Whether you’re in the position of looking at your options once more after unexpected A-level results – or are simply keen to experience a bit more of the world before plunging back into academia, a gap year before university could be something to consider.
The secret is to make it count. For Charlie Cunningham, senior careers consultant at the University of Warwick, knowledge is power. “Talk to those who have done gap years, read blogs and accounts of how they approached it and find out what worked for them,” he advises.
Once you’ve made your decision, be ready for the possibility that your year-off experiences may in themselves change your career aspirations. “A gap year gives you the time to learn more about who you are,” says Anna Elkin, 18, currently undertaking a mixture of travel, work experience and volunteering.
“At school, it is incredibly easy to go with the crowd and follow a career path that you have been pushed toward. When you take a gap year, you learn so much more about what truly satisfies you in life. And knowing this is fundamental in deciding on a career.”
This has certainly been the case for Elkin, who has changed her future course entirely as a result of her year out. “I originally thought I wanted to study biology and enterprise at the University of Leeds and pursue a business-focused career,” she says.
“However, after all my experiences this year, I have realised I take true satisfaction in helping others.” Elkin is now looking to undertake a medical degree when she returns to education in September.
While the gap-year cliché might involve foreign travel and ‘finding yourself ’, more students like Elkin are fitting work experience in, too. Cunningham says, “These days, many employers are offering formal paid internship programmes to school leavers after A levels.”
If you want something more than just work experience, you could even look at a one-year apprenticeship in a field that interests you – time enough to be rewarded with a knowledge based qualification such as a BTEC diploma and certificate for your efforts, which can attract UCAS points if you are thinking of going to university or on to higher education – although it is important to check whether your university of choice will accept them first. Check out the GOV.UK website for information.
For 19-year-old Baht-Ammi Francis, gap-year decisions had to be made swiftly when A-level-results day didn’t go as she planned. “I was intending to go straight to university, but when I missed my grades for Cambridge last summer, I had to do some serious thinking. My gap year was a spur of the moment decision.”
If you find yourself in a similar position to Francis, there’s always the option of using your year out to retake A levels – or, if you are wavering over your degree choice, to do a foundation year, which could qualify you to follow a different degree route.
You could also take the opportunity to tie your time to your future career aspirations in more holistic ways. “I’m currently working as an au pair in France in the hope of becoming fluent, opening up job opportunities and the possibility of international roles in the future,” says Francis.
“I feel that universities and employers are looking for more than just academic capacity. I don’t think it is so much the year out they take into account, but the skills and experiences that come from it.”
From an employer’s perspective, Victoria Lawes, director of resourcing at Deloitte, who has responsibility for school and student recruitment, agrees. “Students take gap years for a variety of reasons – a break from education, to travel, to volunteer or follow a passion. They can gain valuable soft skills through all of this – organisation, independence, cultural awareness, plus resilience when it comes to knockbacks or language barriers.”
Lawes believes in the value of trying out the sector you hope to move into by getting a placement or work experience, and although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a career enhancing gap year, there are some universal pitfalls to avoid. “You have to ensure you are doing something meaningful,” says Lawes. “Nobody wants to hear about a year that’s been wasted or had missed opportunities.” She also suggests that you think about how you can explain and promote your gap year to potential employers when the time comes.
Kay Brown, who works as a job search advisor helping students to consider future career paths at the University of Warwick, agrees: “Think about what you want to gain. Don’t expect a year of ‘chill time’ to answer all your questions about what to do in the future, and don’t expect opportunities to come to you.”
It’s also important, of course, to keep an eye on what’s coming next. “Make sure you build in time to plan for what you intend to do after your gap year,” says Cunningham. “You may need to keep in touch with teachers who can give you references for jobs and university applications. You may need time to put together a personal statement. Also, it’s best to avoid flying back from overseas and hopping on the train to university or a new job the following day.”
Despite the challenges, the best gap years can be life enhancing as well as career enhancing. Francis concludes, “I truly believe everyone should think seriously about taking a gap year – I am now more equipped than ever to make the right decision with regards to my future. Experience the world, volunteer, work and everything else will fit into place!”
Do you have any questions about your A-level results? Whether it's about remarks, retakes or a general 'what if', Hannah Morrish, education community manager at The Student Room is on hand to answer your questions.
Leave them in the comments section of this article from 10am on August 15, and the answer will be published within the article.