Q&A: Taking an Unplanned Gap Year
Name: Mark Ramsden
Occupation: Student (Ex-Gapper)
Hi Mark, so tell us, how were you feeling as A-Level results day approached?
I wasn’t really feeling much, I don’t think. There was nothing much I could do about my results: I just had to wait and see. I kind of knew the exams hadn’t gone as well as they could, but as I say there’s little point in worrying about things you can’t do anything about.
What were your plans up to this point?
I had a conditional offer of a place on a Natural Sciences course and I guess I was just looking forward to university. Ready to throw myself into student life, debt and hangovers.
Tell us about results day - what did you need, what did you get, and how did you feel about it?
I needed AAB for my first choice, BBB for my second. I got BBC. I felt a bit bad, mainly disappointed because I had wasted so much time convincing my teachers I’d get my AAB. Anyway, I realised I’d have to sort it out, so I went home.
What was your initial response - did you try phoning your first and second choice universities?
I called my first choice (which took hours: university lines are very busy on results day, no one told me that!) and eventually found out that they wouldn’t accept me. I also called my second choice; they would accept me but wouldn’t give me accommodation, I’d have to stay with a family until some became available. That was bad. Like I say I was looking forward to throwing myself into university ways, and staying in a house with a strange family was really not part of my new and exciting plan. Besides, I had a house with a strange family at home. Also I was beginning to doubt my course choice...
How about the UCAS clearing system?
After choice one turned me down, and I turned down choice two, I looked at clearing and found a course I liked the look of, which is in fact the course I am now on. I called them, up and they said I could have a place. However, as I had been accepted by choice two, I couldn’t go there straight away. I have never seen any point in rushing these things, so a gap year it was.
So: our intrepid hero finally decides to take a gap year... Were you excited about it?
I was excited, but also nervous. I had never even considered taking one before. I had no plans, no job, no money, no idea. It was an opportunity I had to make the most of, but I didn’t really know how. All I knew was I had a year to make some money and spend it on something that would be really worthwhile.
Tell us how you spent your gap year...
I did nothing for a fairly long time. I half-heartedly sent off my CV to people and got some part-time work, which was horrendously boring. And I went on a few introductory presentations to find out about my gap year options. A lot of my friends had gone on supported placements and I had a vague idea I’d like to do something like that. There are many to choose from, some more conservation-based, others more exploration. I ended up doing a conservation project with in the untouched Guyanan rainforest.
Living in a rainforest is a dream for a lot of people - was it something you'd always wanted to do or did you come upon it by chance?
It was something I’d always wanted to do, but the opportunity was by chance. One of my passions is wildlife, and the chance to see first-hand one of the richest, most ecologically diverse places in the world was very exciting. I also wanted to go to Peru: Guyana was close enough!
And was the rainforest like you'd imagined it would be?
No. Nothing can really prepare you for it, which is just the way it should be. How do you imagine the rainforest? You can see pictures, or go visit something similar, maybe sit in a greenhouse for an hour or two, but you won’t get the full effect until you’re out there, sleeping in the midst. You’ll notice that about people who have been: they never try and describe it, they know there’s no point.
Tell us your most vivid memory from your time spent in Guyana...
Sitting in the middle of the jungle, with my friend, Dave. It must have been about three or four days into our trek, and we had come across a waterfall. Our trek was following a gorge, and this was not the first waterfall, but no one had ever gone this far in so we were the first to ever see it. We were enclosed by the gorge, and on one side there was a huge gnarled old tree, like in a fairy tale. There was a deep pool, where the water had dug away for thousands of years, and a bank had formed opposite the drop which we were sat on. It was all still, though everything around us was filled with life. Listening to birds we couldn’t see, insects buzzing and biting, everything in its place. Nothing asking how it got there, it was just right. You don’t get to see that much, but we were lucky and saw a lot of it.
And what are you doing now - how is your uni course?
I have just finished my first year at Royal Holloway University of London. I’m doing zoology, a course I am far more suited to than my original choice of Natural Sciences. No disrespect to anyone doing it, but it’s really a course designed for people who don’t know what to do - I should know!
A happy ending unfolds... how do you feel now about how things turned out?
For me it couldn’t have turned out better, I am at a great university, on a course I love. My year out gave me the chance to grow up a bit, appreciate life a bit, and get a bit more independent. The time I spent in Guyana made me want to pursue my interest in travel and exploration through the clubs and societies at uni. Plus, when you arrive at uni and you’re meeting all these new people, there’s no-one more difficult to talk to than the guy who has come straight from school. After ‘so, what do you study, and what grades did you get in your A Levels?’ conversation tends to become a little strained.
I would change nothing about it. I try not to dwell on the past too much, it gets boring. However, when I do look back I know that I was very lucky. I think I would be very boring if I had done better at school. There’s a good lesson in there somewhere...
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