The end is in sight for many A-level students, but with the enormous relief of never having to venture into the middle of a school corridor resembling a mosh pit ever again comes the daunting prospect of making a life-changing decision. The question of whether to take a travelling gap year or not is tough – and one that will have inevitably been the cause of stress, confusion, and innumerable pros and cons lists!
After seven years in the education system, having a year’s break from studying before committing to another three or four is tempting, but gambling an entire 12 months and thousands of pounds of savings is not a decision to be taken lightly. To have some time out, broaden the mind and widen the horizons while spending a lot of money in the process – or to dive straight into university life and travel the world afterwards? That is the dilemma facing me and masses of students across country. It’s a crucial turning point and the scary fact of the matter is that the direction we choose today could alter the destination we find ourselves arriving at in five years’ time. Scary fact of the matter number two is that the time for mulling it over is nearly over. With the UCAS application deadline fast approaching and the Oxbridge cut off in just a few weeks, we’re not left with time for dithering about which route to choose!
I’ve always had my heart set on organising the most amazing and life-changing gap year. Visions of traipsing around colourful markets, eating equally colourful food and meeting all sorts of people have been planted in my mind for quite a while now – and although weighing up the pros and cons of following through with my plans is making me a little doubtful, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to still this restlessness to explore unless I do just that! And I will travel at some point – it’s just deciding whether to do it now or after university.
Should I even do a degree? Which course should I study? And where? What if it’s not as good as I expect? What if I get to the end of the three years and realise that I want to do something else? Is it worth the massive debts I will accumulate?
Being an optimist and probably painfully naive when it comes down to it, I’m not the only one hoping that taking a gap year might answer these questions for me. Months of exploring, learning and new experiences are bound to teach me about myself and help me realise what it is that I really want to do.
But my parents and many others see it a different way, and combined with assembly after assembly about UCAS applications, courses and university life, I’ve been left thinking that maybe I don’t really have time to waste exploring the world. Teachers, employers and parents all seem to have reservations when it comes to taking a year out.
The potential outcome that they’re most worried about is that poor planning and insufficient funding could result in the year being spent lazing around and doing not much. Or travelling, spending too much and having to resort to guilt-tripping and begging for money via email from exotic places to make ends meet. That or the idea that I’ll enjoy the freedom of not studying and having no ties so much that I’ll decide not to go to university at all.
They’re valid points. I’ve heard of plenty of people who were intent on going to university until they went travelling, and then they could no longer bear the thought of returning to the rigidity and routine of formal education. And although a degree isn’t necessarily the be all and end all, that’s not how many parents see it. Then there’s always the risk of ending up doing something totally irrelevant or useless with the year that would put you at a disadvantage in the eyes of many universities; it’s different if you’re working and saving or doing something worthwhile and relevant to your course, but a wasted gap year can immediately make you a much less desirable candidate when it comes to applying. That said, doing valuable work experience, helping a charitable organisation or accomplishing something impressive – getting it right in other words – can be massively beneficial.
The important thing to remember is that regardless of how many people you ask, how many opinions you pool and how many times you hit Google to try to make your mind up for you, at the end of the day you probably already know what you want to do. Whether it be in a foreign country or a lecture theatre, there’s not much worse than being stuck somewhere that you don’t want to be, doing something that you don’t want to.
So: ‘gap yah’ or nah? The only answer is to go with your gut. What’s yours telling you?
A different version of this article was previously published on the Grads blog