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Taking a gap year

Taking a year out (before or after university) can be a very good thing − especially if you are sick of annual exams and your interests go beyond simply getting a degree and a job. A year out can help you get all sorts of experience that schools and universities cannot provide.

So, what to do with it? Doing nothing is definitely not recommended (and boring). So be ambitious and do your own thing.

You can mix and match some/all of the following, and mix home and/or overseas –

  • travel
  • voluntary work
  • paid work

For instance, gappers often take paid work in the UK for a few months, then voluntary work overseas for another 2–3 months and round off the year with international travel up to the end of the summer.

Overseas travel obviously ‘broadens the mind’ but it also forces you to live on a budget – a vital experience for your years as a cash-starved student. Working overseas (paid or unpaid) can be more interesting and useful than just travelling in a country - see Work (paid or voluntary). And paid work, particularly if it is lucrative, can help pay for your travel and contribute to the cost of your voluntary work or university course and, if carefully chosen, can help to make you much more employable when you graduate.

Even in difficult economic circumstances, there are plenty of ways of filling the year actively. Wonderful opportunities are on offer – to teach English in Bolivia, save turtles in Sri Lanka, work in a hospital in Thailand, lead adventure training courses in Canada...

Do you really need to plan your gap year a very long time ahead? The pundits say yes - you should plan two years in advance, which means starting early in Year 12. Clearly this makes no sense for most sixth formers and many successful gap years are arranged in far less time. But if you wait until you have left school and got your results, you may well find you have missed out on some opportunities.

Where to start searching for these opportunities? There are many professional gap-year organisations, which offer structured programmes in many parts of the world. These will have local support arrangements in place − worth it if it’s your first time away, even if it just allows your parents to sleep at night. A good start is to check out organisations within the Year Out Group, a self-regulatory group of 35 non-profit organisations. Its website, www.yearoutgroup.org, has lots of good advice, how to assess what’s on offer and links to member organisations. If you want to go to a developing country, make sure you choose a company that is involved in useful work and you will not just be putting someone local out of a job.

What is on offer, how well it’s organised and how much it costs obviously varies. Gap year providers charge from £1000 to over £4000 and, particularly in the current economic climate, it is worth shopping around. Make sure you compare like with like, so check whether the fee covers eg accommodation, flight, food, training, visa, insurance, meeting you at the airport, coping if you are sick etc.

Placement organisations do not offer Club 18–30 holidays for the brainy. If you want to go to the developing world, get ready for basic conditions and don’t expect everything to be handed to you on a plate.

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