In the current economic climate and tough labour market, taking a gap year seems increasingly hard to justify. Recent reports suggest that more than 17,000 fewer students chose to defer their university place in 2011 than in 2010, and those who do opt for a year out want to ensure it will earn them both life and work experience rather than being an excuse to go partying around the world. To decide if a gap year is right for you, start by asking yourself a few simple questions:
1. Why do you want to go on a gap year?
Do you know what skills you're hoping to gain, what qualities you're aiming to enhance, and how you're going to do so? Or do you only have a vague idea of where you might end up, assuming that something will just 'happen'? If the latter, you might want to rethink – a year of aimlessness will do nothing for your CV and may make you feel even more demotivated. Alternatively, get organised, and use services like prospects.ac.uk, gapyear.com realgap.co.uk and gap360.com to find out what's possible.
2. Are you in a position to be able to take a gap year?
Although your year out may involve some paid work, or volunteering in exchange for bed and board, it will likely require a significant outlay of cash at the outset. Do you have it? If not, do you know how you're going to raise it? If you're deferring a university place, be absolutely sure you want to be a year behind your peers, and be aware of rising tuition fees. If you're a university leaver, make sure you won't be missing out on a specific graduate scheme or job opportunity by holding back from entering work. Remember that gap years aren't just for students, or university leavers wanting to have one last hurrah; you can take a break at any point in your life. Is now the right time? Consider the possible short- and long-term effects of your year out on what you hope to do afterwards before you commit.
3. Are you choosing the right kind of gap year for you?
If you're a resourceful, outgoing person who thrives on an element of risk, chances are you would love nothing more than to go off exploring and improvising your itinerary. But that's not everyone – be honest about your own capabilities and limitations, and tailor your plans to your own personality and interests rather than taking a 'token' gap year for the sake of it. Remember, too, that a gap needn't last a full year. If 12 months is too much, why not just make plans for three or four? gapyear.com offers some great ideas for 'Short Gaps'.
Once you've asked yourself the above questions – stop asking questions! There's a limit to how prepared you can be – and gap years are partly about taking the plunge, after all. Listen to others' experiences, read up about gap years online – but remember that, in the end, only you can know what feels right for you.