Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all. Chuck everything and do what you want to do, if only for a little while. Have you ever felt that way?

Do you feel like that now?

After the year we’ve just endured and the way this new one looks, it would come as no surprise if you shouted out your affirmative. We feel you, as the Americans say. We feel that way too… and so have students and professionals down through the ages.

In good conscience, we Brits can’t say that we invented the concept now known the world over as the gap year. However, we can say that taking a gap year is a longstanding practice in the UK.

Are you getting ready to sit your A-Levels all while wishing you could take a bit of time away from everyone’s expectations to just go off and discover new things?

Are you already well-entrenched in your law, teaching or medical career and feel like you’re ready to step back a bit to consider where you want to go in life?

For both of you, a gap year (a sabbatical, if you’re already working) might be just what you’re looking for.

We’ve put together this information so that you can see, at a glance, whether a gap year is right for you. And, if so, what options are available to make your time away a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What Is a Gap Year?

If you skipped past this article’s intro in your rush to get to the meat of things, let us explain again that a gap year is taking time off from study or a qualified professional position to explore alternate avenues of learning and personal growth.

A qualified professional position is one in which workers have earned their stripes, so to speak. They have substantial training and experience in their field and, most likely, have spent years working for the same employer. Medical personnel, academics and those who work in law could take a sabbatical with relative ease.

Young or old, you can take a gap year
Even those firmly established in their career take gap years Photo credit: MTSOfan on / CC BY-NC-SA

Where students are concerned, things get a bit more specific.

You cannot take a gap year after you finish with your GCSEs; you would be considered too young for most programmes. Besides, the new law in England dictates that you must remain in school until you are 18.

However, nothing is stopping you from volunteering or taking a paid position related to the field you hope to study when you enrol in sixth form or college.

The time between A-Levels and starting university study is when most students take their gap year. If you’d rather not be travelling on or around results day – prime time for submitting UCAS applications, you might wait until after you land a spot in the study programme you want.

Other students prefer to take their gap year after they’ve earned their Bachelor’s degree. Some, because they need time to decide whether to pursue graduate studies and others just to take a break from the school environment.

Gap years, for the straightforward concept that they are, can be convoluted affairs. It would be best to know exactly what a gap year is and entails before you decide if and when you’ll take one.

Gap Year Programs

Earlier, we mentioned programmes in reference to taking a gap year. That was no accident.

Some students considering taking a gap year start out with the belief that this time will be mostly unstructured; that they will have to find activities to complement their study and career goals on their own.

Having to do all of the research and planning yourself could be quite stressful. It may even be enough to put you off of the idea altogether.

Many people sign up for wilderness and survival training gap programmes
Wilderness and survival training are popular gap year programmes Photo credit: Conrad@Urban-SERE on VisualHunt / CC BY

Fortunately, there are companies that take care of every aspect of planning gap years, meaning that you only need to find the programme you want, arrange for your place and get set to discover and learn.

Are you interested in adventure and learning survival skills? If so, you should search for programmes that advertise wilderness training, water sports and camping.

Do environmental issues keep you up at night? Or maybe you worry about endangered animals – or, for that matter, animals that are not endangered. There is any number of conservation and ecology programmes you could participate in. They take place all over the world so be sure your passport is up to date!

From humanitarian programmes to volunteer opportunities, gap year programmes abound. Are they worth all the money they cost?

We outlined the pros and cons of volunteer tourism and gap year programmes in a related article.

Other Gap Year Ideas

One good aspect of taking a gap year is bragging rights: you’re going to have so many fab stories to tell about everything you learned and experienced!

That will probably be great in the wider world; maybe at family gatherings, but not too often. You shouldn’t repeat the same stories more than, say, twice – three times at the most. And think of all the questions you’ll have to field during job interviews when the hiring manager sees ‘gap year’ on your CV!

In the microcosm of school, though, where perhaps many other students also have fantastic experiences to relate…

Competition is tough all over. In social and professional circles, people want to stand out a bit from the crowd; in fact, it’s necessary at times. Who wants to be the mediocre job candidate, right?

So you might consider giving gap year programmes a pass in favour of a more unique experience; possibly one you arrange for yourself.

After all, there is more than a bit of irony in symbolically striking out on your own by taking a gap year, only to have everything arranged for you, as it would be through a commercial programme.

If you happen to be a little light in the wallet, you may consider a homestay. If your future career has anything to do with biology or agriculture, you could stay with a host family while helping out on their farm and, if child welfare is more your speed, you can look for au pair positions.

Homestays offer a range of experiences from carpentry to animal husbandry and anything else you could imagine trying your hand at.

Perhaps the best part about a homestay gap year, besides being one of the safest gap year options you could consider, is its relatively low cost that includes food and shelter for the duration of your stay. You can find such opportunities all over the world and, usually, your sole expense is getting there and back home. Often, homestay hosts even pick up their gappers at airport!

Of course, there are far more off the beaten path ideas for gap years. You should give them some thought before you settle on how you want to spend your time off from school.

No need to travel to far flung places for your gap year
You don't have to go abroad for your gap year, there are plenty such opportunities closer to home. Source: VisualHunt

Should I Take a Gap Year?

After the year we’ve just endured – and, in no small part to revive the travel industry, Superprof chimes in with a resounding ‘Yes, you should!’. However, it’s not our decision to make, it’s yours.

Taking a gap year is a time-honoured tradition, especially for us Brits.

It harkens back to the days of authentic aristocracy, when wealthy families would send their young adults to The Continent to study art and music. Those youngsters would return worldly and experienced, ready to take their place in society or, possibly, in a noble profession such as law or politics.

These days, anyone with the means and desire to can take a gap year. Such finishing experiences are no longer strictly the purview of the rich. But should you?

If you stress over falling behind in the fiercely competitive academic arena or worry you may lose out on the best jobs, you won’t be able to make the most of your time away.

On the other hand, if you see this time off from your studies as a vital and productive use of your time; if you firmly believe that being away from school will serve you better at this point in your academic career than reporting to class every day and completing assignments, you should definitely consider taking a gap year.

Gapping is a relatively safe way to learn more about the world and the people in it, all without losing your place in your world. It’s also an excellent way to learn more about yourself and what you’re capable of. It can give you a different perspective on life, responsibility and commitment.

Gapping can also open doors for you professionally that may not have opened to you had you not had such an enriching experience.

In the end, taking a gap year is a personal decision, to be made based on many factors. Whether you have the time, inclination and money available to do so; if you’re physically up to the challenges you could face and open to new experiences are all relevant aspects that should be considered.

There are many more. Discover them all in our full-length article on the subject.

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.