Is a gap year a good idea?
After attending school from the age of 5 or so to 18, it is not surprising that the idea of taking a gap year – a 12 month break – before starting college or university may seem very appealing. But beware – a gap year does not involve hanging out with your friends, watching Netflix and just generally relaxing – it has to enrich your skills and experience and have a positive outcome, if it is not to end up being a huge waste of time.
Gap years are far more popular in Europe and the UK than in America, where the trend is only just gathering momentum. Some writers say that this is because the US was built on a work ethic which values effort, success and “getting on“ more than personal growth and experimentation. A more mundane reason could well be the annual rise in tuition and other fees which is a common feature of American education, and encourages individuals to enroll on a course as soon as they are offered a place. In addition, US students who decide to take a gap year after being accepted by a university will need to reapply for financial aid and get permission to defer entry from the university admissions committee -two fairly long-winded processes
Nevertheless, the fact that a US gap year industry is emerging shows that its popularity is on the rise. In addition, both Florida State University and The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill already offer funding to some students who are taking a gap year, while Princeton provides a tuition-free year if you undertake a “transformational year of full-time service”. Nevertheless, at present only 3 per cent of students in the US take a gap year and 90 per cent of those who do, decide to return to full-time education, while 10 per cent decide to explore other avenues and turn their backs on academic life.
When should I apply for a gap year?
You have two options: you could decide to defer applying to university until the end of the gap year, and take advantage of what you have achieved in that time to enrich and improve your application. Alternatively, you could apply to university at the end of secondary school, along with everyone else, and then make a case for deferring your place until the following year. Let us look at both these options.
If you wait to apply at the end of your gap year, you may find it slightly more difficult to get references from your teachers, who could have moved on and been replaced, or have a less clear memory of your character and achievements. On the other hand, you will have received your scores and your diploma, so you will have a good idea of whether you have met the requirements of the university you wish to apply to, and will not have to worry about being rejected because your grades turned out to be too low.
If you decide to apply to a university and then defer taking up your place, most admissions committees will ask you to produce an outline of what you intend to do during the gap year before they decide whether to agree. Other universities – and this is often true of mathematics courses – may need persuasion that your gap year will be productive and useful, and that it has been well-structured. Still other universities may lay down conditions. The University of Cambridge, for example, asks its engineering applicants to go a little further and insists that they continue their academic work by engaging with specific, recommended websites throughout the gap year. In short, you will need to contact individual universities to discover their policies and attitudes to deferrals and any conditions they may attach to agreeing a gap year.
What can I do on my gap year?
The best criterion to use when deciding how to spend your gap year is to assess what a specific plan might add to your CV, your skillset and your experiences. One school of thought argues that you should view the gap year as an opportunity to do something which is closely related to your future studies. For example, you may decide to take an internship with a company in your field and get hands-on experience of what a career in this sector will look like – something which Forbes highly recommends. If you want to study languages, you could spend a year immersing yourself in a new culture and honing your practical knowledge of the language, for example by working as an au pair. Similarly, if you intend to study medicine, working or volunteering in a clinic, hospital, an NGO or with a frontline service will significantly broaden your knowledge and give you the practical skills which come from dealing with real-life situations.
In contrast, in Europe the gap year is often viewed as the 21st century equivalent of the 18th century Grand Tour, which saw thousands of well-off Europeans moving around the continent, in order to admire its architecture, art and historical sites. European gap year students often decide to pursue purely personal interests – they hike around the Himalayas, settle in ashrams in India, pick fruit in Australia , learn how to dive in the Red Sea and become crew members on yachts and cruise liners. These options obviously offer soft skills, are often exciting and unforgettable, and help individuals decide what they really want to do with their lives and what makes them happy. In many ways, this type of gap year is a positive experience, but you may have more problems getting a university to agree to defer your place if you want to shear sheep in New Zealand than if you have organised an internship with a well-established multinational. Remember, admissions committees are evaluating your academic commitment and talents and not your personal growth!
The disadvantages of taking a gap year:
– Unless you are focussed and well-organised time will run away from you and you will end up frittering away a whole year, having an extended and unpaid holiday.
– Most of your friends from school will go directly to university and you will find yourself out of step with them as they start their new academic life. You might end up getting depressed and feel marginalized and an outsider as they share common experiences, and worry that you have been left behind.
– A minority of students who take a gap year decide not to carry on with their higher education because they lose the habit and desire to study, and are no longer motivated to carry on their academic path.
– You could get into debt, particularly if you decide to spend much of your gap year travelling. Travel is expensive: air fares, insurance, visas, accommodation and general costs soon mount up, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to find casual work immediately.
– Many of the organised gap year opportunities advertised on the internet are of short duration and charge extremely high fees. Thus, while it might sound fantastic to spend two weeks camping in Alaska, this costs around 2,000 euros, a three-week road trip along the US east coast comes in at 2,200 euros and many conservation projects are even more expensive and of equally short duration. The majority of animal, marine and eco-system conservation projects run from 2-12 weeks and cost upwards of 4000 euros, plus airfare, induction, equipment etc if you decide to stay for three months. If you wanted to spend a year just volunteering, you can easily spend more than 25,000 euros moving from building a school in Nigeria to saving the manatee in California.
– While there are seasonal, contract and temporary placements available, and these are paid, usually at local rates, competition for these is fierce and demand varies from season to season.
– COVID-19 restrictions still apply in many countries, and travel is not as easy or problem-free as it was in the past, so you do not want to plan an entire gap year only to find that borders have suddenly shut to visitors.
– If you do decide to take up a volunteering post, make sure you choose a reputable company. The internet and social media are a great resource for checking details and reading others’ feedback. Do not forget that these types of gap year experiences have specific deadlines and that it takes a fair bit of time to sign up, organize, get your mandatory vaccinations, and book your flights etc. Do not imagine that you can rock up on a “poverty tour” and start building a clinic, introducing new health or agricultural practices to the locals or play a role in their lives.
Can I take a gap year before starting my postgraduate degree?
Taking a gap year before starting a Master’s is common and, if you are intending to study an MBA, for example, your application will be far stronger and more likely to succeed if you have a robust CV and two or more years of work experience.
Gap years provide you with the space and time to evaluate your future and an opportunity to learn new skills, pursue your interests and broaden your experiences. You need to plan and structure your gap year carefully and make sure that it adds value to your CV. You have to be disciplined, follow through and avoid the temptation of wasting your time lazing around the house. In the end, your gap year will be as brilliant as the thought and effort you put into it – so get researching and planning and have an amazing gap year!