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.
One way to do this is by splitting 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. Another way is to combine both new experiences and learning into one. For example, you can travel and do some work experience abroad.
Whatever you choose, it's good to plan it in advance, otherwise you might end up spending most of your gap year deciding what to do!
2. Plan it yourself
The idea of planning a whole year yourself can seem daunting. It might sound a lot easier to pay a company to find opportunities for you, but actually, planning your own gap year is already the start of developing new skills. You’ll learn things like organisation, responsibility, timekeeping, independence, and potentially even leadership if you choose to do something with friends.
If you do it yourself, you’ll be able to find experiences that are really suited to you, and you can think outside the box of those planned trips: learn a language, support a local charity, enrol in a college course, start a blog... there are so many things you can do.
Finally, if you plan things yourself, you won’t need to stick to someone else’s structure, and you can be spontaneous. Peter, now 21, says, “The best memories I have of my gap year almost always come from the spontaneous and unplanned things we did”.
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.
One of the best ways to do this is by doing some work experience in an industry you’re interested in. This will give you a feel for the job and for the type of people who work there. If you end up not liking your work experience, it’s still a very useful lesson! 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!”
Work experience can be more than a one-time thing too. 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 for university.
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 possible, try to plan your gap year so that it will help maintain the standard you need for your course or even improve it. For instance, if you are going to study French, travelling to a French-speaking country would be very beneficial whereas travelling to India could seem pointless from the university’s perspective. If you’re applying for deferred entry, you can explain how your gap year will be relevant to your future studies in your Personal Statement.
5. Plan money first
If you’re travelling, one of the easiest mistakes to make is running out of money. There’s no point going to a lot of amazing places but being unable to do anything there. Some useful tips are:
- Have your flights home booked in advance - it's not unheard of for people to actually have too little money to get back home after travelling!
- Research the cost of living where you are going. Do not assume that the cost of food, hotels or hostels will be the same as back home.
- Make a budget per week or even per day, and stick to it.
- 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.
- Get travel health insurance. Medical bills in foreign countries can be incredibly high.
If you aren’t travelling, it can still be tempting to spend money on lots of things now that you aren’t going to school every day, especially if you are doing work experience and earning a wage. Don’t underestimate how useful it is to have savings once you arrive at university, and try to keep some money for later!