What is a student gap year in the grand scheme of things?
You may be desperate to get to university, meet new people and start an exciting new phase in your life, but is it worth taking a gap year first? There’s a lot to consider when answering this question. What would you even do in a gap year? Are all your friends are going to uni now? will you be lonely? It’s important to zoom out and realise that taking a gap year likely won’t have you missing out on much, if anything at all. It serves as a unique opportunity where for the first time, you aren’t a student, and you don’t have the pressure of starting your career.
Reasons for taking a gap year
Fantastic time to get work experience – a gap year is a perfect time to try out different jobs, add to your CV, and increase your employability. When you finish university, you’ll be competing against other graduates, many of whom will have excellent work experience.
Go travelling!!! – going travelling with friends or solo is a truly incredible experience that you will remember forever. I went to Bali for a month this summer, 3 weeks of which I spent solo travelling, and there really is nothing else like it. Perhaps not for everyone, but staying in hostels, meeting a diverse range of people, and seeing new cultures and environments is a hugely positive experience. I’m sure I’m heavily biased here so make sure you do research on where would be best for you, but everyone I have met that went to Southeast Asia absolutely loved it.
Giving yourself time to mature – you may feel ready to go to university but from my anecdotal evidence, at a young age, looking back at yourself a year ago should make you cringe a little. Aside from the biological process of your brain developing, spending more time on your own or being without your close friends can push you out of your comfort zone and shine a light on parts of yourself you’d like to improve. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact differences between people who took a gap year and those who didn’t because it’s so variable, but in general, people who take a year out seem to be more independent, make a wider variety of friends, and manage the balance between their work and social life better.
Time to pick up new hobbies, interests, and good habits – with the stress of A-levels over, you may have more free time and headspace to explore new things. What you think about and what you do shapes who you are as an individual and this is something you should put a lot of thought into before doing a gap year because your day-to-day life will change a lot. Having a plan of how you are going to pick up new hobbies and habits will stop you from wasting time and picking up bad habits. I think for most people it’s beneficial working part-time rather than full-time purely so you can dedicate your free time to what’s important to you, whether that’s learning an instrument, learning about topics you find interesting, or building good habits like reading and meditating.
Time to build academic and professional skills – outside of working, there are plenty of things you can do to upskill. For example, you could do an Excel course, learn basic coding, seek career advice, or whatever it is that will make your university life easier, help you stand out from others, and ultimately get a better job.
Saving money for university – everyone has a unique financial situation which is dependent on where you live, your parent’s financial situation, whether you get a job, the size of your maintenance loan, your lifestyle, and how good you are at saving. Unless you have crazy rich parents that send you enough money to support whatever lifestyle you want, having savings will reduce financial stress. Spending money at university is very easy. You will always be able to find somebody that wants to get a drink, get some food, go to a gig, join a society, go on a ski trip, go to the cinema, you get the idea. Being broke at uni and being forced into an overdraft so you can continue going out with friends is not ideal and will make you enjoy going out a lot less knowing that you can’t really afford it.
Reasons to consider going straight to university
Difficult home life – if you haven’t had it easy at home and you know it would do you well to get away and start a new life somewhere else, university has an abundance of people, activities and just life thrown in your face to engulf you in a new world.
A true commitment to a profession – If you’re 100% committed towards a career, spending a year working a job and travelling may not be worth your time and could just make you unhappy knowing you could be working towards your dream.
Severe lack of motivation and self-control – In the event that unfortunate life circumstances or poor mental health make it likely that you’ll have an unstructured year full of distractions, it may be sensible to choose a path of clear structure and order to avoid returning to education in a worse place than you left it.
All your friends leaving for Uni – warning!!! you may feel the FOMO. However, this is all dependent on what you do in your gap year and should not be a reason in itself to not take a gap year. If you spend your whole gap year working a 9-5 then seeing your friend’s social media posts of them having fun will likely hurt inside. But if you spend your time well in your gap year by learning new skills, finding new interests, getting good work experience, and going travelling, it’ll likely be your friends thinking they missed out. Having said that, everyone is different and if you really struggle to make new friends and you don’t want to go travelling, you may be better off going straight to uni.
Should you follow a structured gap year programme?
There is so much you can do in a gap year and so much to think about that successful businesses have been made out of making it easier for you. Following a structured gap year programme has pros and cons, so I’ll give a quick overview.
Less hassle and stress – they will help you organise all your paperwork, visas, accommodation, and transport. You also don’t have to worry about choosing safe places to stay and can be assured that if you run into any trouble, there will be people to help. Having this extra time and headspace can help properly indulge in the experience because you don’t have to organise every tiny aspect of your trip.
Achieving specific goals – if you want to do something that will give you academic credit or help land a job like an internship or volunteering, doing it through an organisation will make your life a lot easier. If you love hiking and want to climb loads of volcanoes, an organisation will know the best routes and methods of transport. Any achievement that requires a lot of planning will be difficult to organise by yourself and may take away from the experience.
Connections – not necessarily better connections, but easier connections. You don’t have the choice to go off by yourself so everyone will be eager to make friends with people in the group. Well-established companies will also have excellent connections with local organisations that will provide great experiences.
It’s usually more expensive – the reason these companies exist is that you pay them for their expertise. You’ll likely pay more for everything because they know you aren’t willing to go out and find a cheaper option. Going by yourself to find that cheaper option can be a double-edged sword because while staying in hostels and using cheap public transport will save you a lot, without their security, your uneducated tourist self may make horrible mistakes and significantly overpay locals for everything from boat trips to a terrible tattoo that gets you disowned by your family.
Significantly less freedom – this is without a doubt the biggest negative to going with an organisation. Freestyle planning is a phrase I just made up to describe what I did in Bali last summer. I stayed in 9 different locations in 4 weeks only booking the first one in advance. Everywhere else was based on how I was feeling, who I met and where they were going and advice from locals. There were several times I extended my stay in some places and cut my stay short in others. The flexibility was incredible, and I think if you can handle the stress of organising it all yourself, you should hold onto your freedom.
Less responsibility – the struggle of organising everything yourself will make you feel like a seal in the Sahara but sometimes learning the hard way is the best way. The responsibility that comes with managing everything from the route you take, transport, what you eat and who you meet will teach you a lot, and assuming you manage it okay, it’ll give you more confidence to organise stuff in the future.
Good websites that provide structured programmes include:
My experience of a gap year and my thoughts looking back
My gap year began early in March 2020 with everything closing due to COVID and I quickly took that as an excuse to become a lazy couch potato. Soon the reality set in and I realised that my plans of becoming friends with Thai elephants, eating fried insects, and staring at beautiful rice fields were all in the bin. I tried my best to enjoy the British summer and as Christmas came around, I was feeling the negative effects of being stuck in a no-plan limbo land and realised it would probably be best to do something with my life other than play video games and watch YouTube.
This led to me working remotely as a Telesales Agent which I thoroughly enjoyed as it got me out of bed in the morning, added structure to my days and provided the fuel to continue my newfound interest in trading and investing. Anyone who knows what the markets have been like since late 2020 has an idea of the emotional rollercoaster it has been, but I learnt so much during this time and it’s a great example of increasing the value of your gap year by picking up a hobby/interest.
Most people I’ve spoken to went through some difficult times during the pandemic, including myself. I spent way more time alone compared to what I was used to as a sociable schoolboy. I stopped reaching out to people, stopped doing the things that made me happy, and slowly became very anxious and depressed for a few months. I learnt so much about myself from this period of time and am actually grateful for it. I’m not saying that everyone who does a gap year will go through something like this, but I think it serves as a lesson that drastic changes to the structure of your life won’t be easy to adapt to and if it’s making you upset that your gap year isn’t what you imagined, you need to change it.
Regardless of the fact that my first year of uni would’ve been during covid times, I’m extremely happy I took a year out. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine it any other way but I was a very different person afterwards, had a more mature mindset and felt a lot more ready for uni. Because of covid, it was difficult, and it led to some sad days feeling sorry for myself just doing a whole bunch of nothing but overall, I am happy with how I spent my time. My work experience was excellent, and I spent a scary number of hours on YouTube consuming all sorts of educational content which has shaped what I think about today. I would love to have gone travelling properly in my year off. I think if I had another chance with covid restrictions gone, I would enjoy my summer after college, get a job in September, and go travelling for 3 months in February/March. I’m not 100% sure where I would go because I would do more research first but Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia sound good.
I think that as a young person, unless you’re 100% committed to a profession and can’t wait any longer to start university, you should try to keep your options open and do anything that increases the chance of you walking down the path of purpose and happiness. What does this have to do with a gap year, well…..
If you try to imagine being a 30-year-old version of yourself, you’ll realise you have many responsibilities like a job, bills to pay, and maybe a dog or something, and all of this is largely dependent on where you go to university and what you choose to study. As a student, you’re funnelled through the education system where one step leads to the next and then all of a sudden, you’re in the real world. A gap year is a way of taking a step out of the student bubble where you can learn a bit about yourself, look at your future through a new lens and hopefully have fun without having an existential crisis.
Everyone is different and a gap year might not be for you, but I think most people would benefit from taking one. Don’t just take my word for it though, research into the benefits of taking a gap year has resulted in Harvard and New York University recommending gap years to students. I don’t hear people saying they wish they went straight to uni, but I have heard people at uni say they wish they took a gap year.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope this helps you make the best decision for you and I’d love to hear how you get on in your gap year.