Should you take a gap year before starting a university degree? Can it be a beach-hopping doss, or should it be a 15-month project to bulk up your CV?
Richard Broom is head of admissions for undergraduates at City University, London. He says that 600-700 would be students apply for deferred entry each year, and it can be a positive advantage. “Students who take this option tend to return more mature and well-rounded,” he says. But it is not the case that anything goes. “The most important thing is that the student has thought about why he or she wants to defer and can explain it clearly and coherently,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter what you choose to do and how you plan to spend your time, but how you justify it. We want to know what you aim to get out of it, even if it’s just immersing yourself in another culture, and there should be signs of planning and forethought.”
A stint of charity work on a CV is certainly a positive plus as is gaining work experience in your chosen field, or learning a foreign language. In fact, as far as the admissions team at Warwick University is concerned, these are the only things that would make them take a second look. “The only things that would interest us in gap years is if the student planned to work in an area related to their degree subject or were specifically travelling to develop a foreign language, these factors alone may strengthen an application,” says Alison Rowan. In her experience, most people choose to take a gap year for reasons other than enhancing their chances of getting a place. “To be honest, that is probably the best approach as even if the gap year does attract our attention, it would still be only a very small part of what would interest us in an applicant.”
Broom recommends that students put their gap year story high up in their personal statement, not just tucking it in at the end. “Make it work for you and show how it is relevant to your application.” Things that have stood out for him have been a female student who wanted to go to Italy and study Italian so she could develop her passion for opera singing, and a Saudi Arabian woman who wanted to spend a carefree year horse riding in Europe – her last chance before marriage and cloistering in her own society.
Everyone agrees that gap years should include time for relaxation. There should be a work/life balance in gap years, like everything else. Studying for A-levels is hard graft and students deserve a bit of R&R, although sitting on a beach for 52 weeks in the year is probably not the best idea.
And for those who decide not to go on a gap year? Sir Martin Sorrell, the Group CEO of communications giant WPP, which employs 139,000 people in 106 countries worldwide, says that it’s fine too. “I’m not a great believer in gap years because I think the sooner you get on with things, the better. That said, if you do something in the time which shows initiative and get up and go, that’s extremely valuable, to you and your employer.”
Karl Bygrave sums it up: “The more experience you can fit in the better and that does include chilling out with others. What is not impressive is taking a year off and spending it playing on the PS3. You will not experience anything useful to your career sat in your bedroom.”