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To Go or Not to Go? Part One: Taking a Gap Year Before University

By Jessica Whyte

Last updated: 15th November 2011

Do you long to get away from it all on a gap year?  Are you daydreaming of awesome adventures around the world but can’t decide whether to go before or after university?  Been bitten by the backpacking bug but been brought back down to earth with a bump?  Sometimes worrying about the right time to take a gap year can get the better of you and hold you back from having the experience of a lifetime.  Uncertainty about the best time to head off travelling is a common dilemma and you are not the first to have gap year fears.

Maybe you’re in your last year at school and your exams are creeping closer?  You’re probably knee-deep in UCAS forms and personal statement pressure and a gap year seems appealing but you feel like you should be sensible and secure your future.  Maybe you know you want to travel but you’re not sure if it’s best to seize the chance and go now, or put it off until you’ve got your degree safely under your belt?  There are pros and cons to both plans but the one thing you can be sure of is that a properly planned gap year can only enhance your prospects and life experience.

There are lots of great reasons to take your gap year before university.  Many people feel they need a break from study to refresh themselves for the next stage in their life and education.  You might fear that taking a gap year before university will hurt your chances of getting a place or delay your education?  Some people worry they will lose the momentum to study and not want to go back to university at all!  The best way of making sure you plan a year out right is to think ahead.  If you know you want to go to university, then do your research at the end of school with everyone else, so you have an idea of the course you might want to do when your gap year is over.  Gap year experience is highly regarded by universities and what better way to make your personal statement stand out then by taking a gap year?  UCAS advises that many universities look favourably on gap years, and depending on the individual university, you can often apply in advance and defer your place.  If you lay out a clear gap year plan on your application it can really go in your favour.  Then when you are travelling you are secure in the knowledge you have a long-term goal, with a university place already waiting for you at the end of it.

A gap year should be fun and give you a chance to unwind but also gain you great experience.  For many, it’s also the first time they’ve struck out on their own.  If you’re worried about the future, a great way of balancing your gap year with your university plans is to think carefully about what you want to do on your gap year.  Seeing the world is a top priority but you can also try a variety of activities such as paid work, or enrol on a valuable volunteering project and kick off some future career ideas.  Take the chance to teach, or do something different, like work as an au pair or help in an orphanage.  Or take up a new skill; you could learn a language like adding Spanish to your CV, or you could learn to dive, sail or surf if the outdoors is more your thing.  You might discover a new passion you never knew you had, which you can take forward into university and beyond!

When you finish school you will most likely still be living at home with your family and the advantage of this is that any money you save can be put straight into a gap year fund.  Once school’s out and you can take on work you’ll be surprised how quickly you can save up.  Remember, the idea of a gap year is not to spend big in luxury hotels but to experience the real world on a backpacking budget bonanza!  Your money can go far, as many destinations have really cheap living costs.  Do your destination homework (it’s much more fun than maths!) and you can make a little go a long way.

If you leave school with no money saved up, you could think about taking half of your gap year to work and save, then spend the other half travelling on the proceeds.  A gap year can be big or little and you might just fancy going on a short trip.  You’ll be amazed how much you can pack into a few weeks and how many incredible memories you’ll make.  It’s not just a cliché, travelling really does broaden your mind, increase your confidence and make you a more fully-rounded, mature person… corny, but true!

One factor that might influence your decision about taking a gap year before university is whether your friends are taking one too.  You’ve gone through the same stages at school together and if several of you are planning a gap year adventure it can feel less daunting that heading off on your own.  Maybe you have a friend or friends you can plan a gap year trip with?  If you do, make sure you all get what you want out of it as ultimately it’s your gap year and no-one else’s!  But travelling with others can be a great way to see the world and take your first steps into independence.  If you are the only one in your group planning a gap year then don’t panic; everyone has different plans that work for them and you can guarantee that once you get to university they’ll be loads of other people who have had gap years and you’ll have lots of fun comparing travel notes!

Another worry for the pre-university gap traveller is the prospect of leaving home.  You may never have been away from your family before, apart from on a school trip or two, so the idea of flying solo to foreign shores can feel like a massive leap into the unknown.  There are ways of making this transition easier: travel with friends so you know you’re not alone, plan your trip carefully and have lots of back-up contact with your family to ensure it’s not too scary out there.  One of the best ways of taking this step is to go on an organised tour or volunteering experience, which will guarantee you have a clear plan, somewhere safe to stay and the chance to make instant new friends.  If you’re worried, book a shorter trip – you can take it as a gap year taster, then you can always head off again at a later stage if you find you’re hooked!  Remember, when you go to university you’ll most likely be leaving home anyway and if you’ve already learnt how to stand on your own two feet abroad, doing it in the UK will be no problem.

A gap year before university can give you unbeatable life experience and inspiration for the future – so go on, grab a gap year and get going!

Not sure still if you want to head off on your gap year before or after university? Have a read of the Gap 360 blog post To Go or Not To Go? Part Two: Taking a Gap Year After University

Also, don’t forget to check out our further advice on gap year vs careers.

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