Gap years are a tricky one. How to spend it? Where to travel? Should you work, and for how long? How do you avoid ridicule from friends and family? (Click here for tips on how not to behave).
I for one can whole-heartedly recommend the experience, as I applied deferred to Trinity College Oxford, and spent an amazing year travelling across South America. I was young in my year, and felt that I wanted to do something completely different from school before entering what I anticipated, correctly, would be an intensely academic 4 years at university. However, the experience is not for everyone, and the first and most obvious piece of advice is that if you don’t feel like it, don’t do it, and if you do think it sounds appealing, do lots of research and follow the advice below! Gap years are a personal decision above all else, and you should be very committed to them if you choose to embark upon one. One point to note is that for some subjects like Maths, it is important to retain your A-Level knowledge, and so tutors may be less encouraging of gap years than other courses where the time can be spent more positively (eg. Engineering or Materials Science students may benefit from work undertaken in industry).
If you have decided that a Gap is for you, then the first thing is to think about how it will affect your application. The two options available are to 1) apply deferred, meaning that you submit an application stating that you want to be considered for entry the following year, rather than along with everyone else applying, or 2) to make a post A level application, waiting for your A2/IB/PreU results before applying whilst on your Gap year. A deferred place can be great as if you are successful you know that the place is waiting for you when you return! However, applying post gives you more time to make choices if you are a little uncertain, and means that you apply armed with definitive (hopefully fantastic!) results from your final year, which makes you a more predictable candidate and more mature.
People talk a lot about whether applying deferred makes things harder, as tutors need to be more certain, but I simply emailed the tutor at my college and asked about how he viewed deferred applications to make sure. Definitely ask questions! This can help you make up your mind about what the pragmatic, as well as the best choice for you, is.
But what to do? It can certainly be a good idea to do something that fits in well with your intended degree. Modern Linguists should think about visiting a country that speaks the language they intend to study, and there are lots of internships designed for Gap year students at major firms across the world, for scientists and social scientists in particular. This can make it easier to justify your decision to take a Gap year if you are asked about it at interview! However, I studied Classics, and spent a Gap year that had little to do with my degree! When asked at interview, I said I wanted to experience a bit more of the world and travel before committing to university. In short a Gap can actively help your degree, or act as a breather, but as long as you are busy and doing things that interest you and are fulfilling, then a Gap is very justifiable.
More generally, a gap year can be a great way to gain certain skills which will be invaluable for your university experience. Some candidates may want to gain more maturity and confidence before coming to university and that’s no bad thing in itself as long as it’s time well spent. It sounds cheesy, but if you’ve had some big dream or major goal you want to achieve, now might be the time to pursue it.
If you are a bit stuck for ideas, The Guardian’s Gap Year pages are a great resource to get started with. Despite the stereotype of getting an ill-advised piercing or tattoo, living with a tribe in the Amazon and coming back ‘a changed person’ with a deeper understanding of the world and so on, it could genuinely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so don’t dismiss it outright!