The Evolution of the Gap Year: 10 Ways to Use Your Gap Year Wisely

Image shows two aeroplanes flying past each other at sunset.Europe, and the United Kingdom in particular, has always been at the forefront of the Gap Year trend.

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Taking a year out between school and university is said to improve your employability, open your mind and give you a new outlook on the world and your possible future place in it.
Yet there are countless news reports on ‘the end of the gap year’ and the idea of spending a year rescuing sea turtles in Bangladesh is more likely to be mocked than applauded (much as the sea turtles might appreciate it). With this in mind, many secondary school students may find themselves wondering whether they are setting their education back by a year to no real gain.
We wouldn’t like to comment on the value of spending a year cycling through South America or touring India in a VW van – though we are sure such experiences are highly enjoyable. What is notable in the gap year market is the increasing number of students choosing to use their gap year to work on their education. The best new way to spend a gap year is building on academic skills, gaining work experience and generally getting a head start for university and the uncertain jobs market beyond.
With this in mind, we’re looking at ten things you should try to do on an evolved Gap Year.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Student Life articles."1. Don’t let your subject knowledge lapse

Image shows a series of textbooks.
It’s easy to forget things, particularly in technical subjects.

One of the biggest challenges Gap Year students face is the simple fact that a year away from their books inevitably takes its toll on their subject knowledge. ‘Summer learning loss’ is the problem faced by school students, as they forget what they’ve learned over the long summer holiday that is traditional in many countries. Gap years, then, are liable to have a similar effect, except that the break in studying is a year or more – rather than a 6-week summer holiday – and is thus likely to be much more significant.
As a consequence, a priority for any Gap Year student should be to ensure that having a year’s break in the transition from school to university (or indeed from undergraduate study to graduate study or a career) doesn’t set back their learning, and indeed advances it if possible. Doing this might be as simple as setting aside some luggage space for a textbook or two when you go on that turtle-rescuing trip.
Alternatively, you could set aside a longer period for enhanced academic study: Oxford Royale Summer Schools’s 12-Week Gap Year Projects are designed to do exactly that, so that 12 of the 52 weeks of your year out can be spent working on your subject knowledge (eight different subject tracks are on offer!) while the rest can be spent sunning yourself on a beach or volunteering with a charity, safe in the knowledge that you won’t be putting all that time you spent on schoolwork to waste by forgetting it before you take your next academic step.

2. Seize new opportunities and possibilities

Image shows the Washington political district.
You could take the chance to study a subject like Politics, which you might never have studied before.

At ORA, one of our core aims is to introduce our students to new ideas, to challenge their preconceptions and to enable them to learn more by taking them out of their comfort zones. In our summer school, we encourage students to study subjects that they may not have had the chance to encounter at school. We take this aim further in our Gap Year Projects by giving students near-complete freedom to choose what they research within their area of study, so that they can pursue areas of their interest that they might not have the opportunity to look into within a more constrained curriculum.
Even if you don’t choose the flexibility of a Gap Year Project, your Gap Year is one of the few opportunities you get at this stage in your life to go somewhere you’ve never been before, study something you’ve never studied before and do something you’ve never done before – and it’s a chance worth seizing.

3. Gain experience of your future career choices (and don’t be scared to change your mind)

Image shows a statue of Lady Justice.
Being a lawyer, for instance, is a tough job – it’s good to see if it suits you before you commit to it.

Getting work experience is vital across a whole range of different careers, and is helpful for almost any career path you might choose. Our Vocational Gap Year Projects (in Business & Management, Law, Medicine and Veterinary Science) all incorporate a period of work experience in a relevant area for precisely this reason, and there is a chance to accumulate comparable academic experience in our Academic Gap Year Projects too.
Yet the value of work experience is not just to enhance your CV and impress future employers. It’s also for the real and personal experience of what it’s like to have the career that you are aiming for; a dry run at the hours, the day-to-day tasks and the challenges of your chosen field. Hopefully, you’ll find out that you love every minute and you will be spurred on to pursue this path with renewed vigour. But it’s also possible that you find the work is not what you thought it would be, and that perhaps it doesn’t suit you as well as you thought it would. This is an immensely useful thing to learn – and if you’re not certain that your planned career path is right for you, your Gap Year is an excellent time to learn that, change direction, and work out what would be a better course to take instead.

4. Prepare yourself fully for future study

Image shows a close-up of the Bodleian library in Oxford.
Make sure you’re set for your next educational step.

The challenges of undergraduate or postgraduate study can be significant. Progressing from one stage of an academic career to the next can mean an abrupt hike in what is demanded of you, both in terms of skills and in terms of the sheer workload you are expected to deal with. We recommend using your Gap Year to make that progression less steep, so that you can move smoothly into the next phase of your studies.
There are lots of ways of achieving this! You can familiarise yourself with the norms and requirements of the phase of study you’ll next be entering; it’s likely to involve more independent work, longer pieces of writing to produce and more intensive research than you’re used to. Students taking a Gap Year Project are guided by expert teachers through all three of these fresh challenges, but it is also possible to work towards these things on your own.

5. Get guidance on career- and life-defining decisions

Image shows a compass on a map.
Good advice is invaluable.

Many people struggle to get on the career path they want, not because they lack the ability to succeed, but simply because they’ve been badly advised. A classic example of this is selecting A-levels in the UK: many prospective Law students choose A-level Law because it makes logical sense that you should choose at A-level the subject you intend to study at university. Except that admissions tutors consistently advise against A-level Law for students wanting to study Law at university (for those thinking of studying a related subject, such as Politics, Business or Economics, it might prove more valuable). Students who have not got this kind of advice may find themselves making poor decisions through no fault of their own.
So, we advise that Gap Year students should ensure that they get high-quality career and study advice from experts who are qualified to guide them. At ORA’s International Study Centre, we are proud of our guidance team, who are more than able to guide students into making the right choices for their particular career path. Students who spend their Gap Year elsewhere might want to try using whatever network of contacts they have available to them in order to find someone with a comparable level of expertise to point them in the right direction.

6. Meet new people and learn about new points of view

Image shows two girls hugging.
Take the chance to make friends from all over the world.

The final years of your schooling can be an isolating time. You’re often surrounded exclusively by people you’ve known for years – quite possibly since you joined your current school at 11 or 13 – and with the pressures of exams, there can be few opportunities to socialise outside of your usual sphere. A Gap Year of any kind has traditionally been a way to reverse this trend – to look outwards, meet new people, and be exposed to ideas you might not have come across before.
You might choose to do this by travelling across the world and seeing who you meet along the way. Alternatively, you might stay in your home country, but get to know a different group of people from the ones you would normally encounter, for instance by volunteering with a charity. At ORA, we pride ourselves on the diversity of our student population, with students of around a hundred different nationalities attending our summer school every year – so coming here is a good way to meet new people as well.

7. Find your independence

Image shows a VW van driving through a desert.
Now is a great time to go your own way.

Whether you’re taking a Gap Year straight after school and thus living away from home for the very first time, or whether your Gap Year is after your undergraduate studies, it’s typical for a Gap Year to offer students a new measure of independence and freedom. In ORA’s Gap Year Projects, we promote this by giving students a huge amount of flexibility in what they study, and equipping them with the skills they need to undertake high-level research independently. The aim is leave students confident in their ability to work without a teacher hovering over their shoulder.
However it is that you spend your Gap Year, finding this kind of independence is a vital step for transitioning to successful adult life. It might be that you find it when you first navigate your way in a professional workplace, or that you find it through taking a step into the unknown when you travel to a part of the world that you’ve never been to before, or that you find it with us, at ORA.

8. See more of the world

Image shows a plane at sunset.
Living in a new place is one of the best ways to spend your Gap Year.

We’ve written quite a lot about travelling in this article, and there are good reasons why travel is one of the first options students think of when they’re considering a Gap Year. Even if you’ve travelled extensively before your Gap Year, the kind of travel that you can undertake when you have a whole twelve months between setting off and your next real commitment is markedly different to spending two or three weeks as a tourist somewhere on your school holidays.
This is one of the reasons that ORA’s Gap Year Projects last only 12 weeks – we want students to be able to avail of the boost to their education, skills and career prospects that a Gap Year Project offers, without denying them the chance to see the world. Travel is a component of a Gap Year Project at ORA, too: we expect students to do their research in places further afield than simply the city of Oxford (which is a delightful place to explore in its own right), and we also provide opportunities for students to see a little bit more of the UK in a leisure context. Additionally, if you’re not a native English speaker, you can avail of the opportunity to improve your English as part of a Gap Year Project – so that when you’re travelling, you have the facility to communicate in the world’s lingua franca.

9. Grow in your confidence and your abilities

Image shows someone putting on a tie.
Be confident when you go into the workplace.

The end of school and the end of university can knock your confidence with a series of stressful exams and a great deal of pressure. Whatever the grades you came out with, it’s natural to need to rebuild your confidence in your academic abilities after the wearying strain of exams. You might be planning your Gap Year weeks or months ahead of that time, so it’s important to factor in how you will feel when all the stress of school or undergraduate life is over, and aim to be ready for the next stage of your life with enthusiasm to spare. Whether you choose to spend your Gap Year on a beach or addressing the areas of your study skills that you think need some work – or both – this is a valuable thing to remember.

10. Enjoy yourself!

Image shows someone jumping on a rock.
Having a good time is vital.

A Gap Year is the kind of opportunity that most people only get once – being young, footloose and without any fixed commitments for an entire year. At ORA, we know how valuable that is, and work hard to ensure that every student on every one of our courses doesn’t just live up to the maximum of their educational ability, they also enjoy every minute of their time with us. Whether you come to Oxford for your Gap Year or go anywhere else in the world, make sure that you spend it not only giving yourself the best possible start towards your future goals, but also on having fun.
It might be widely criticised, but our verdict on the gap year? Definitely worth it.


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