No such thing as ‘standard’: Choose, prepare for, and make the most of a Gap Year

Today, here’s a post for all potential uni students who are considering a gap year before they begin a course.

I took a year off before starting my university course. It wasn’t a ‘standard’ gap year. I didn’t travel or work. But I did find my feet, look to the future, work out what I wanted from Higher Education, and prepared mentally for the changes and challenges ahead.

photo by munibren

As young adults, we all need to work out what’s best for us. And – as I’m sure you know – the answers don’t always come quickly.

My year ‘in limbo’ didn’t feel like a limbo period at all. It was more like a wonderful life detox.  For some of you, like it was for me, it’s well worth taking some time out before embarking on several fantastic years.  Because they won’t be fantastic if you’re not in the right frame of mind.

So taking a gap year, for whatever reason, needn’t be difficult.  Neither should it be frowned upon!  There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ gap year, so don’t feel pushed into university if you have other, reasonable, plans. A friend of mine is halfway through a gap year, taking what some people would see as quite a ‘standard’ fare. He spent half the year working and saving up. He’s now spending the remaining half the year spending that money as he travels around the other side of the world.

But everyone has different plans. Some work the whole year in order to pay towards uni costs. Others spend more time on A-Levels. Some will do as little as possible. Others spend long periods of time crashing on the floors of various friends who DID go to university without a gap.

Whatever you’re thinking, don’t be hasty.  Before you make any rash decisions about your future, consider the following questions:

  • Is this really about taking a gap year?  Is the prospect of university daunting?

Don’t resist change, even if it looks scary. Change is important for us all, but for some reason it eats away at us until we decide to live with what we know. That often means we don’t get the best out of life and we become disappointed. But it doesn’t stop most of us deciding against any form of change.

If you don’t know what university is all about, of course you’re going to be a bit scared. Maybe even a lot scared. But there are books, websites, and independent guides with information to put you in the driving seat. And there are loads of people at uni who would probably be more than happy to speak to you about their experiences. For direct contact, check out The Student Room and search for the many networking groups open on Facebook. From Freshers groups, to course collaborations, from society pages, to excuses for a night out, from members of staff, to prospective students like yourself…there are loads of people out there you can speak with. And wouldn’t it be good to arrive at a new university, already knowing loads of the other students before you even arrive?

  • Do you want to take a year out because you want to travel, because you want to earn some money first, because you have a vocational want to help further your interests and employability? Or do you think it’ll be a good chance to doss around for a year doing nothing much?

If you just think you can squeeze an extra year of pointless nothing out of your time as a young adult, you’re wasting time. It might seem like a good idea to shirk responsibilities, but it makes life harder in the long run.

So long as your plans are sound and clear, I’m sure you’ll have a positive time in whatever you do.

I must admit, in my year out I wasn’t totally sure where things were headed. But I did know the following:

  1. Higher Education was where I wanted to be;
  2. I wanted to improve my UCAS points to get to the uni and course I wanted;
  3. I didn’t want to work at the time (I was more daunted at the prospect than being lazy);
  4. The local university was a good place to get an understanding of how things worked, a great place to visit to make sure I fitted in with the situation, and a great opportunity to find loads of new friends and get a ‘practice run’ in.

My plans may not have been too wide-ranging, but they were solid plans. That’s what you need to have in order to move on positively.

  • Would you like to do some volunteering/charity work, or some travelling, but don’t know where to begin or how it could help you?

First, ask yourself why you want to take a gap year. A greater understanding of your wants will help you focus on what you need to know.  Searching around in the dark is not always the best option.

Second, read up on the subject and/or location. Not only do you have the internet at your disposal, you should also use your public library for books on gap year travelling, volunteering opportunities, or whatever other plans you have your eye set on.  Also, think about the kind of thing you would love to do more than anything else.

In terms of the web, you can find all sorts of gap year ideas here on the wonderful Gap Year Portal at The Student Room.

Third, make sure what you’re reading still holds up to your own expectations. If it sounds wildly different to the idea in your mind, it’s time to reconsider. If it sounds perfect, you will no doubt already be getting a firmer picture in your head of what you want to do.

Fourth, and finally, contact the different associations that deal with your interests. I can’t give information here, because there are so many possibilities. But from the research you’ll have done, the books and websites will have pointed out helpful contacts. The thing to do now is use those contacts!

It’s also good to scour the news for updates on ideas and assistance relevant to your wants.  For instance, The Guardian recently had a piece about government-funded gap year students, which may be right up your street.

If you don’t have a better idea of what you want to do and how you’re going to do it by now, it’s time to move on. Hopefully that won’t be the case, however!

  • Are worries about the environment giving you second thoughts about travelling in a gap year?

Ecostreet has a great article about travelling responsibly.

photo by SocialTechnologies.com

  • Are you going to defer your university entry, or reapply next year?

Because I didn’t know how my future was panning out, I decided to reapply to UCAS the following year. But some people will have a firm plan about their year out and what courses they wish to be on the next academic year.

Basically, if you don’t have a clue what you want to do at university and you think your plans are going to change, you may prefer to reapply the following year. But if you have your heart set on a particular subject and have no doubts about where you want to be, it would be wise to defer your entry.

Deferring your entry is as simple as filling in a ‘D‘ (defer) on part of your UCAS form.  If you’re not familiar with the UCAS website, they have a lot of helpful information about applying.

  • What if you want to defer your entry after you’ve accepted a university offer and everything has been agreed?

In this case, you need to speak directly to the university you’ve got a place with. Don’t delay; speak to them as soon as you possibly can. They will either happily defer your entry and see you next year, or they will say no to your request and you’ll just have to reapply the following year.

Reapplying isn’t a big deal. Okay, so it’s a shame to no longer have the security of a place, but that shouldn’t hold you back. If you have a big reason for a gap year, you may look more attractive on paper the following year anyway!

  • What if you deferred entry, took up an offer, but now you don’t want a gap year and DO want to start your course this year instead?

Again, speak to the university as soon as you possibly can. Explain the situation and see what they can do for you. You may have no difficulty in bringing your place forward. Alternatively, they may have already taken on the full number of places, in which case you may have to wait and see.

If the university can’t guarantee you a place this year instead, you may have to find a different course or uni through the Clearing process. Unless your course is highly specialised and only available at one or two institutions, you needn’t be too concerned about the situation. In fact, you may find an even better university place through Clearing.

But if the uni and course you’ve chosen is the only choice for you and nothing else will do, you may want to get back to considering a gap year and accept that you now don’t need to worry about a uni place because you’ve got one set in a year’s time and that you’ve now got a year to fulfil all sorts of ambitions you have. Maybe you’ve changed your mind about travelling or working, but there are many other options available.  Treat it positively…a year of discovery and a year of preparing for an even better time at uni than you’d manage if you’d gone this year.  Get ready to knock everyone out!

  • Have you kept your loved ones informed?

Family. You may not always keep your family informed of your day-to-day plans, but it’s important to tell them what you’re thinking when it comes to such a major point in your life. This is especially important if you’re being encouraged to go to uni straight away. If you want a year out, now is not the time to keep that to yourself. To get them on side, explain why you’re so passionate about taking a year out and show them you’ve done your homework.  If you’re asked questions, have answers for them, or admit you don’t know the answer and get straight to finding it out.  You’ll get further brownie points if you ask family for other questions that you may not have considered.  Also, ask for their own advice about taking a year out (even if they’ve never taken one themselves).

Silence or, worse, arguing about it will cause more problems later down the line, which could jeopardise your chances of both a year out AND your wanted place at uni.

  • Are you uncertain how a gap year will look to universities and employers?

Don’t be.

There isn’t any reason to think a uni or an employer will frown upon a year out. If you’ve used it to good effect, they will be happy to see your worthwhile use of time.

If you’re looking to study a fast-moving and highly specialised degree, it may be difficult to take a year out with a totally unrelated set of plans, but even then it won’t necessarily get in the way.  If there is any doubt, ask a member of staff in the know at the university in question.

Even if your idea of a gap year is sitting around doing nothing, it won’t be the end of your world. However, it will be a waste and you won’t be able to give a good (honest) answer when people ask what you achieved in your gap year.  If you make up for lost time while you’re at uni, great!  If not (why not!?), some employers may find a vague response to your year off more difficult to accept than an interesting summary of a packed gap year.

  • What else should I be doing in preparation for a Gap Year?

Here are 10 important things you should be doing in the run up to a year out that involves travel abroad and/or voluntary work placements:

  1. Budget;
  2. Get jabs and health checks, if applicable;
  3. Learn the local customs of any places you plan to travel to;
  4. Plan your itinerary;
  5. Be open minded;
  6. Prepare for possible problems, shocks, thieves, homesickness, and a general lack of comfort;
  7. Pack the right clothing (what’s the weather going to be like?);
  8. Find out how much it costs you to take money out if you’re going abroad;
  9. For voluntary work, develop a willing and committed attitude to get the best from the work and yourself;
  10. Have important contact details available to you in more than one place, and at least one place that isn’t electronic (in case it fails on you).
  • Any other questions or advice?

If you’re uncertain about anything and have a query, or if you have some tips to give potential gappers, feel free to add a comment.  For any questions, I’ll try my best to point you in the right direction, even if I don’t have a clever answer myself!

5 comments

  1. as a student considering a gap year, this is perhaps the best article i have come across and shall definitely be referring to it in the future.
    thank you!

  2. It’s great to hear that this information was useful to you, anam. Good luck in making your mind up. It would be great to hear what you decide.

    If you have any unanswered questions, feel free to ask away!

  3. Thank you so much for this information. I originally applied to begin Uni immediately but then changed my mind and decided on a gap year. This post has really helped me out.

  4. @Jamie, I wish you the very best of luck in your gap year endeavours. And when you return for the uni experience, I hope you’re full of passion for the years ahead.

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