A gap year is an incredible opportunity to explore, save money and learn new skills, but only if you make use of your time effectively. Here are 5 tips for making the most of your gap year:
1. Half work, half play
A gap year shouldn’t be viewed simply as a year off. It is an opportunity to equip yourself with skills desirable to employers, as well as doing once-in-a-lifetime activities. To maintain a balance between the two, divide your gap year into things you want to experience and things you want to achieve.
Split the year in half or into thirds. You can spend half the year working, and then go travelling. If you don’t want to travel, you can spend a third of the year gaining work experience, another third earning and saving money then learn a new skill or study for the remainder. This method will ensure you have a year full of a variety of experiences.
Whatever you plan to do, it is wise to divide your year up as soon as possible to avoid drifting through the year without fully achieving or completing anything. Sticking to a plan shows employers you can be committed and driven when required, as well as giving you a sense of achievement once your year is up.
2. Don’t be afraid to go it alone
The idea of planning a whole year alone can seem daunting. It can appear far easier to pay a company a fee to assign you to a volunteering/teaching course abroad - but this is not always the best idea.
It’s possible to volunteer and work abroad on-the-go whilst travelling, rather than being stationed in one place. By planning your own gap year, you will develop skills such as: organisation, responsibility, timekeeping, independence and potentially even leadership if travelling with friends.
Being flexible and adaptable allows you to say ‘yes’ to multiple experiences on your gap year; being beholden to someone else’s rigid structure is the downside of giving up the hassle of planning. Peter, now aged 21, says, “The best memories I have of my gap year almost always come from the spontaneous and unplanned things we did”.
Researching potential things to do in your gap year will ensure that you find experiences that are best suited to you, rather than following a traditional gap year formula.
This advice doesn’t just apply to those wishing to travel. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when deciding how best to spend your time. Learn a language, support a local charity, enroll in a college course, start a blog; there is plenty of new experiences to be had from home so do your research alone to find exactly what appeals to you.
So plan, think and research. It is fun in itself.
3. Trial potential careers
People often take a gap year because they aren’t sure what to do next. This is far more sensible than jumping into a course/apprenticeship you aren’t sure about, but only if you use the year to try and gain more clarity.
The best way to do this? Work experience.
If you can’t do the exact job you are interested in, take on a small job within that industry or offer to work unpaid for a short period of time. For example, if you are interested in becoming a film director try to shadow one. If that isn’t possible, opt to be an assistant on set. This will give you a real taste of the work environment. You will quickly know if that industry is for you.
It’s perfectly possible that you will hate your work experience, but even this is worth it! You will have saved yourself a lot of time, cost and effort in the long run. Abbie, 19, said, “I wanted to go into wedding planning, but after my work experience I knew it would be too stressful and just wasn’t for me, it stopped me taking a course in Event Management just in time!”
4. Consider your course
Not all courses encourage students to take gap years. Maths departments, for example, tend to view them as negatively interrupting studies.
If you are desperate to take a gap year but want to study a subject where deferred entry is not accepted, ensure that you are doing things which will help you maintain the standard you achieved through A Level/BTEC/IB. For instance, it would be extremely beneficial for someone interested in studying French to travel to a French speaking country, whereas travelling to India could seem pointless and ill-thought-through from a university’s perspective.
If applying for Deferred Entry, always explain how you plan to make your gap year relevant to your future studies in your Personal Statement. This will help your admissions tutors believe that you are committed to your chosen course in the long term.
5. Plan money first
The easiest mistake to make is poor financial planning. When travelling, it is easy to ignore money and suddenly find you’re in a great city but unable to do much at all.
You might want some flexibility within your plans, but have a basic outline of your trip, and have booked your flights home. It is not unheard of for people to actually have too little money to get back home after travelling. Decide on the amount you want to spend either per day or per week, rather than per month.
Research the cost of living in these far flung places. Do not assume that the cost of food, hotels or hostels will be the same as back home. Make sure you always have a financial safety net. Travelling throws unexpected events at you, so making sure you always have enough money for somewhere to stay and a hot meal is crucial.
Medical bills in foreign countries can often be incredibly high so always ensure you have paid for health insurance before your trip, in case of a medical emergency.
If you aren’t travelling, don’t underestimate how much you will appreciate your savings once you arrive at university; it will put you in a position other students will envy. Often the company you worked for will be happy to invite you back in future holidays or, if you have worked for a large company with multiple branches, you might be able to continue that job in your new city if you move away to university.