Miércoles 30 de Agosto de 2006, Ip nº 168

Just the ticket
Por Catharine Freeman

Gap years are changing. Once the preserve of private-school kids, they are increasingly being seen by students from all backgrounds as a chance to get ahead of the game. Over 80% of the 50,000-plus students who take a year out between school and university now come from the state sector. Although backpacking remains popular, growth areas include work experience relevant to a degree, volunteer work in the UK and working to save money for university.

It is virtually impossible to spend 16 months out of education and not do something that will look good on your CV - unless you spend the year on the sofa with a bottle of vodka watching repeats of Bargain Hunt while your parents wring their hands in despair. Whether it's backpacking through south-east Asia, teaching Aids orphans in Africa or even stacking supermarket shelves, a well-organised gap year will do much to impress admissions tutors and potential employers alike.

"We certainly look favourably on applicants who have taken gap years," says Nicky Yarrow, acting head of admissions for Sheffield Hallam University. "The year can be invaluable and help them to settle in well. We tend to find gap-year students can display impressive wherewithal and be more independent learners."

Dr Andrew Jones, from Birkbeck's geography department, first published his government-backed research into gap years in 2004. He advises: "Plan the year carefully, challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. The life skills most valued by future employers are those best learned in a structured placement: team-work, communication, leadership, independence and resourcefulness. A gap year can give you the ideal opportunity to experiment with different kinds of paid or unpaid work, and you can make time to have some fun, too."

On the other hand, it can be a depressing experience if you lack the motivation to get the best out of it. Rohan Tambyrajah, 24, had dreams of foreign travel and personal development, but ended up working in an off-licence. "I got locked into the nine-to-five routine and gradually lost my visions of seeing the world," he says. "The money I earned became the money I spent. I lost my academic work ethic and failed my first two years at uni. My advice is that if you do take a gap year, plan it carefully - not doing so was my downfall."

If you are undecided, ask yourself some basic questions. Do you need a break from study? Are you longing to immerse yourself in another culture? Are there things about yourself that you'd like to develop before you get to university? Try our quiz on page 2 to help you to decide.

If you missed your grades, an important consideration is whether you're willing to settle for a second-choice university or course. "Clearing is all very well, but would you spend £20,000 on a car you didn't really want?" asks Tom Griffiths, founder of the online guide Gapyear.com. "If you're having doubts, consider taking a year out to reassess your options. You can always re-apply next year."

If you do decide to take the leap, the next step is to consider your options. Browse useful websites and note down possibilities. Talk to people with experience of the kind of things you're considering. Do your research well and a shortlist of ideas will soon come together.

"Don't just jump on a plane," cautions Griffiths. "There is no desperate rush. Most placements will be available until the end of September, and you can buy round-the-world tickets any time."

Backpacking is still the most popular gap-year activity, in spite of the current tide of opinion that cautions against wasting your time. "Backpacking doesn't deserve the bad press," says Griffiths. "Some people say bumming around the world won't help you find a good job, but what about all the skills that go into organising the trip? And you're bound to become more independent and resourceful."

Orlando Roberts, 23, worked in a variety of jobs before backpacking for six months around south and central America. He says: "I spent the first three months working in a prawn factory - not an experience I wish to repeat. But it was well worth the effort. Once we were on our way, I just felt totally free. We met some incredible people and saw stuff that I never imagined possible. It sounds like a cliche, but there's so much to see in the world, and you're missing out if you don't experience some of it."

If you want to do the same, think about how you will fund your travels, and remember to factor in things such as travel insurance, vaccinations and visas.

Increasingly, though, students are using their gap years to enhance future career prospects in a more direct way. A few weeks of unpaid work experience will look great to potential employers, and you might even land some paid work in your chosen field.

Even a "McJob", defined by the OED as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects", can do more than just earn you cash. David Fairhurst, vice-president of people at McDonald's, says: "Young people here gain a sense of responsibility and a real work ethic. Workers attend one of the best corporate universities in the UK, where they are trained in customer care, leadership, hospitality, financial skills and discipline - massively transferable business skills."

If tossing burgers isn't for you, there are hundreds of student-friendly jobs out there - from bar work in a trendy club to charity fundraising dressed as a tomato. But make sure you put the money straight into a savings account and don't spend it all in the pub. Self-discipline is essential if you're saving up to travel, or to arrive at university with cash in your pocket.

Another option is to combine paid work and travel - how about a job in a ski resort in the Alps, at a summer camp in America, as an Ibiza holiday rep or perhaps working holidays to Australia and New Zealand?

Altruistic souls might consider volunteer work - a great way of developing yourself while giving something back. Traditionally, gap-year students go overseas to volunteer, although volunteering in the UK is rapidly gaining in popularity, too.

"We offer full-time placements in the UK in areas including health and social care, homelessness, residential schools and youth offending services," says Barbara Williams, director of volunteering partners with Community Service Volunteers. "People really do want to give something back, and you don't have to journey to the other side of the world to do it."

If you do want to travel, there is a whole industry devoted to helping you - from saving turtles in the South Pacific to working in a leper colony in India. Check out our box of links (below) and investigate your options. Be sure to research the reputation of your gap-year provider, as it is important to be well supported once overseas.

Whatever you do, make the most of it. A year is longer than it seems, long enough to include a whole range of experiences, so be creative in your planning. It's not the destination that counts, it's the journey. So take a deep breath, embrace the freedom and enjoy the ride.

  19/08/2006. The Guardian.


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