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Finding the right time to take a gap year

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Whether to take a gap year before or after university is a debate much discussed every year by parents up and down the country. Is their child ready to be let loose on the world so young? How will they manage money and their security? And what will employers and university admissions teams think? Lurking at the back of their minds is the worry, will their children’s minds remain well oiled machines or will they turn into dreadlocked, empty-headed hippies, excluded from society?

The best advice I can give as a parent is to follow your gut instinct. It’s rarely wrong. Look at the teenager in question: what type of experience do they need to get fit for university life? Do they need a reality check, a ‘welcome to the real world’ experience? Do they need to cut the apron strings? Or perhaps they need a break from academia? My niece, for example, is a complete book worm – she wanted to go straight to university and was literally forced to take time out, to learn how to ‘look up and out’ and has never looked back. But as an insider in the industry, who happened to take two gap years, one before and another after university, I can also offer a few guidelines to consider when making this decision.

First things first, if maths or medicine are your child’s chosen subject then there’s no decision. Pre-uni gaps are discouraged and students have little option but to set off for university immediately. It’s the same with many Oxford or Cambridge colleges, who prefer their students fresh from school. The mere suggestion of a gap year can automatically demote an application to the bottom of the pile. One consolation is that with exams ending school early and university starting late, they still have three long months to explore the world.

If you are heading down a different line, I would strongly urge you to consider the pre-university gap year option. Many university admissions teams and graduate recruiters actively encourage students to take a gap year, on one condition – that it’s used constructively. Any indication that a half-hearted, loafing-on-the-sofa year is in the offing and you might find that your gap year is longer than anticipated.

Alternatively, taking a year out to work and self fund a truly once-in-a-lifetime, challenging experience, shaking out the men from the boys, will promote an application. A constructive gap year shows dedication, commitment and a broader perspective beyond the classroom. This gets a gold star.

A pre-uni gap year has a defined start and finish: 15 glorious months with a fixed finishing line, which prevents any drifting, and consoles the parents asking: are you ever coming back? Have you thought about your career? What will you do for money?

With a fixed gap year there is also something appealing to return to – freshers’ week and three years living with friends. They have all heard the great stories and they will happily return from travelling to continue a life of leisure, or as we positively term it, ‘investing in their futures’.

Speaking of which, money is an important part of a gap year. Jetting off on a trip of a lifetime requires money and normally a fair amount of it. For many gappers self-funding is the goal and before university this is easily done through waitressing, shelf-stacking, babysitting, dog walking and the like. At this stage before university, any job looks good on the CV. It demonstrates determination, commitment and someone with a good work ethic. Once they’ve shown their ability to self-fund then it is amazing how generous family and friends will feel once they see the lengths a teenager will go to to scrimp and save the funds.

Furthermore, parents who send their children off for a gap year before university will probably save money. Self-funding works wonders for teaching the value of money. Once they’ve had to earn that plane ticket they no longer fritter away £50 on a dress or on a big night out as they realise how much work goes in to obtaining the money. This is good news for us parents, as when they then head off to university there should be fewer phone calls home asking for more money as they had to spend £80 on the ball last week and a further £20 on a hangover brunch the day after. They will have learnt to budget and the benefits will be reaped throughout their time at university. Well, that’s the plan.

But during the final year of university, the pressure is on to find a career and jobs which will promote you in the right direction. It’s no longer OK to take a ‘non-graduate’ job; they have their future career in mind and want to jump in with arms open. Everything they do from now on will be scrutinised by a future employer. Suddenly dog walking doesn’t look like a good career move so raising money for a post-uni gap year can feel like a step backwards while everyone else is racing ahead. Travel is a fantastic part of any education but post-university, it’s more difficult, especially with those loans hanging over their heads. It’s a very difficult decision to stay in debt in order to travel. The natural instinct is to get into work and to start chipping away at it and we all know that once you are in a job, taking time out to travel can be difficult.

This doesn’t mean that there are not occasions when a post-uni gap year can solve a problem. The frantic race to jump into a career can go wrong and lead to false starts, as it did for me. Time out can actually help you focus on what is it you really want to do. As I found out, working in Africa led me into the world of travel and I’m still here.

So, there we have it… thoughts to pop into the mix when the time comes. Whichever way you decide, make sure they don’t miss out as let’s be honest, the older you get the harder it is to up sticks and head off into the sunset.