Take a break? The pros and cons of a gap year

Mon Jan 09 10:05:00 GMT 2017

gap year

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What is a gap year?

While the majority of students start their degree in the same year as finishing school/college, many students decide to take a year out in order to take a break, travel, or to gain experiences that will help them during their degree.

While a gap year can be a great experience for students planning on studying at university, it is important that each student carefully considers if a gap year is right for them and the effect it may have on their university application.

Should your son/daughter take a gap year?

The decision of whether to take a gap year is an individual one. Some students will be keen to move away from home, to start living independently, and to continue their studies as soon as possible. Others may see a gap year as a good opportunity to adjust more gradually to living away from home and to take a well-earned break from studying before starting their degree course.

Many students are also keen to use a gap year to gain work experience while saving money to help to support themselves during their studies. Furthermore, if your child is unsure about their subject choice or career path then a gap year can provide them with the time to ensure that they are making the right long term decision.

Many universities are happy for applicants to take a gap year, and for some courses a gap year could affect the outcome of an application positively by allowing the applicant to gain relevant work experience or to enhance their existing skills before starting or even applying for their course.

Some admissions tutors, however, do not look favourably on gap years as students can forget the knowledge/skills that are essential to studying their subject. For example, mathematics or physics students may quickly forget about complex theoretical processes that may not be used outside of the classroom. It is therefore important that your child checks what position their chosen university course takes on gap years.

Gaining relevant work experience during a gap year

Gaining relevant work experience is considered to be advantageous for the vast majority of academic subjects, and there are a number of subject areas where relevant work experience will be a requirement for entry onto the course. A gap year is an excellent opportunity to gain this type of experience and to help your child gain entry to competitive courses.

Some work experience placements are paid and the money earned could help your child to support him/herself financially through the first year at university, and placements could result in future scholarship or internship opportunities.

There are a number of online resources for finding work experience during a gap year:

  • The Year in Industry is an organisation that provides gap year placements for students in Engineering, Science, IT and E-commerce, Business, Marketing, Finance and Logistics
  • Student Ladder has information on a range of gap year placement opportunities with firms such as Accenture, the Bank of England, Deloitte, and KPMG
  • Prospects advertise a range of work experience opportunities
  • lists voluntary opportunities in the UK with organisations involved in providing health and social care services in the community (especially valuable to those applying for health and social care related degrees)

For more information on finding work experience placements you can view our article on ‘ Finding work experience and voluntary work’.

Developing relevant skills during a gap year

A gap year could also provide your child with the opportunity to enhance or complement their existing skills. Providing evidence of how they have developed skills relevant to studying their chosen subject will really help your child to strengthen their university application.

Work experience is a great way to enhance and complement existing skills, but there are also a number of other ways that your child may be able to develop relevant skills. For example:

  • Applicants for foreign language courses may wish to spend time in a country where their chosen language is spoken in order to improve their fluency in the language and also develop their understanding of the country’s culture
  • Applicants for business courses could consider starting their own small business to put their previous learning into practice
  • Applicants for computing courses could offer their skills to a local business or charity in order to gain practical experience of developing a website or web content for a client
  • Taking the ‘traditional’ gap year’s option of travelling can provide opportunities to become involved in voluntary works or projects which can help develop a range of key skills-e.g. interpersonal skills, communication skills, team building skills etc.

Taking a gap year: when to apply for university?

If your child decides that they would like to take a gap year, they can either indicate that they wish to defer their entry when applying for university this year, or can delay their application until next year when they will have received their exam results.

Remember- some universities will not accept candidates for deferred entry and some admissions tutors may have a preference for applicants who do not take a gap year and so it is essential that your child discuss their plans with their chosen universities before making a final decision to take a gap year.

Whether applying for deferred entry or applying during their gap year, your child should mention their gap year in their personal statement: how they are using the year productively and the skills and personal qualities that they feel they will gain.

Deferred entry

The UCAS system allows your child to indicate in their application that they wish to defer their start date by one year, freeing them to apply whilst in their final year of school or college. This will allow your child to benefit from the input of their teachers during the application process, and will hopefully allow them to gain their university place at the earliest opportunity and reduce uncertainty during their gap year.

If your child does choose to apply for a deferred place and is successful in their application, it is essential that they keep in touch with the university during their gap year and are able to receive important information (by email or post) from the university. If your child is going to be out of email contact then they should ensure that they give permission for someone to communicate with the university on their behalf.

Applying after results day

Alternatively, your child can delay applying to university until after they have received their results. This will allow them to apply for courses that are in line with their achieved grades, and could therefore make their application more straightforward.

However, your child will need to consider the practicalities of making an application whilst on a gap year, especially if they will be abroad for an extended period. They may be unable to attend departmental open days and/or interviews (which may be an essential part of the application process at some institutions,) and they will not have the benefit of support from their teachers as would be case if they apply while still at school or college.