There are plenty of reasons to take a gap year. For instance, you can learn to live independently, volunteer or simply give yourself time to think about your next step
What is a gap year?
The phrase 'gap year' has traditionally meant spending a year abroad on a structured programme while taking a break from study, with this rite of passage typically embraced by college leavers before they start university. However, gap years can be taken by anyone, and for varying lengths of time.
For example, you could choose to fly off to sunnier climates and experience a different culture for a few months during your summer break. Alternatively, you may wish to 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. Explore gap year ideas.
You can also view selected programmes at gap year opportunities.
Travel restrictions are now being lifted across many parts of the world following the global pandemic. However, gap years to some countries may still not be possible. For the latest foreign travel advice relating to specific countries, visit GOV.UK.
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 use your initiative when making preparations. If you're heading abroad for work experience, you'll also develop valuable communication skills.
- Raise your cultural awareness - living and working alongside local people will allow you to appreciate other cultures and expand your global network of friends. Having an expanded list of contacts can also be useful when finding a job, as you never know who'll be in a position to offer help.
- 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. The more relevant the internship or work placement is to your course and future career, the better. For instance, if you want to be a teacher, seek out programmes that allow you to work with children and consider community work if you're looking to get into social care.
- Save money for university - another advantage to spending at least part of your gap year working is to earn money. 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 those working at American summer camps, allow you to earn money to put towards travelling the country once your planned activities have finished.
- 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 work when you return home. Many organisations now trade globally and employing someone who can speak different languages would be a huge asset. You may also wish to consider teaching English abroad.
- Gives you time to decide if university is right for you - should you be in two minds about devoting 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 - see alternatives to university.
- Stand out from other applicants - when applying for jobs, employers will typically look at hundreds of applications, so a gap year could be a great way to make you stand out. At the interview stage, you can draw on the experience and provide a few interesting examples of what you did.
Are there disadvantages to taking a gap year?
- It can be hard to justify - if you don't plan or actively take part in anything during your gap year, it's much harder to justify your trip to employers. To ensure this doesn't happen, create a plan detailing what you want to achieve and then document what you did while on your gap year.
- Travelling alone can be difficult - while going it alone can teach you how to be independent it can also be lonely especially if you're away from family and friends for the first time. Making friends as you go and booking accommodation with others can help ease some of this loneliness.
- It can be very expensive - once you've booked flights, paid for accommodation and thought about travel the costs can start to add up, and that's before you've factored in food and activities. Having some savings before you leave gained through fundraising or a part-time job and then getting some work while on your gap year will be crucial to making the most of your time.
- You could lose momentum - taking a gap year for a year after graduation can be a sound plan as long as that year doesn't become three years and the momentum for returning to work gets less and less. Always have a return date in mind and a plan of what you'll do when you're home.
- You may become distracted - with the exciting locations you may find yourself in, there's a possibility that you may just use the time as a holiday rather that building your skills and learning about yourself. Of course, it's quite normal to enjoy different cultures, but you may be disappointed with your outcome in a year's time if your trip was just a party.
- You could fall behind - it's important to keep up to date with your subject or the sector you work in and taking a gap year where you switch this part of brain off can mean that you might not be up to speed when you return. Doing a gap year related to your potential course or career can help with this and staying up to date with industry news is also a good idea.
it's always important to refresh your memory on your studies, or keep practising exercises. It might take longer to reach where you were before with your knowledge if you've left that part of your brain alone for a year.
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 decide 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, state why you want to defer and what you intend to do. It's then up to the university to assess the 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.
Read more about getting into university.
Can I take a gap year during university?
Taking a gap year while at university isn't recommended, as the planning can distract you from your routine. Students often find 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 will have the same opportunity to acquire skills that complement your degree. It may also show employers that you've developed time management skills, organising your trip alongside a full-time degree.
You could also consider the Turing Scheme, which enables university students to embark on an internship abroad for a period of between 4 weeks and 12 months.
To find out what else is on offer, search work experience and volunteering opportunities abroad.
Should I take a year out after university?
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 enable you to build the skills 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 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 returning to the UK after having had a great time on a 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 follows.
Find out more
- For an in-depth look at potential gap year destinations, explore working abroad.
- Read our 7 steps to the ultimate gap year.
- Boost your employability at home through virtual work experience.