Can You Afford Not to Take a Gap Year?

You’ve finally made it into the upper sixth – Year 13 – the very top of the school. Day by day you are heading towards the departure lounge and, within a matter of months, all that studying for A-levels, all that harassing from sixth form tutors to get your act together and complete your UCAS form, all that nagging by worried parents, will all be water under the bridge. University beckons.

But do you really want to go straight to university next autumn? After thirteen uninterrupted school years – most of your life to date – what about sampling life and the world beyond formal education before getting stuck into a degree course?

Think about it now. Obviously your A-level work and preparation for mock exams will leave you precious little time for reflection this term. But you need to make up your mind before you complete your UCAS application – or postpone applying for university until another year. One way or the other, unless you press the pause button now, the chances are you’ll find yourself morphed willy-nilly into a student attending Freshers’ Week 2009.

If you do decide to get off the education escalator for a year, you’ll find taking a year out can be a very good thing, especially if you are interested in life beyond education and your personal ambitions go beyond getting a degree and a safe job. So, what to do with it?

Doing nothing is definitely not recommended – it’s boring for you, tedious for your mates and above all irritating for your parents if you lounge around at home for 15 months. Do your own thing. You don’t have to plump for one single way of spending the year – and, in any case, you probably want to make a bit of money to keep body and soul together and/or to start you off when you get to university.

The opportunities are almost endless. Broadly speaking, you can spend the time partly at home, fully or partly overseas; and mixing and matching some or all of travel, voluntary work and paid work.

For instance, lots of gappers take paid work in the UK for a few months, then voluntary work overseas for another 2-3 months and round off the year with international travel up to the end of the summer.

Overseas travel obviously ‘broadens the mind’ but it also forces you to live on a budget – a vital experience for your years as a cash-starved student. Working overseas (paid or unpaid) can prove both more interesting and more useful than just travelling. And paid work, particularly if it is lucrative, can help towards the costs of your travel, any voluntary work you fancy doing and the cost of your university course.

There are plenty of ways of filling the year actively without breaking the bank. And, often forgotten, it’s a rare opportunity to acquire skills you missed out on at school eg portrait painting (perhaps taking an art foundation course?) or fluency in a foreign language (eg at a local language school in, say, China or Germany). And there are wonderful, more exotic opportunities on offer – to teach English in Bolivia, save turtles in Sri Lanka, work in a hospital in Thailand, lead adventure training courses in Canada

You’re spoilt for choice but how to go about choosing? Do you really need to plan your gap year two years ahead as the pundits say you should? The answer is emphatically No! The vast majority of sixth formers end up taking very successful gap years arranged in far less time. But one caveat: if you wait until you have left school, some of the more popular gap year opportunities may be booked up – the early bird may get the worm!

There are many professional gap-year organisations, which offer structured programmes in many parts of the world, with local support arrangements in place (worth it, if it’s your first time away, even if it just allows your parents to sleep at night). Some of the best belong to a self-regulatory group called the Year Out Group, so probably worth going for one of them.

You should expect to pay somewhere between 1500 and 4500 pounds to a gap year provider. But what they offer, and how effective their local support is, will vary. So check what is actually on offer – accommodation, flight, food, training, visa, insurance, meeting you at the airport, coping if you are sick etc. What they don’t provide, you will have to pay for.

Placement organizations do not offer Club 18-30 holidays for the brainy. If you want to go to the developing world, get ready for basic conditions and don’t expect everything to be handed to you on a plate.