Should I take a gap year? Things to consider

Careers expert Helen Green discusses the things your teenager needs to consider in deciding whether to take a year away from study.

When I left school in the late 80s, deferring was sternly frowned upon – almost regarded as ‘dropping out’ before you start. There was a fear among parents (and arguably many school leavers) that once their children had a taste of freedom, studying would be on the back burner.

To a large extent, perceptions have changed significantly. It is now considered by many students and their parents as a well-earned break from study and a chance to learn, grow and be better prepared for the opportunities and challenges of adulthood.

Today, many tertiary institutions are accepting student deferrals, with some openly supporting their many benefits for their students. With graduate employers on the lookout for well-rounded graduates with ‘work ready’ skills, it is not difficult to see why taking a gap year after school is gaining popularity here and abroad.

Before making plans, check if it is possible to defer as not all courses offer this option. This step is particularly crucial if you are a scholarship recipient or receiving other assistance.

Be aware that there may be a fee associated with deferring too. If deferring, ensure you do so before the census date to avoid paying for subjects you do not plan to sit. Also, make sure you know how deferring might impact on your receipt of government benefits and so on.

To defer or not is an important decision. Taking a year off after Year 12 is not suitable or realistic for some students, so be informed and do what is right for you. Many understandably prefer to keep the study momentum going and worry they will find the transition to university harder after a year off. 

Discuss the potential challenges, drawbacks, and advantages with those you trust: parents/guardians, mentors, friends or your school or university careers counsellors.

Do you know anyone who has deferred their studies? Maybe you just need a six-month break if your preferred course has a mid-year intake. Maybe you would prefer to take a year off during or after your course, as this is also a viable option for many students, particularly at present, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Factoring in COVID-19

This time last year, few people could have imagined the impact COVD-19 would have on our lives and studies. Year 12 students have had their final year of school disrupted from a learning and social perspective.

Many students taking a gap year [in 2020] have lost their jobs or had to return home early in their overseas travel/volunteering and now face decisions about ‘what to do’ for the remainder of the year.

Some students would have commenced tertiary study semester two if they could, work if they were lucky enough to secure a job or take advantage of some of the many short courses available to help people secure work or develop life skills, leadership skills and employ-ability skills.

It has certainly the year of resilience, though as restrictions ease, opportunities to work, volunteer, pursue a hobby or travel around Australia will increase substantially – especially in the volunteer space.

If you are contemplating a gap year in 2021, keep in mind there are likely to be continued restrictions on travel…and some gap year travel/volunteering programs will be adjusted accordingly. However, if you are prepared to be flexible, then do not feel you need to abandon your plans.

Speaking broadly, here are some gap year benefits to keep in mind:

Time out

Year 12 is stressful, particularly during a pandemic. Juggling a heavy study load, taking classes remotely and for many students, missing participation in extra curricula activities such as sport, hobbies and/or part time work is hard.

I am seeing many years 12 students who have struggled in isolation and missed the planned social activities that are part and parcel of the last year of school.

Add to this the pressure of ATAR scores and the unhelpful and largely unrealistic thought that you should ‘know’ what you want to do for the rest of your working life, and the idea of taking a year’s break is appealing. With households under pressure this year for a myriad of reasons, having some time out after year 12 makes sense.

Work in any capacity

Finding paid work is hard in a very tight job market, but the effort is worth it, as it can help set you up for future success by providing you with valuable experience and some financial independence – quite apart from its value on your CV.

Whether you land an interesting job linked to your intended career path, or realistically not – any work matters and gives you a head start.

Voluntary work, which I discuss in more detail below, is also a smart move and arguably more accessible to young people at present. Whether you work full time, part time or in a voluntary capacity, always make the most of any training or professional development opportunities offered to you.

Travel safely

Taking a gap year does not necessarily mean a year away travelling and with COVID-19, there may be ongoing restrictions around destinations, access to popular tourists’ sites. If you are keen to travel and it is safe to do so, then pack your bags.

Websites abound with exciting gap year possibilities for teenagers’ finishing school and will be adapting their offerings in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions so be informed, research well and be prepared to be flexible.

You might consider an organised tour aimed at school leavers and/or go with a friend. The Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website is an important resource as your health and safety is always paramount and more during a global pandemic.

If you are lucky enough to travel around Australia or overseas during your gap year, make the most of it: work, do an internship and/or volunteer on one of the many important international projects needing support.

The skills and perspective gained will be invaluable and for some of you, life changing. At the very least, your travels might be an excellent talking point at future job interviews.

Keep a journal so you can record what you have experienced, skills learned and the people you met along the way.

…or not

Obviously, not everyone has the opportunity, interest, money, health, or maturity to travel overseas for their gap year for various reasons. Understandably, the COVID-19 pandemic will impact many decisions.

You might consider travelling during your degree instead, going on student exchange or travelling post study. There is plenty you can keep busy with on a gap year at home.


Volunteer at home

So many organisations will need your help, particularly post COVID-19.  Think broadly about the skills you possess and consider where you might put them to best use. If you know the career path you wish to pursue, you might like to volunteer in this area.  

Alternatively, you might like to try something completely different. Volunteering is almost guaranteed to pay dividends when it comes to your future work opportunities.

Before commencing a software development degree, a client of mine who took a gap year added to his skills considerably by working for a charity needing IT assistance for several months.  

Whatever you do, volunteering helps build your confidence, life experience and contacts.  You never know whom you might meet and career specializations you might be exposed to.  I know several students who have changed their career direction/course because of undertaking voluntary work during a gap year.

Upskill and get fit

Use the time wisely. Get your driving licence if you can, learn First Aid, brush up on your language skills (especially if travelling). You can also use this time to get as fit as you can in readiness for the coming year. The possibilities are endless.

Accepted an offer but feeling confused? Do your research

This is where the gap year really comes into its own. Having left school, you probably have a bit more time to yourself and no study pressures.

Compare courses online, re-visit Open Days even if they are online, check out new courses and speak to current students, alumni, and course directors.

Ask lots of questions such as what support services are available to students, what are the career outcomes of the course/graduate employment data, fees, professional accreditations, work integrated learning options, specialised student support services like careers, disability services, etc.  Choose your course for the right reasons.

If you have a few areas of interest, people are your best resource. Speak to as many people as possible who work or study in or have had recent exposure to occupations or sectors you are curious about.

In the best cases, a phone chat, virtual catch up or cup of coffee can lead to a ‘work shadowing experience’. Think of everyone you know in your social network and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. For more tips, see my blog. Seek a professional’s guidance with your career if you think it may be of benefit to you.

I know of students on their gap year this year who have used quiet times to do more career research and self-analysis than they otherwise would have. The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we work long term and with all its challenges, some sectors will emerge stronger.

Get connected with your university

If you have deferred and are happy with the university/course you have enrolled in, then immerse yourself in all it has to offer.

Universities are keen to engage students who have deferred. COVID-19 has changed the format, but you can still participate online until further restrictions are eased. Why not attend the occasional campus function, webinar or public lecture.

These can be excellent opportunities to meet staff, students, and alumni. Connect on social media groups and ask questions.

Missed out on the course of your choice? Study and reapply

Did you miss out on your preferred course or where you missing a prerequisite unit? I know students who have taken a ‘bridging’ subject, done well, reapplied and been accepted.

If you just missed out on your preferred course, why not re-apply with a personal statement explaining what you have learned during your year.

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About Helen Green

Helen Green is a qualified careers consultant, with more than two decades working in senior education and career program management roles. She most recently worked at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, as the School’s Career Programs Consultant. She now runs her own careers consulting practice and has children at secondary school and university.

This is an updated version of Helen’s original post for The Parents Website.

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