How To Use A Gap Year Before University

Gap years, some find the break from education beneficial, while others feel that taking a gap year will make it more difficult to return to the academic world. This decision requires planning and consideration. We help you make the decision. We review reasons, advantages and disadvantages, universities' opinions on gap years and some final tips. Let's get started.

Author: Rob Needleman

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Gap years, when used effectively, can offer students the opportunity to gain unique skills and experiences before starting their first year of university.

When the last year of school or college finishes, students around the country have to make an important decision. Do I take a gap year or go straight into university? Some people find the break from education to be beneficial, whereas others feel that taking a year out will make their transition back into academia more difficult. 

This decision should not be taken lightly and requires planning and many considerations. Whether you are fully set on taking a gap year, sitting on the fence or think the idea is not for you, this article will help you with your decision making. We go through why students take a gap year, the benefits and disadvantages, how universities view gap years and leave you with some final tips. Let’s get started. 

Should I take a gap year?

There are many reasons why students may want to take a gap year before starting university. They may not be completely sure of the next stage and would like the time to reflect and focus on what is next, or they could be looking to enhance their skills related to the degree they are applying to. Many universities require their applicants, for certain degrees, to gain relevant work experience evidence for Interviews and their Personal Statements. Taking a gap year can be an effective way of gaining work experience.

Another reason why students take a gap year is that they did not receive the offers or grades they wanted, so taking a gap year can be a chance to re-sit and reapply.

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Aside from university, a gap year can be an asset to your CV when you graduate. If you manage your time well (there will be a lot of time to manage during your gap year), you will be able to demonstrate skills and experience that other students will not have gained going straight from school into university. We will go into what these skills and experiences are later on in this article.

It’s important that you spend time making a decision to go on a gap year or straight into university. UCAS suggests that to make your time productive, you need to identify what you actually want to achieve during the year. The reasons could be:

Gap year ideas

There are hundreds of ideas that you can do during your gap year. Here are a few of them:

Travelling

Spending a few weeks or months exploring different countries to learn about other cultures and develop your independent skills. You’ll meet lots of new people which will be beneficial when starting first year.

Work Experience and Volunteering

Gaining relevant experience for the degree you are starting the following year is valuable. This can be in a placement or internship and can last anywhere between a week to a year. Work experience can be paid or unpaid and is a great way of demonstrating your passion for the field and to learn more about future career paths. Gaining experience may be a key requirement of the degree too.

Paid Employment

Many students will want to earn some money before university. Although it is not completely necessary with the current student financial support, it can be nice to start with some money in your account. There are many opportunities for paid employment and are often not tricky to find, however, we strongly suggest that you choose employment that is relevant to the degree you are starting the following year. This will be beneficial for your university application and CV. Working during your gap year will help give you structure and you can develop transferable skills for starting university.   

Reapplying for the following year? Structure during your gap year is crucial when working on your university application. We’ll take care of this.

Each year, we provide students with structured learning in the form of over 200 hours of study. Our expert tutors (whatever the subject) guide you through a comprehensive, tried & tested syllabus that covers all aspects of your application. With a personal tuition manager and 24/7 support access to tutors for any questions or queries, we’ll help you focus when you need it the most during your gap year. 

Find out for yourself by clicking the button below and choosing the subject you are applying to. 

What are the benefits?

There are many benefits for taking a gap year related to starting university the next year. Some of these benefits include:

Gaining work experience

Some degrees require their applicants to have work experience. Taking a gap year gives you ample time to gain a great deal of work experience, to demonstrate your passion and interest in the field on your Personal Statement and during an Interview. This will increase your chances of gaining a university offer if you can explain what you learnt from the experiences and provide clear evidence of your dedication to the subject. Taking a gap year can also give you the chance to spend more time developing your subject reading and knowledge to help you get prepared for starting your degree, and it’s beneficial for your Personal Statement and Interview too.

UCAS suggests that the following university degrees require work experience: 

Degree:
Work Experience:
NHS-funded healthcare coursesUniversities require work experience or voluntary work in a health or social care setting for courses including Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Healthcare Science, Midwifery and Nursing.
MedicineUniversities look for work experience that demonstrates resilience, learning from life experience, communication and interpersonal skills and understanding of the values of the NHS Constitution.
TeachingUniversities frequently require over 10 days of work experience in a school. Experience working with children and young people outside of school is also valuable. This can be gained from volunteering with a scout group or youth club.
Social workUniversities commonly require students to have experience of working with social care. Remember you will likely need a DBS and make sure you leave enough time to arrange this before starting if the work experience requires it. Experience is not limited to local authority social services, it can be gained from youth clubs, advice service and voluntary agencies.

Taking Cambridge, for example, they list the following for the key qualities in a medical student: ‘Have excellent communication skills for use in the health care of diverse populations’. You could therefore include work experience from placements on a ward or from volunteering regularly at care homes, interacting with residents and attending to their needs.

The process of incorporating your experience in a Personal Statement is similar to how you would speak about it in an Interview. It has to be very concise with the character limit. We shall use this example from a successful Personal Statement for Cambridge Medicine (the full analysis of the Personal Statement can be found here):

THE PERSONAL STATEMENT

Work experience and volunteering have intensified my desire to pursue the profession; it gave me the chance to observe doctors diagnosing problems and establishing possible routes of treatment; I found the use of monoclonal antibodies in kidney transplantation fascinating. A doctor needs to be skilled, dexterous and creative. Medicine is a scientific discipline that requires a profound understanding of the physiology of the body, but the application of medicine can be an art, especially when communications between the doctor and the patient can influence the outcome of the treatment. I admire the flexibility of doctors; an inpatient needs to be approached with sensitivity and reassurance, whereas an acute admission patient would benefit more from hands-on assessments.

The student has used relevant experience throughout their Personal Statement and in the paragraph above, there is clear evidence of their passion for medicine. Linking back to the key qualities of a medical student that we mentioned earlier, the student shows a knowledge of the scientific basis of medicine and they demonstrate understanding of good medical practice. Lastly, they also indicate the importance of showing respect for parents at all time which will tick some of the boxes that admissions tutors are looking for. 

Boosting your confidence and independence

Gap years will give you the opportunity to gain some life experience and meet new people, which is helpful with confidence when interacting with new coursemates and lecturers. Also, the lack of school structure will give you the chance to develop key life skills such as time management. You will need to learn how to manage your time and be productive with it to make the most of your gap year.

Increasing your confidence and independence is a vital part of starting university, so enrolling the following year with more developed skills will make your first year far more manageable. Experiences as small as arranging travel (if you spend some of your gap year abroad), budgeting and planning your trips are easy ways to gain more independence and demonstrate it.

If you start a placement or volunteer over the year, spending time in a workplace with responsibility and structure is a great way to demonstrate to admissions tutors that you will adjust more easily to university life. If you use it as one long holiday, adjusting to university life can become a big challenge, particularly compared to those staying in education, going from school straight into university.

Develop transferable skills

We have been covering this benefit in the two benefits above, but it is important to mention it on its own. There are skills that are hard to develop during school or college that are important for university. Some of these skills can be developed during your gap year. One skill we mentioned earlier is time management. Although it is crucial to have good time management skills during the A-level exam period, it is very different to the time management skills you will need at university. Especially studying at Oxbridge where time becomes a precious commodity during the shorter 8-week terms.

Another skill that can be developed during your gap year is communication. This can be built on during a placement where you have to report to a manager and converse with a team. From day one of Oxbridge first year, you will be conversing with senior academics which you may find intimidating. Being able to communicate properly will allow you to make the most out of your meetings and supervisions with tutors. 

This brings us on to networking. The ability to form contacts is hugely beneficial for when you graduate. Use your gap year to improve your communication skills to help form relationships with those at university who will possibly become useful contacts to you later on. This will be supported through improving your confidence, as we mentioned earlier.

What are the disadvantages?

Taking a year out is not for everyone. There are reasons why it might be more beneficial to go straight from school/college to university. For some people, it can become a distraction from their future plans, and the break from school can make it difficult to adjust to university life when you start the following year.

It can be expensive if you are hoping to travel around the world or volunteer to gain more experience. Also, if your year becomes unstructured and unorganised, it won’t add much value to your future career and transition into university life. Admissions tutors may then wonder why you took a gap year in the first place and question your motivation and dedication to studying the degree.

However, the main disadvantages are mostly related to the lack of using a gap year properly. There is no reason why you can’t set yourself up to be in a better position than those who are going straight from school to university. The key is to plan your year and keep your goals in mind to avoid letting it become unstructured. Contacting the universities you are applying to for advice on how to start on the right foot is a good idea. They will be more than happy to give you reading to do and advice on how to adjust to studying again.

Does taking a gap year affect university?

The answer really depends on how you use your gap year. As we mentioned earlier, admission tutors will question your application if you treat the whole gap year as a holiday. 

Some students worry that they will lose the momentum they gained from A-levels if they take a gap year and will then find university study to be too challenging. A different way to approach this for students that would like to have the year away experience, but are worried about the impact on their studies, is to choose a degree that has a year abroad.

Prospects suggest that if now is the ideal time to take a gap year before university, make sure you inform your chosen university to tell them you have changed plans if you had already applied. You will need to have a valid reason why you would like to defer (such as to gain more medical work experience) and then let the admissions office know why. They will then make a decision whether you can or cannot defer.

When justifying your decision to defer your place, you will need to prove that your gap year will be constructive and beneficial so make sure any plans are related to the degree you are applying to.

What does Oxbridge say?

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Using Christ’s College, Cambridge as an example, they state that on average, 20-25% of intake at Christ’s comes to them following one or more gap years. In every subject offered they are neutral about gap years, which means that they don’t mind whether you take a gap year or not.

oxford-university

Balliol College, Oxford also accept gap year students but they suggest that their tutors may want to see a proposed plan for your gap year, which includes some form of maintaining academic engagement with your chosen subject.

If you have any uncertainty about how your gap year will affect your university chances, speak to lecturers and the university careers service and ask for any advice and support for students who are planning to take time away from their studies.

Final tips

Know what you want to achieve – make sure you have clear goals for your gap year and stick to them. It is crucial you make the most of your year as this will be beneficial to starting your degree and future careers. Keep in mind the useful skills that are needed for the degree, such as data analysis and problem-solving for studying Economics.

Plan earlyThe Department for Education and Skills estimates anywhere between 200,000 – 250,000 young people take a gap year each year. Work experience, placements and jobs abroad are filled rapidly. Early planning will give you the best chance of securing the experience you are looking for.

Keep a journal of your experiences – it’s easy to think that you will remember what you did during your gap year, but you will inevitably forget the important learning points and skills you developed. Make a note of your thoughts and feelings and how it has made an impact on your decision to pursue the field. This is particularly important whilst gaining medicine-related work experience as you will need to write about your experience in your Personal Statement and discuss it during an Interview.

Didn’t get a place at the university you wanted? It’s time to perfect your application to reapply next year.

UniAdmissions specialise in helping you get your dream offer. Whether you are taking a gap year or deciding to re-sit your A-levels in the Autumn, we can help create a bespoke plan that will get you your first choice offer.

Simply book a consultation and speak with our expert Admissions Consultants to discuss your options. They will help you devise a personalised strategy, bespoke to your needs, that will triple your chances of success.

You can do this through our Premium Programmes which cover all areas of your application, ensuring you have no weaknesses throughout.

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