Of course, the answer to when you should take a gap year is incredibly personal and the real question should be, "when is the best time for me to take a gap year?" Everyone is different, so you need to dig deep into what you know about yourself and think about how taking a gap year and backpacking might affect you and your future.
To help weigh up the options of whether to take a gap year before university, during your studies or after graduation, we sought advice from Dr Kingsley Sage of Sussex University for a Tutors perspective of how gap years can affect students.
A pre-university gap year
"A year out before university helps to mature students and give them more experience of something other than school"
Taking a gap year before Higher Education seems to be encouraged by many institutions who believe that a year out in the world before university helps to mature students and give them a little more experience of something other than school before they go back to studying. But its not for everyone.
- The experience can help you go back to your studies with an added maturity
- It allows you that breathing space to decide if the subject youve signed up to really is for you, and not something youve taken on as a result of peer, parental or school pressure. A year speaking German as an Au Pair may help you realise that actually you hate the language and what you really enjoy is losing yourself in good books and switch to English Literature instead
- Theres a possibility your parents may pay!
- There are many courses, projects and < a href="http://www.essentialtravel.co.uk/travelinsurance/volunteer-travel-insurance.asp">volunteering organisations set up to help students travel so this is an ideal time to take advantage of this
- If you decide to work abroad, you may be able to earn enough to help pay towards your university expenses
- That break from your books may make it difficult to get back in the habit of studying again and youll find you struggle until you are back in the groove
- At 18 you are still young, and while a gap year can give you experience, it will still be hard to cope with things like people you are not used to, living abroad, speaking a foreign language full time, or being away from friends and family. Of course, some people embrace all this, but for many it can be a challenge
- Some universities may not allow you to defer a year
Dr Kingsley Sage, however, suggests that this is in the fact the best time to take a gap year: "At 18 you may have something youve been burning to do, some passion you want to nurture, and your gap year will be more about you and what you want. Once you start university, there will be a lot of peer influence about the cool things to do, such as a certain place to travel, and you may find yourself led astray from what you really want to do."
Taking a year out of university
"Taking a gap year in your middle years of studying can be quiet damaging but a mini gap year during the long summer holidays is a good alternative"
Dr Sage has strong views on this: "Taking a gap year in your middle years can be quite damaging, actually. For a start it can destroy your perception of university study, and how you feel about it. I believe if you do something you should do it wholeheartedly and a gap year can be incredibly distracting - youll be thinking and planning for it beforehand, and possibly find it difficult to get back into the routine of study afterwards, or just lose your enthusiasm for it. There are many stories about people getting depressed after a gap year, or just coming back to reality with a crash, and if you are just starting university or looking for a job, you at least have something exciting to be thinking about, a new challenge. Whereas, if you are just coming back to something you know already, you might very well find it hard."
But, if you are considering taking some time out of your degree:
- The long summer holidays can provide excellent windows to do mini gaps - volunteering, working or travelling abroad for a few months
- You may find that some activities, such as living in a Switzerland for a year if you are studying French and German, will enhance your studies, as well as sharpen up your CV early for post university job hunting
- It can be distracting as Dr Sage has said
- Taking a year out of college will mean that when you return, your friends and peer group may well have moved on, and youll be around strange and unfamiliar faces
- Taking time out from studying without good reason may not impress some employers who may think that you cant commit properly
A post university gap year
After three or four years of studying, taking time out may sound the most obvious thing to do, and you have the world to chose from! You can teach English in Japan, volunteer to help a village in Africa, or make your way to Nepal without flying, or any one of thousands of other choices before settling down.
- Your studying is over and you can turn your attention to your next big adventure, before you settle into the world of work
- Your course may have inspired you to visit a certain part of the world, and this is the time to indulge that
- It can be a time to cement friendships and travel as a group before going off to different places
- You will have more of an understanding of who you are and your own limitations, so wont be tempted to sign up for 12 months of living in a hut, gorilla watching if you know youll hate it by the start of the second week
- Youll have tangible experience to put on your CV
- You may find that funds are low and that youll need to concentrate on getting a job to live!
- Some employers may not be impressed, especially if it just looks like youve had just had fun travelling
- If parents have been helping to fund you, they may want to see you knuckle down and get some work rather than what they may perceive as go away on a long holiday!
"Timing your gap year is a very personal decision, but it's not your only chance to go, nor do you have to limit yourself to only one gap year"
Dr Sage suggests that a gap year at this time is a must if you havent yet done it and know that its something you want to do: "You certainly need to get it out of your system before you settle down to a job if you know its something you really want to do. One thing I would bear in mind, though, is that you may miss the graduate recruitment fairs, which for many are the best ways to get a job after graduation, and if you have to wait a whole year for it to come around again, that can be a long time."
At the end of the day, timing of your gap year is a very personal decision. It is also worth remembering, however, that this isn't your only chance. Many older people take career breaks and go travelling, volunteering or work abroad for a while, so if your gut instinct is to study and get yourself a head start in your career, theres no reason to think that the experience is now closed to you, or, indeed, that you have to limit yourself to only one gap year.
Contributor: Dr Kingsley Sage
Dr Kingsley Sage is a Lecturer in Computer Studies at Sussex University, Brighton and Hove College. He is currently on his own career break taking part in the Mongol Rally, find out what what's he's doing on his travels.