Gap years - an introduction

The purpose of a gap year, the different opportunities and destinations out there and how to plan the best gap year for you.

Children at a well Many students before, during, or as they complete their time at university consider taking a gap year before tackling the next stage in their education or career. Simply put, a gap year is a constructive period of time spent away from your normal life, one that many people find to be a positive, life-changing experience.

The purpose of a gap year

The three main elements of a gap year are travel, work and volunteering and opportunities are endless; there really is something out there for everyone. So, if you’re considering taking a year out, the most important thing when considering what to do, is to be honest about your gap year’s purpose and develop a plan that suits your needs.

“Is it to gain relevant experience that translates directly into a job in a career you want to pursue, or do you merely want some cash to travel with and any skills you can tell an employer about is a bonus?” Andrew Tipp, communications manager for gapyear.com asks.

“Everyone has their own agendas and reasons for taking a gap year. The important thing to consider is what you want to get out of it,” says Lorraine Roadnight, Raleigh International. “Do you want to gain skills or relevant work experience? Do you want to meet new people and experience completely new things? Or do you simply want an extended holiday?

“Whatever you want to get out of it, be clear from the beginning and make sure you can achieve this. It’s also important to think about how you will explain any gaps on your CV to a potential employer or university.

“Taking the time to plan a gap year can help you think about what you want to get out of your gap year experiences. If you are taking time out during education or work, you should aim to do something worthwhile that will help to boost your chances of getting into university or getting a job,” she notes.

Gaining experience that will help your career

Whatever your purpose may be, in all likelihood you will gain experience and skills that will help your career. Working abroad is always a popular option as you get to experience new cultures, which in turn is a great thing to highlight when approaching a multinational company for work.

Perhaps you want to volunteer with animals, help communities in developing countries, teach English in schools, even go fruit picking in Australia - all of these will teach you some transferable soft skills that will make you more desirable to future employers.

“There is no hard-and-fast rule for where it is best to go - what you do when you get there is much more important,” says Mark Tully, managing director of Roevin Engineering Recruitment. “It will really depend on your individual interests, but I would say that if you can fit in some relevant work experience it could boost your CV enormously. Remember that interesting experiences or transferable skills that you learn on a gap year can be useful talking points in future interviews.”

Internships and a Year in Industry

Gap years aren’t all about finding yourself or backpacking across a continent, you can choose to focus on gaining experience with a company specific to the sector you hope to work in. You could consider taking a year long internship or a number of work placements - locally or internationally - specific to your sector. These will allow you to put a good chunk of experience behind you and may even lead to a full time position in the future.

The Year in Industry option is great for aspiring engineers as it gives you the chance to be paid to work for a renowned company and gain tonnes of relevant industry experience. You can find out more about these options in our article Gap years for aspiring engineers.

Gap year destinations

You may want to stay at your parents during your gap year, work locally and save for 12 months, or you may want to travel to the other side of the world and volunteer - there is no right or wrong destination. However, there are some places that have become well known locations for people taking a year out.

“The two most popular choices are usually South East Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, etc) and Australia,” says Matt Preston, co-founder of Travel with a Mate [new window]. “While this is a well trodden path it does mean they're set up for gap year travelers. Asia especially offers so much culture in a cheap and accessible way. Personally I'd pick India or Africa right now. So much to explore, so much to learn and depending on your plans for the future there could never be another time you could explore an entire continent for a year!”

“A gap year is as individual as a person, so you can tailor it to your interests and needs,” continues Emma Jones, author of Gap Years - The Essential Guide. “A round the world ticket is great to get a taster of lots of different destinations, Australia is still a safe and easy place to work, while spending time in a developing country will expose you to new experiences,” she concludes.