How to Make Your Gap Year Work for You
Things to consider when taking a gap year
When you're planning your gap year, there will always be someone who raises the question of "What will you do afterwards?" or "What are you career ambitions for when you get back to reality?" Both are valid questions, though they can be glossed over quite easily. However, while the old clichés of "gaining a wide cultural knowledge", "exploring the world" or "taking the opportunity to travel while I can" are all legitimate reasons to take a gap year, none are further from what a recruiter wants to hear.
Before you go, remember you'll be coming back. When you are jetting off to start your gap year adventure it's easy to forget there will be a time when you land home again, but it's vital that you do spend time preparing for your return. Especially if you are to get the most from the journey you're about to take: trying to settle back into a more structured lifestyle and kick-starting your career can lead to serious post-gap year blues if you've done no preparation.
Though it's never the first thought you'll have on your mind - and nor should it be prior to your trip - consider the position you will be in after trekking through a jungle, volunteering in a village and experiencing new cultures. Most likely you'll be in a situation of wanting to earn - and that means impressing potential employers with all that you've achieved as well as proving you've got the drive and ambition to take on a full time role.
So what will help make your gap year really work for you from an employers' perspective?
Employers want you to articulate what you have learned during your gap year. They want to hear about key skills, such as working in a diverse team, or the difficulties you had to overcome such as communicating in another language or problem solving when transport issues put you in a tough spot. They will be genuinely intrigued to hear about the way you composed yourself, your thought process and what the end result was. While that might sound simple, before and during your gap year when every day throws up a challenge, it might not be so easy to remember specifics when you're sitting in front of a computer writing application forms at your desk or in the hot seat during an interview.
The trick is to keep note of your progress during your gap year, jotting down even the slightest trial or tribulation where you've had to actively overcome a challenge. Negotiated a heavily discounted taxi fare to boost your bargaining skills? Get it written down. Solved a budget crisis by cost cutting and finding a little ad hoc paid work? Put pen to paper. Showed the patience of a Saint by waiting for a coach for eight hours? Use some of that time to get it in the journal.
By putting aside time each day or even once a week to think about what you've done that would be transferable into a workplace, you'll be surprised how quickly you build up a collection of anecdotes that can be revised at a later date to relay to employers. Plus, by keeping a record at the time, you can include the little details that often get lost in the days, weeks and months that follow until you are left with a hazy, and possibly unconvincing, recollection at a later date. When reading back you'll be chuffed at what you've achieved, and also just how useful all the information will prove to be.
Application forms, CVs and interviews are all exercises to market yourself to prospective employers, so when it comes to referring back to your travel journal you should pick and choose the most relevant experiences to the job you are applying for. On your travels you may have learnt a foreign language and acquired knowledge of different cultures, customs and traditions. Such knowledge could be of great value to global organisations. Or you may have spent days poring over the most cost effective way to get from Columbia to Chile while taking in every other South American country which would impress a seasoned logistics professional. You may need to adopt some spin to relate your gap year problems to office tasks, but it'll be worth it as employers will be interested not just in your abilities, but also in the situation they were used.
Some gap years are completely career-orientated or have more obvious CV-friendly moments such as volunteering for a month. If yours is more about travelling and seeing the world, don't think you can't be career-minded. Keep a journal and be pro-active when using skills that can be transferred to the workplace. It'll make for a rewarding read when you return to the real world for both your memories and your job prospects.
If you're still at college or uni then check out our 2012 student and graduate career planner - there's still a few months left!
This is a cracking article - getting a job after travelling - read it, use it, get a job...
If you're thinking about working on your gap year then read our article to working in Australia - it's packed full of information and advice on working Down Under...
About the Author: Mike Barnard
Mike Barnard is the Product Manager of Milkround, the UK's most widely-used graduate recruitment website (according to The UK Graduate Career Surveys 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 & 2012 by High Fliers Research). He has appeared on BBC, ITV and LBC Radio talking about the student & graduate jobs market and is a regular contributor to graduate publication The Gateway. A graduate himself, Mike has been a commentator on graduate recruitment since 2007, giving talks at universities & other events. Milkround has a database of more than 700,000 students & graduates.
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