More and more people are taking a gap year between finishing school and going to university. In the UK, in 2012 alone around 5% of young people, some 2.5 million, took a gap year, while in the USA where it is not quite so popular, still approximately 1.2% of students take gap years, and that figure is growing.

The advantages and disadvantages of gap year travel have long been debated. Some swear by them, while others remain unconvinced of the level of benefit that can accrue. Here’s a brief rundown of the pros and cons for students thinking of taking a gap year.

Pros

Many organised gap year programs will see participants interacting with a wide and diverse range of people from all walks of life. Learning how to communicate and work alongside those with different backgrounds to your own will help greatly when it comes to group work in higher education, and some research indicates that it can also make you more successful in your later career.

After 10 or more years of education, many students will be suffering from a form of “academic burnout” – unable to face several more years of lectures, note-taking, essays and exams. Gap year travel, because it introduces a fresh new set of challenges, experiences and skills to be acquired, can reignite that passion for learning.

If you already have a firm idea of what you want to study at university, or what career path you intend to follow, then gaining some form of experience in that field during a gap year can be a massive help when it comes to finding a job later on. It can also give you greater clarity as to whether this is actually the right choice for you or not. And remember that if you are able to save up some decent money, you can perhaps put some towards university as well.

Most young people have little or no experience in living away from home on their own. When you take part in a gap year program, you have to learn, quickly, how to become self-sufficient in cooking, shopping, doing the laundry, travelling around safely, and looking after your health.

Gap years help young people to develop more of an appreciation for foreign cultures, and in a global marketplace where people and businesses from all over the world are connected, this can be invaluable. You may also get an understanding of a new language, which doesn’t hurt either.

Something that often stands out on a cv is a gap year spent volunteering, whether you’re looking after orphans, caring for injured animals, or helping to build a school in a disadvantaged community. And it will also give you a glow inside, knowing that you’ve done something for others.

Lastly but certainly not least, a well-used gap year can demonstrate to recruiters that you have developed valuable life skills such as indepence, project management, self-confidence, and flexibility when it comes to unusual or difficult situations.

Cons

Many gap year programs can cost a lot of money. For example, someone who intends to study conservation may be interested in taking a gap year to help monitor and protect sea turtles in the Caribbean. That’s understandable – it’s useful, hands-on experience, and you get to earn a nice suntan while you’re doing it. After all, gap years need to be fun as well. But the providers of this program will need to house their workers, feed them, train them and provide equipment, as well as various other costs. They will need to pass this cost on to the student. So, to afford it, you’re probably going to need to stay at home for some time to save money, which can be an issue if you don’t like living there. That said, just the dedication needed to find a well-paying job, and put money aside to achieve your aims, speaks well for you when it comes time to find a job.

For some gap year students, the short-term job they take just to save money for their trip becomes long-term. Either they prove good at it and earn tempting promotions or payrises, or they just fall into a rut. The latter is what you need to watch out for. Keep your eye on the prize. If you’re working a dull temp job so you can go and help out at a hospital in Bali for six months, then put some inspirational pictures next to your computer monitor to help you maintain focus.

Hand-in-hand with the need to put some money together, is that most, if not all, of your friends will be going to university around the time that you’re heading off to work. You may quickly find that your social life begins to dry up, but although this may mean a few months of boredom in the evenings and on weekends, it does encourage you to get your head down and be on your own way as soon as possible.

Just like the footprints you’ll hopefully be leaving in the sand during your gap year, knowledge rapidly fades. You can forget a lot of what you learned in school during your gap year, so you’ll want to leave at least a week or two upon your return before you head to university in order to brush up and be ready to cope.

Probably the biggest issue with gap year travel, and what gives most parents nightmares, is that if you’re not organised, then you could end up spending a year sitting on the couch. Really, if you plan to take a gap year, then you should have a decent idea of what you want to do, where, when, and how you’re going to pay for it, several months before you finish your final exams. A gap year can only make your cv shine if you do something worthwhile with it.

Clearly, then, there is much that a successful gap year can do for you in terms of your future education, and in finding a job afterwards. The most important thing to take away from this rough guide is that planning is key to everything in successful gap year travel. Start thinking and saving early, and everything else should come together.

Author