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'What are my gap year options?' and other FAQs about taking time out

'What are my gap year options?' and other FAQs about taking time out

Pick up ideas for gap years and international internships that will boost your career prospects from our overview of how to plan time out in the UK and abroad after graduating.
A gap year can make you that mythical ‘well rounded candidate’ whom all employers want.

You might be considering a gap year after university because you want some well-deserved time out after studying. You might be considering a gap year because you want to travel or to volunteer. You might be considering a gap year because you don’t know what you want to do – or because you want to apply to a graduate scheme but have missed out this year and can’t apply until the autumn. Whatever your reasons, ensuring that your year is well planned and focuses on developing your skills (whether you complete a formal gap year programme or do your own thing) will make it easier to get a graduate job when you are ready.

In the FAQs below, we:

What are my gap year options?

Some of the most popular ways to spend your time out include:

  • taking part in an international gap year programme or international internship
  • volunteering – in the UK or abroad
  • carrying out activities to raise money for charity
  • teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) abroad
  • getting involved with community groups, such as Scouts
  • gaining experience in the sector you are interested in to make yourself more employable – for example, by gaining more experience of working with children if you want to apply for a teacher training course
  • undertaking educational short courses – for example evening classes – to pursue interests or learn new skills

There is, of course, a lot of overlap between the above activities. Graduates often complete a number of different activities within a gap year, interspersed with part-time or short-term contract work.

What are some of the gap year programmes that I could join?

Many organisations run time out, gap year or internship programmes. These often involve volunteering (for example, on a construction project in a developing country) and you usually need to pay to take part.

Providers that run international internships (which you need to pay for) suitable for recent graduates include:

In addition, The International Citizen Service (ICS) enables 18–25 year olds to undertake volunteer placements in Africa and Asia for 10–12 weeks (23–35 year olds can have team leader roles). Travel, vaccinations, expenses, insurance and accommodation are paid for.

TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) is a common gap year choice for graduates and a number of organisations will provide placements for you. You often need to complete a TEFL qualification before you apply (CELTA and Trinity are among the most widely recognised qualifications). However, a few organisations, including JET and the Chatteris Educational Foundation, will hire you without the qualification. The salary for TEFL teachers varies according to the provider and the location.

If you are considering TEFL after graduating, our TEFL teacher job description explains more about what the job involves. You’ll also find information about TEFL in each of our advice articles about working in different countries overseas after graduation.

Summer camps in the US are also a popular destination for gap years. Sports coaches/counsellors are in high demand, but they also need staff to supervise water activities, teach arts and crafts and train budding athletes, actors and musicians – and to get involved behind the scenes with food preparation, cleaning, maintenance or laundry. Camp America and BUNAC offer well established summer camp schemes. You are required to pay a fee to take part. You receive pocket money while you are working, which most people save up for travel following the end of camp. You can find out more about internships, exchanges and other opportunities from our advice on working in the US after graduation.

The British Council arranges or hosts a variety of study and working abroad opportunities for students and recent graduates.

If you do a gap year activity through an agency, do your research to ensure that it is reputable and has high welfare standards.

Erasmus+ is a scheme that currently enables EU students and graduates (among others) to study, work, volunteer, teach and train abroad in Europe. During the Brexit negotiations the UK government agreed to continue funding Erasmus until at least 2020 and so UK participants are still eligible to apply to organisations and schemes supported by Erasmus+, but do check regularly for updates on the Erasmus+ website. Our advice on working in Europe also has information about Erasmus+ and other European schemes that provide work experience opportunities.

If you want to volunteer in the UK, you’ll find a free database of national volunteering opportunities at the do-it website.In addition, Volunteering Matters organises community-based placements all over the UK. Volunteering Matters provides accommodation and day-to-day living expenses.

NB: If you do any gap year activity through an agency or organisation, do your research to ensure that it is reputable and has high welfare standards. Ensure that you fully understand what you can expect and what is expected of you.

NB: If you are considering travelling abroad, always follow the Foreign Office’s advice.

How do I fund my gap year?

Many graduates undertake short-term contract, part-time work and/or zero hour contract jobs in order to fund their time out – often for the first few months before going travelling. For example, you could get fixed contract work as a maternity cover. Registering with a temp agency may also help you find short-term positions.

If you are going to work for a good cause while you are overseas, you could fundraise by asking family, friends and other contacts to sponsor you or to donate cash to support your project. If you have a job lined up to go to afterwards, you may be able to persuade your prospective employer to support your efforts, depending on the nature of your venture and how it fits in with the company’s values. The same goes for local companies or any other organisations that you have some connection with.

Thinking of borrowing money to pay for your gap year? Your bank is unlikely to give you a loan to go travelling. Some parents are able and willing to lend funds to their offspring. If you do borrow money, make sure you understand, and can make, the terms for repayment from the outset. Be wary about funding your trip on your credit card.

What do I need to budget for during gap year travel or a gap year project?

Budgeting is crucial when planning a gap year and an important part of making sure you enjoy your time out.

If you plan to spend time working in the UK to pay for any travel during your year out, you need to set a target for how much money you need to earn in total and then figure out how much you’ll have to earn each week in order to reach that target. As well as travel costs, don’t forget to plan for other expenses, such as visas, accommodation, food, insurance and anything you need to buy before you go. You’ll also need money for any fun activities that you want to do while you’re away – most travellers spend more than they expect, so having some emergency money put aside is a must.

Be wary about funding your trip on your credit card.

Be realistic when planning what proportion of your earnings you can set aside for travel. This includes deciding how much money you need to spend each week on other things, particularly if you have rent or bills to pay.

If you are joining a programme for which you are paying a fee, it may be that you could get some of the money required through fundraising – depending on what you’ll be doing. If you choose to do your gap year with an organisation, it’s important to make sure you do your research properly and are fully aware of what is paid for and what isn’t.

How will graduate job deadlines affect my gap year plans?

Traditional graduate programmes typically open for applications in the September and October of the previous year; application deadlines often fall in the November and December, with interviews and assessment days in the new year and offers in March/April. Your start date is usually in the summer or in September. However, some sectors (such as law and investment banking) run on different timelines.

Depending on your plans, you may want to: stay within the UK for a portion of your gap year to apply and be available for interviews and assessment days; ask to delay your start date (see below); or wait until you return in order to apply.

After all, you may not have to wait until the autumn in order to apply: many employers advertise ad hoc graduate jobs at any time of year. The broad exceptions to this, however, are traditional graduate professions such as law and investment banking. They tend to run structured entry programmes for graduates (in law these are known as training contracts or pupillages) and rarely hire outside of these schemes.

Our graduate schemes page explains more about how to succeed in your applications and what to expect from this kind of graduate job, and lists a selection of deadlines coming up over the next few months.

Can I defer my graduate job start date if I take time out?

It may be possible for you to gain a graduate job offer before a gap year and to postpone your starting date until after you’ve taken some time out. Some employers state their policy towards deferring start dates on their recruitment websites: their FAQs sections often address this topic. Otherwise, you will need to ask the recruiter (we suggest you do so at careers fairs or events before you apply to avoid wasting your time).

However, many recruiters specifically hire for vacancies for the current recruitment year and they also may not be able to predict their demand for the following year. This is particularly the case during uncertain economic times. So you need to think about what you will do if the recruiter says no: will you reject the job offer or not take a gap year after all? If you are determined to have a gap year, it may be wise to wait and apply for graduate schemes or immediate graduate jobs when you return.

How can I use my gap year experiences in graduate applications and interviews?

The activities you complete on your gap year can develop your skills and broaden your experiences; in short, they can make you that mythical ‘well rounded candidate’ whom all employers want. While employers will be most impressed with gap years that you have organised yourself (indicating a proactive mindset) or that are relevant to the profession (such as volunteering at a Free Representation Unit or Citizens Advice if you want a law career), any gap year can be used as evidence of your abilities – unless, that is, you have spent the year binge-watching Netflix!

Include all of your gap year experiences on your CV, even part-time jobs, and outline the skills you developed, your achievements and the challenges you overcame. Find out more about writing and structuring your graduate CV.

You can use your experiences to answer competency questions on application forms and at interviews. You can also draw on your experiences when answering ‘Tell us about yourself’ or ‘What would you do if…?’ interview questions. For example, a recruiter told TARGETjobs how impressed she was when a candidate answered a question about how they would negotiate with a supplier by explaining how they bartered prices in a market while in Marrakesh.

As you undertake each gap year activity, keep a record of what you have achieved, the problems you have solved and the skills you’ve used if you can (or update your CV as you go) – this will ensure you won’t forget anything.

What skills will I have developed on a gap year?

Individual activities will develop different skills and require different qualities. But most gap years will have helped you develop the following qualities:

  • resilience (by moving out of your comfort zone or travelling independently)
  • initiative and proactivity (particularly if you planned your gap year)
  • planning and organisation
  • cultural sensitivity and an awareness of different cultures (most likely if you have travelled)
  • problem-solving skills (if you had to work out how to fund your time out, for example)
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