10 Ways a Gap Year can Improve your Career

True story: A well-spent gap year makes an application stand out

A gap year can be whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t have to involve travel, or take up a whole year. But with the economic crisis and all that, employers are ever harder to impress - it’s important to use your time wisely.

A senior advisor to the investment bank Lazard, Robert Hingley, explained recently in The Telegraph: “In a shrinking job market, when you have 300 applications for every place, some 100 of them will be stunning but few will stand out. Those who have taken an interesting gap year will have had the opportunity to progress beyond merely achieving things. At interview they may well come across as personalities. They will have grown up.”

Here are some ideas to help you structure your year in a way that will show you’ve used your time off productively, give you plenty to talk about at interviews, and help you shine in the competition.

1. Start a travel blog

What’s it all about? So you’re heading off on your gap year travels, voyaging across the globe, getting lost in the unknown. It might be the most incredible, memorable adventure of your life, so record it! A travel blog’s a great way to remember all those little funny things that happen along the way, with articles, photos, or videos. You might not even need a laptop as many hostels have computers, but obviously check before you go.

How will this help me? It’s a portfolio of work, whether text, photos, or videos, that you can use for various different careers. Some people make a career out of travel blogging, and they all got started the same way. You might even get your work featured on gapyear.com!

Where do I start? Popular options are WordPress or Blogspot. They’re great for beginners as a few hours playing around will get you to grips with the basics.  Check out this article on how to write on the road.

2. Volunteer at home

What’s it all about? Why travel halfway across the globe when there are so many people you can help right here? Spend your gap year working with animals or conservation, with homeless and social welfare charities, in the justice system, with children or in sports – the options are limitless!

How will this help me? Working with charities shows dedication, compassion, and commitment – and most volunteers say it’s very rewarding. Choose something you find interesting and a field you’re considering a career in, and gain valuable experience and contacts. You can also get a great reference at the end for your next job or for university applications. On top of it all, some scientists believe volunteering makes you live longer!

Where do I start? In the UK, a good place to start looking around is CSV or Volunteering England.

3. Volunteer abroad

What’s it all about? Volunteering abroad is the perfect way to combine doing something worthwhile with seeing the big wide world. Spend more than just a few weeks in a place, really immerse yourself, get to know the people and different culture. Choose something you feel really passionate about, and hard work can be incredibly rewarding.

How will this help me? 65% of HR executives surveyed by gapyear.com in 2011 said volunteering abroad made an application stand out. It’s not easy to spend months abroad, possibly travelling alone, probably somewhere you didn’t know anybody before you left. Volunteering abroad shows employers you’ve got courage, determination and a sense of adventure, as well as commitment and compassion.

Tailor it to your career or potential career interests. The most popular options are working with children (teacher), with animals or conservation (biology or science-related), or doing community work (social care).

It’s great if you can show you had a decisive role or used organisational skills in a project, so don’t choose a project that seems more fun than anything else. Employers are also looking for interesting people to work in their office, and volunteering abroad will give you plenty to talk about!

Where do I start? Check out the volunteering page for ideas.  Not all volunteering is possible everywhere, so try to find a happy balance between that place you’ve got your heart set on visiting and volunteer possibilities (clearly it doesn’t make sense to teach English in an English-speaking country, and you can’t save baby koalas in the middle of Africa).

Volunteering in the ‘developing’ world can be ethically questionable; check out the organisation you want to work with, know exactly what you’re doing and why, and stay longer than just a couple of weeks to really make a difference. 

4. Get a job

Do I have to? This is one for the students. Fundraising for your gap year doesn’t have to be a chore. Getting a job, maybe in a pub or nearby store, is an opportunity in itself and a chance to impress.

How will this help me? Even if it’s just to raise some cash, your employer can see that you’re reliable, dedicated, and will give you a reference to leave with. You might also learn a new skill, such as using a till, a new piece of software, or that invaluable understanding of how to pour beer properly.

5. Do work experience or internships

What, work for free? If you’re thinking of a working in a field which doesn’t really fit with volunteering options – journalism, business or law, for instance – work experience can be the key to a future job. It’s usually unpaid and can even be tough to get, but on the bright side work experience should be short-term, leaving you plenty of time to travel on your gap year.

How will this help me? 85% of HR executives felt in 2011 that relevant work experience was more valuable than an average non-vocational degree. It’s expected for many types of job applications, and you can make great contacts for the future, and hopefully get a reference too.

Where do I start? It completely depends on the type of work. That said, start by picking up the phone to an organisation you think you’d like to work with and see if they run work experience or internships – if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

6. Crawl out of your comfort zone

But it’s so comfortable? Chances to do something completely new and different, whether it’s travelling, volunteering, or working, don’t come along very often. In the wise words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did so. Sail away from the safe harbour.”

How will this help me? A gap year forces you to deal with change, talk to new people, communicate with different languages, try new foods and places. All of which makes you more confident and competent: two attributes valued in any job. 

7. Learn a language

That sounds a lot like school? Learning a language shouldn’t mean sitting at a desk with a textbook, reciting vocabulary and memorising grammar rules. Abroad, it means being engulfed in it from all directions. And you’ll learn those ever-important slang words and naughty phrases which, back in school, would have landed you in detention.

How will this help me? Speaking foreign languages is incredibly valuable to employers in all sorts of careers. Over the past decade A-Level language learning has dropped massively, and there has been a 30% drop in British universities offering French degrees and a whopping 50% in German degrees. If you can speak several languages fluently, to many employers you’ll be golden.

Where do I start? Language classes are everywhere, and are often half-day courses to leave you time to work or volunteer abroad. Buy a phrasebook and jump in the deep end - with language immersion, there’s no better way.

8. Learn a new skill

Like what? Whether you’re saving up for travels or already abroad, there are plenty of useful skills you can learn. Look up evening classes teaching ICT courses, web design, art and drawing, music, to name just some of the many, many possibilities.

If you’re suffering with the travel bug, a great option is getting a TEFL qualification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and especially useful if you’re thinking of a career in teaching.

How will this help me? A skill can be an attractive addition to your CV; the edge that could get you that job way down the line. Or you might discover a talent you never knew you had, and change your career plans completely. Peter Frankopan, a historian at Oxford, said in The Telegraph: "Shouldn’t all 19 year-olds who can afford to take a gap year learn how to change a flat tyre, rewire a plug or cook a three-course meal?"

9. Take time to make important life decisions

What if I fall behind? Sometimes life just seems so… busy. Go to school, go to college, get a job - ever seen that Trainspotting poster? It’s not a bad idea at all to take some time out if you’re feeling unsure about your options. In the grand scheme of things, a year isn't long at all.

How will this help me? A gap year can give you space to think, time to reflect, see things in a different light. It might even lead you down a completely career different path you’d never considered before. Or you might come back from your gap year and choose the university, college, or job you would have chosen anyway, but with the confidence that you’ve taken time to think it through.

10. Reward yourself!

What for? People often take a gap year after 18 years of school, or another 3 of university. Others take them after years of 9-to-5 work, day in, day out. Life is more than death and taxes: if you take time out, you’ll re-enter normality refreshed, determined, and much less likely to burn out.