Discussing Your Gap Year at an Interview

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Written by: Cormac Scanlan

Coming home from a gap year to start work or further education can be daunting. Most who have taken a gap year come home feeling that they have benefited greatly from it, but many struggle with actually explaining the nature of these benefits in a palpable way which strikes a chord with an employer.

I’ve seen this time and again, both first-hand as ‘the interviewer,’ and in lengthy discussions on the gap year message boards. As gapyear.com COO, and as someone who has sat on both sides of the interview table, I thought it would be valuable to share some insight into how an employer views your gap year, and more importantly, to provide some practical advice on how best to position your experiences.

What is the best way to frame my gap year when including it on my CV, or discussing it with a potential employer in an interview scenario?

This is a very common question. The first thing I would say is definitely don’t shy away from mentioning your gap year.

It always surprises me when I see a CV which lists a period of time as simply ‘travelling’. If you did something interesting, mention it on your CV. Keep it very brief, but at least give the employer a taste of what you did.

Leave the detail for the interview, as that’s where you’ll really get the chance to talk about the benefits of your trip. The exact detail of that discussion very much depends on what you chose to do during your time away, but this article should give you some idea of how to frame that discussion.

For most returning gappers, their extended travel will typically consist of some combination of volunteering, working abroad and independent travel. Each is valuable in its own way, and each can very easily be used to differentiate your university or job application.

I will cover the specifics of how to come up with an approach to the interview further on, but first it’s worth spending a little time reflecting on things from the point of view of the employer.

The Value of a gap year

Understand the employer

The first thing to understand is that being academically strong is only a small part of what a recruiter is actually looking for. It sadly comes as a shock to many exemplary ex-students, but all the grades in the world will not land you the job you want. Not on their own anyway.

I personally know ‘Straight A’ students with first-class degrees who have spent years on job seeker’s allowance, struggling to find a minimum wage job. I also know school drop-outs who are earning obscene wages, running international, public listed companies.

If it was as simple as being the brightest kid in class, these sorts of things would never happen. It’s a very different reality to the one my teachers and careers advisors described to me when I was a teenager, but something that is widely understood by almost everyone in the workplace.

So if it’s not just grades, what does the employer want?

While most employers have a vast list of desirable qualities, all of them fall broadly into two categories: skills and traits.

Understand the difference between skills and traits

While the examples you use to demonstrate your skills and traits may cross over, as employment criteria, they are fundamentally different.

Applicable skills

Skills are about what you are able to do – I can lay carpets, I can play the trombone, I can speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, I can do differential calculus, etc.

Applicable traits

Traits are more about who you are, how you act, and how you approach or view life – I’m a perfectionist, I work hard without needing to be told to, I make friends easily, I cope well in stressful situations, etc

The two in combination

Depending on the particulars of a job, your grades and school experiences can be used as effective evidence of both skills and traits, but providing external non-curricular examples will show your abilities are tried and tested in the wider world. A wider and more varied range of examples adds strength to your pitch.

It might not always be explicit in what is said, but during a job application process, many factors are being assessed. Your maths degree and the crazy Excel skills you list on your CV may be enough to get you an interview at an accountancy firm, but when the employer speaks to you in person, they will also be assessing your ability to work well with the existing team, interact professionally with clients, and adjust to a high-stress environment which changes quickly and dynamically. These are the traits you require, and it’s one area where being the person who took gap year can give you a significant advantage over those who didn’t.

Most jobs require a combination of skills and traits, but it is much, much easier to develop new skills than new traits. This is why an employer will often take a chance on an enthusiastic applicant who scored moderately well, over a genius who is painfully shy. A candidate with highly applicable traits but only moderate skills may demonstrate more long-term potential than a highly skilled candidate with the wrong sort of attitude or character.

Use your gap year to demonstrate applicable traits

Traits are overlooked by many job candidates. Don’t be one of them.

There may not be many applicable skills you acquired on your gap year – new abilities you can express at an interview – but when it comes to demonstrating those all-important applicable traits, your gap year should be a gold mine. Positioned correctly, your gap year should help you come closer to landing that dream job.

Andy, Bill and the value of a gap year

Let’s consider an example situation from a recruiter’s perspective:

Two candidates, Andy and Bill, have applied for a position at your company. Both guys are young and enthusiastic. Fresh out of university. They have similar grades. They are both clearly smart and capable. They both come across well in person and each has some basic work experience. Their skill set is very similar, and on paper they are very closely matched. But Andy took a gap year.

During Andy’s gap year he spent a month working with a team of volunteers to build a hospital in Ghana, where a gracious family of locals put him up in their home for several weeks. He slept in their home and ate with them, doing his best to communicate, despite the language barrier. Andy travelled extensively through South East Asia, stopping for a couple of months in South Korea, where he taught English to children and adults alike. Andy had to plan his own border crossings, and arrange visas in a number of South East Asian embassies. He also had to change his route significantly when a natural disaster struck Thailand.

Not only has Andy come back with some extraordinary tales and experiences, he has returned feeling genuinely stronger, worldlier, and filled with a new level of confidence. If this in itself is not enough to differentiate his application over Bill’s – and sometimes it might be – the careful way he chooses to describe his experiences should be.

So there’s actually no need to put any spin on Andy’s gap year; because his stories are as valuable as they are interesting?

Exactly. Selectively chosen, they should stand up on their own.

Andy’s hypothetical gap year is fairly typical, but his experiences demonstrate an important set of traits with examples that Bill is likely to struggle to contend with.

While both guys may actually have the same basic traits, Andy has the advantage of being able to demonstrate the application of these traits in extra-curricular settings, far outside of his comfort zone, in parts of the world which are culturally different.

While building the school and living with the locals In Ghana, teaching in South Korea, and travelling through Asia, Andy has built up a wealth of remarkable examples; exotic and varied evidence of working in a team, dynamically adapting to difficult situations, and giving back to local communities, differentiating him from the crowd.

Think about the job market

There are no two ways around it, the job market is competitive right now. Landing that dream job will require a combination of both strategy and tactics. Tactics are about your approach to the interview itself, while strategy is about your approach to the interview in context of the wider job market.

When applying for a job, don’t just consider the skills and traits you have, but think about what skills and traits other candidates are likely to have too. Be sure to demonstrate your basic skills effectively, but then consider focusing on your unique experiences and qualities. Where possible, place extra emphasis on the skills and traits that you can demonstrate well, which you know others will struggle to.

Find the baseline, and rise above it

Think about the baseline of the job market and where you feel you can demonstrate that you excel above it. Take a good guess about what the background and experience of the other candidates will be, and do your best to match the skill set. That’s your baseline. Once you’ve demonstrated it, then bolster your pitch with your more exotic examples; things which you know are unique to you, and which impressively evidence appropriate traits and skills.

This is an extremely effective technique as it will usually leave the interviewer with the thought that while you may not have been quite as strong in some areas, you shone in some areas where other candidates offered them little or nothing.

Know when to focus on traits

Going back to our earlier example, let’s say Andy was trying to land a teaching job in the UK. He could focus on the skills he developed teaching in South Korea. Similarly, while applying for a construction job, he could focus on the building techniques he learnt in Ghana, but this is a risky approach. If he is applying for a teaching job in the UK, there is a strong chance other graduates will have some work experience of teaching in the UK, and when it comes to construction, others may have a much better knowledge of UK building regulations.

By focusing on his applicable traits, Andy’s skills still get an appropriate mention, but he comes across as someone who is willing to take on complex new challenges and dynamically adjust to any scenario. Anyone smart and keen can learn about syllabuses or regulations while in a job, but it’s almost impossible to train those sorts of traits.

That’s the stuff employers want and that’s the real value of Andy’s gap year.

Interview preparation

By now, you should hopefully be thinking about the value of your gap year travels from the point of view of a prospective employer. If you’re really serious about landing that next job, you should prepare by considering not only your skills, but also your traits, your potential competition, the ethos of the prospective company, and the perspective of the interviewer too.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you go into that next interview and talk about your travels.

  • What traits will the interviewer be looking for when filling this position?
  • What other traits will this business be likely to value?
  • What sort of backgrounds are the other job candidates likely to have?
  • What skills and traits are the other job candidates likely to demonstrate in an interview?
  • How can I demonstrate these skills and traits effectively?
  • Can I use my gap year to demonstrate more interesting examples of applicable traits?
  • Can I use my gap year to give several examples of these applicable traits?
  • What did I do on my gap year which is likely to be completely unique?
  • In what context can I use my unique experiences to differentiate myself from the baseline?

Further information

For more information on related topics, check out the following article sections:

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