There are some merits to taking a gap year. Just make sure that you apply to study before you go, then defer your studies for when you get back.

In my line of work I get asked this question a lot, should I take a gap year? A gap year, in case you have not heard, is a year of adventure and personal exploration, usually taken after school before studying.

To be honest I’m not really that experienced in advising kids on what to do when it comes to taking a gap year.  I never took a gap year myself so maybe get advice from someone who has done it.  I do career guidance, I help people make career decisions, I don’t help them to take year off to think about it.  So if you come to me for a consultation I would probably not suggest a gap year as a first option. It just wouldn’t feel right charging your mom for a consultation and then telling her you need a year off to think about your career further.

So when I left school, I took a year off, though not a gap year as such. I went to the army as we did in those days. I spent a year in Kimberly. It’s not quite the same as a gap year but I must admit that I did have time to think about what I wanted from life. You see, I left school back in the late 80’s, I was a little immature and very unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. The break after school really gave me time to think and try out new things. So when I finished the army and went to Varsity I was very clear about what I wanted to do with my life. I studied for 4 years … loved it … and never looked back!

There is not much research on the benefits of taking a gap year but I came across this publication on the Harvard University website encouraging their students to defer their studies to take a gap year. Note I said defer, in other words the students they are talking about, had already applied and were accepted before requesting the University to defer their studies.

After studying, I struggled to find a job in my field, and spent a very hard year doing volunteer work and bits and pieces to make ends meet. I eventually found a job which enabled me to pay off my student loan, the rent and other expenses which were accumulating. At the age of 27 years old, finally paid off the last instalment on my student loan (thank you FNB). And to celebrate my freedom I took a gap month and went speed backpacking around Europe.

This holiday was so amazing that I almost didn’t come back. What a privilege to travel and see different places and cultures. I was so inspired and refreshed by my experience … then I was broke, so I came back home; the older you get the more responsibilities you have and the less time you have to do the things you wish you could have done.

To be honest, I wish I could have taken a gap year when I left school. I would have loved to spend a year roughing it and backpacking around Europe. Or maybe I could have taught English in China to earn some money, or maybe picked olives on a Kibbutz. Maybe I would have been a snow board instructor in the Rocky Mountains or even a volunteer at an orphanage in Tanzania.

A little while back, one of my clients asked me to do a career assessment with her son. He was in Grade 11 at the time and interested in becoming a musician. He was a creative lad, very active and adventurous, not someone who enjoys sitting behind a desk. In fact he was pretty adamant that he was not going to study after school.  I convinced him to get his applications in to university and to visit a few universities in order to get the paper work done. Then came the question … “what about a gap year?”

To cut a long story short he left the country for his gap year and his parents haven’t seen him since (OK its only been 8 months and they have seen him for holidays). But … on a positive note, he is having a ball but still showing no interest in studying when he gets back … that’s if he gets back.

So if you take a gap year, what are you going to do? No really, what the hell are you going to do? Don’t just say I’m going to travel because that does not wash with Parents. The biggest fear that parents have is that their son or daughter gets distracted and they never study …Ever! So first answer the question: do you know what you want to study after school? Many school leavers don’t know exactly what they want to do. This is why so many drop out or change course in their first year of study.

My advice … apply anyway, pay the application fee (not that much), even if you are not sure exactly what you want to study.

Our universities have limited places available, so most people who apply don’t get in. In fact our top universities receive way more applications than they can accept.  So if you don’t know what you want to do with your life and you are already planning to take a gap year after school, here is what I suggest:

Get your applications done then defer your studies:

  • Get your applications done in Grade 11 and plan as if you are going to study after school. Don’t wait and say, I’ll figure it all out after I get back! Seriously, I can’t support that!
  • By doing this you will reassure your parents that you are serious about studying when you get back.
  • Check with the University or College you are applying to, that you can defer your studies and check what deposits and securities need to be paid to ensure that you have a place when you get back.
  • Apply to study at at least two institutions – get your applications in on time. You need to apply in your Grade 11 year based on your marks in Grade 11.
  • Then if you do decide not to study you can defer your applications for a year and at least you have secured your place for when you get back.

Consider where to go? – Stay at home or travel or both?

There is no single “right choice,” but consider all the options and budget required.

  • If you stay at home,
– Plan a structured gap year with some time visiting relatives (grandparents, family), do volunteer work, part-time work or do courses that interest you, i.e. diving, bartending, photography, web design, etc etc.
– Build contacts in areas that interest you
– Staying in South Africa is an cheaper alternative for a gap year
  •  If you plan on travelling overseas,
– Carefully consider what it will cost and if you can come up with the funds
– To help fund your gap year overseas, investigate work opportunities, like a bartender, cook, waiter, aupair, English teacher (Investigate the working and Visa requirements in the different countries you are interested in)
– Choose a country, where you can learn a second language, like Spanish, French, German or Chinese, this could be of benefit in later employment.
– If you want to serve other people or contribute to help animals or the environment? Then investigate available options and volunteer.
– Consider teaching? Teach English to people in other countries, as you can earn a salary and travel during your breaks. Investigate the available opportunities for this.

Save up, Compare costs and do a Budget:

  • Consider, taking a buddy with you on your gap year so that you can share the costs of accommodation (it’s also great to have company and to share the experience).
  • Find a volunteer organisation willing to accommodate and feed you in a country you would like to visit so that you can travel but have the basic costs covered.
  • If you have family abroad then shack up with them or use them as a base (they will be delighted to have you for a year – but maybe check with them first).
  • Check out which countries have the best exchange rate and value for money?
  • Investigate the cost of visa requirements, air fares, backpacking lodges, other accomodation, etc, for for the countries you are interested in.
  • Get a part-time job before travelling so you can earn some money to put towards your gap year (this will help to convince your parents that you are serious about it).

So if you told me you have no idea of what you want to do after school, I may agree that there is some merit in taking some time off. There is even some research to suggest that a gap year may even be beneficial. If you don’t come right with your parents, perhaps negotiate to take the gap year after you have finished studying.

But if your parent ask me, I will probably deny I ever said this.

Sites for you to visit to find out more: