your own reason for taking a gap year.

How does a gap year work?

what is a gap year

This depends entirely on you, though I would recommend that you approach it the same as you would an academic year - choose to go for the summer break in between study years or go for the academic year, ready to return the following summer.

But what to do with your gap year? It is important that you work out what kind of gap year works for you. Should you stay in the UK, travel, or both? Take the time to explore your options and choose what’s best for you. 

Staying in the UK working may be the right thing for you if you are looking for a breather from education and you want to save some money and get some work experience before university.

Maybe you don’t feel ready to choose what you want to study at university or aren’t even sure that you want to go to university. Unfortunately, university fees are quite expensive so it’s understandable if you want some more time to consider your options. Getting out there and working can help put things into perspective for you.

Alternatively, you could choose to travel and see the world a little before you make the three/four-year commitment to university study. You may want to go overseas to experience different cultures, get some valuable work experience and volunteer on a project that ties in with what you want to study and do as a career.

Possibly you will prefer to take a mini-gap during the summer holidays.This is increasingly becoming an attractive option to students as they can carry on their studies without taking a year out, and still get the benefits of travelling and volunteering.

Essentially, it’s up to you to decide what type of gap year you want and to think about what you want to get out of it, and then you can make the decision of whether you want to stay at home or travel, or even if you want to take a gap year after all.

You may find it helpful to chat through this with your parents, or a careers adviser. In fact, I recommend that you do so as they may help bring some clarity to this big decision. 

How to ‘do’ a gap year

The best way to 'do' a gap year is by making sure it is eye-opening and truly life-changing. How do you achieve this? Here is my advice on best ways to do a gap year:

Break it into small chunks – the logistics of a gap year can be intimidating, take time and meditate on what you want and then think about how this can translate into your gap year experience.

Visualise how it looks like for you and then turn it into reality by planning the actions that you will have to do to achieve your end goal.

Plan your itinerary around your goals - Your gap year should be well-planned and geared towards personal interests and career aspirations and benefit any future study and career goals.

Visit projects and places that will reflect your passions and compliment your choice of a university course, or your chosen career. These are the types of gap years that universities and employers pay attention to.

Your gap year should be about learning - Look at your gap year as an academic year, except that you are undertaking extracurricular activities. Learn new skills that are relevant with your interests as well as learn more about yourself.

The key is to feel proud of your own personal achievements during your gap year, so you will project this on your personal statement or interviews.

Work while travel - If you know where to look you can make some good money while travelling. You can also stay in places for free, working a few hours a day in exchange of food and board.

Forget gap year companies - This is one of the reasons I created this website - to empower young people to plan their own gap year.

What some of these companies charge for their experiences is ludicrous. You can do the same for half of the price. Do your research, shop around for flights, contact projects yourself, and you will be surprised how much money you can save.