Taking a gap year can be beneficial - certainly in terms of your career and the experiences gained - but you'll need to determine if it's the right choice for you

What is a gap year?

The phrase 'gap year' has traditionally meant a period of time taken out by students after leaving college and before starting university. However, gap years now happen at any stage, they can be taken by anyone, and for varying amounts of time.

You can fly off to sunnier climates and experience different cultures or stay closer to home and sample what the UK has to offer. Whatever your destination, some examples of gap year activities include conservation work, adventure travel programmes, summer schools and internships. Discover some more gap year ideas.

To explore available programmes, see gap year opportunities.

What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

  • Develop your transferable skills - you'll learn to budget when planning a gap year, and you'll need to use your initiative when making all the preparations. If you're heading abroad for work experience, you'll also acquire valuable skills employers want.
  • Raise your cultural awareness - living and working alongside local people will allow you to appreciate other cultures and expand your global network of friends.
  • Increase your confidence and independence - having to converse and interact with the people you meet can help you to build relationships and become more self-assured. Arranging travel, finding accommodation and surviving on your own money are great ways to show your independence.
  • Learn a new craft - if there's something you've always wanted to try, your gap year is a great time to give it a go. Whether you fancy surfing, filmmaking, cookery or even the art of kung fu, this is your chance to broaden your horizons.
  • Gain work experience - most jobs expect you to have undertaken some form of work experience, and a gap year is a perfect opportunity to start building this. The more relevant it is to your course and future career, the better. For instance, if you want to be a teacher, seek out opportunities to work with children and consider community work if you're looking to get into social care. For a more in-depth look at working in a foreign country, explore working abroad.
  • Save money for university - another advantage to spending at least part of your gap year working is to earn money that can be used to fund your life as a student. While you may not be able to command a huge wage, it can give you a taste of being self-sufficient. Some gap year programmes, such as summer camps, allow you to work for pocket money to put towards travelling a country once the activities have ended.
  • Improve your language skills - if your gap year involves living in a country where English isn't so widely spoken, you should aim to pick up some useful phrases and then add to them each day. Not only will this endear you to local people, it may also help you find a job when you return home. Many organisations now trade globally and employing someone who can speak different languages is a huge asset. You may also wish to consider teaching English abroad.
  • Give you time to decide if university is right for you - should you be in two minds whether you wish to devote the next few years of your life to studying for an undergraduate degree, a gap year can give you the breathing space to consider your options. A break from study often helps to provide clarity and it can even open up new avenues for a future career.

Will it affect my chances of getting a job?

Employers will typically look at hundreds of applications, so a gap year is a great way to make yours stand out. At the interview stage, you can draw on the experience and provide a number of interesting examples of what you did with your time.

By using a gap year as an opportunity to develop key skills, gain experience in a particular area, or try out different industries, you'll show that you're taking your career seriously and what you can take from it should certainly be viewed as a positive.

However, if you don't plan or actively take part in anything during your gap year, it's much harder to justify your trip to organisations you'd like to work for and so could be viewed as an unexpected gap on your CV. To ensure this doesn't happen, create a plan detailing what you want to achieve by the end of it.

Can I take a gap year before university?

The best time to take a gap year is different for each individual. While many school and college students decide to have a break from study to see more of the world before going to university, this is not for everyone. Some may feel they lose the momentum for studying when they return, and others can find the prospect extremely challenging and overwhelming at this stage in their lives.

If you do determine that now's the perfect opportunity to embark on a gap year adventure and you've already applied to university, you'll need to inform your chosen institution of your plans. When contacting the admissions office, be sure to state why you want to defer and what you intend to do with your time. It's then up to the university to assess each case and make a decision as to whether you can defer.

To justify deferring your place, you'll need to prove that your gap year is constructive and that you'll gain something from it. Choosing to do something related to your course may also strengthen your case. For some subjects, such as maths and physics, it's important to keep your subject knowledge and skills up to date, so you'll need to explain to your tutors how you intend to do this.

If you're unsure of whether this time out will affect you, speak to lecturers and friends and ask your university careers service if they offer any support for students planning time away from their studies.

Can I take a gap year during university?

Taking a gap year in the middle of your university years isn't recommended, as the planning can distract you from your routine, with students often finding it hard to return to their studies once it's over. This is further complicated by the fact that your peer group will have moved on. Being surrounded by new people can make settling back in much tougher and you may even lose enthusiasm for the course altogether.

Unless you have a good reason for taking time out from your course to do a gap year, employers may perceive this time away as a lack of commitment. You need to think how you will explain this, detailing how what you learned helped you successfully complete the course when you returned.

Rather than having a full year off, you could possibly take a 'mini gap year' and use the summer holidays to travel, volunteer or work abroad. You then won't miss any of your course, but have the same opportunity to acquire skills that complement your degree. It may also show employers that you have developed good time management skills, organising your trip alongside a full-time degree.

You could also consider Erasmus+, a programme offering university students (who've completed their first year of study) the chance to do an internship abroad for a period of between two and 12 months.

To find out what's on offer, search work experience and volunteering opportunities abroad.

Should I take a year out after university?

After so many years devoted to study, a gap year could be seen as a well-earned break. As a wiser and more mature graduate, you could use this time to reflect on what you've achieved and decide on your next move. Entering the working world fresh from a break could be more beneficial than getting burned out from years of studying.

With such strong competition for jobs, you might wonder whether delaying entry into the jobs market is the best idea. However, a gap year can build the skills that employers are looking for and you'll be equipped with experiences to give your CV a boost.

On the other hand, due to your student loan and general living costs, you'll likely leave university in some debt, so taking a year out may not always be the best option. Instead, getting a job straight after graduation, giving you a regular income and the chance to start paying off some of what you owe, might be a more practical idea. You could still take a short break, but choose to stay closer to home.

If you plan to enter an employer graduate scheme, you'll need to consider the timing of your applications, the recruitment process and potential start date.

For those that return to the UK having had a great time on your gap year, the reality of coming home without university or a job to look forward to might leave you feeling deflated. It's therefore worth having a plan of action for what comes afterwards.

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