Monday, 6 November 2017

In Praise of the Gap Year

As a School Principal, I’m often asked what I think of a young person having a GAP year between school and university – well, the short answer is that I’m a great fan if they’re done right. Let me explain . . . .

GAP year – a gateway to Independence

A GAP year between school and university comes at a time of enormous freedom – school leaving examinations are in the past, and the three or four years of undergraduate study lie ahead. A GAP year is the first time in a young person’s adult life that he or she has undirected time, free from the pressures of education. Time is the most precious thing that we have and a GAP year is a real privilege and shouldn’t be wasted. GAP years give young people a real opportunity to spread their wings and develop independence in a way that is not possible whilst at home or university. They are about self-development and self-discovery. In many ways they are self-indulgent, but that does not mean to say that they need to be selfish. They have the potential to be a time of developing habits that will carry them through university and into life.

The five ingredients to a great GAP year: 

1. Learn something. 

A GAP year is a really good opportunity to learn something new – it doesn’t have to be academic study. Why not learn a language, to code, to ski, or to cook but take the time to master to something new that you can take with you into university and into later life

2. Work. 

Most young people do not have an idea of what the world of work holds for them. Taking a GAP year gives an important opportunity to have a taste of the world of work. It provides an opportunity to gain a degree of financial independence by making the connection between earning money and paying for the necessities and luxuries of life, such has food, accommodation, travel and entertainment (which hitherto most likely have been funded by the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’!)
Work in an office. The fact is that most graduates end up working in an office at least for part of their time at work. A GAP year gives an opportunity to gain an insight into that world and to experience the discipline of working regular hours and being accountable to a boss for one’s performance. This is fundamentally a different relationship that the young person will have had with their teachers at school: work places are fundamentally less supportive and are much more demanding. The skills and experience gained here will stand the person in good stead both in terms of developing good work habits for university, and in terms of helping make choices about the sort of career which he or she wants to pursue.
Do a manual job. It may seem odd to suggest that a Gapper should spend some time doing manual work, but a couple of months working in a restaurant or bar; or working in a factory is a great training ground in life. One of the greatest skills in life is being able to get on with people at every level of society. We may aspire that our children will end up being the successful businessmen or businesswomen eating in the restaurants, rather than being a worker serving at tables; but young people will grow into better managers and leaders if they have an appreciation of what it is like to work on one’s feet late into the night; or to do a night shift. Indeed, experiencing a period of time doing manual work can provide much-needed motivation to make the most of their time at university.

3. Read for fun. 

It is the nature of many courses at school and university that there is little time and energy left to read for fun. A GAP year provides an excellent opportunity to develop a love of reading and to grapple with some of the world’s great literature.

4. Travel. 

A GAP year is a great opportunity for a young person to see the world, not as a tourist, but by spending time living in another culture. There are very few other times in life that one can spend three months in one country and move on to the next. Living abroad at such a formative time of life can be life-changing. Meeting people who have different cultures and ideas challenges the norms with which we have been brought up. This is an important stage of growing up and coming to independence. We increasingly live and world in a global society (nowhere more than here in Dubai) and the young person who has travelled and can draw on experiences from around the world is more likely to be able to relate to a greater range of people at university and in life.

5. Volunteer. 

A GAP year is a great opportunity to ‘give back’ to society in some way by offering their time and energy as a volunteer. This might be working for a local charity, by giving up time to help in a school or soup kitchen, or by working in an orphanage in Katmandu.

It is the nature of ingredients that they are not consumed in isolation. The delight of the recipe is in mixing them up. Working, learning, reading and volunteering may all be combined with travelling.

Planning a GAP year 

GAP years need a lot of planning. The first thing to note about a GAP year is that it’s not a year, it’s 15 months, as young people typically end their exams in June and don’t start university until late September/ early October. The second thing to consider is that the exercise of planning the year is itself one of the most valuable learning opportunities of the whole GAP year experience. The gapper should be encouraged to book his/her own flights and accommodation and secure his/her work and voluntary placements.
Parents will undoubtedly want to be reassured that appropriate arrangements are in place and act as a critical friend, but need to be prepared to step back and allow the young person to lead the process. No GAP year is the same, much will depend on how and where the young person is going to spend the time (e.g. living at home, staying with relatives, back-backing, working abroad) and how the GAP year is funded. My advice to parents is not to totally fund the travel element of a GAP year. For example, parents might pay for a round-the-world air ticket and give a daily allowance (again, the level of this will vary depending where the young person is travelling (US$ 15 will fund a room and a feast in parts of Asia, but will barely buy a Coke in Scandinavia).


GAP years between school and university are not right for everyone. There is a school of thought, to which I subscribe, that young people who are going to study Mathematics-related subjects should go straight up to university. The argument here is that the nature of Maths is such that 15 months away from study can be detrimental. Conversely, there are few arguments against a young person who is going up to read languages should not benefit from a GAP year living and working abroad practising the language in a practical setting.


There is little to be gained from a gapper heading off on a 15-month jolly at the expense of the parents. The aim of a GAP year from the planning stage to its execution should be to foster the personal development and independence of a young person by giving a range of enriching experiences. The key to a good GAP year is that it is rigorous and challenging. Oh to be 18 again!

This article was published in the November edition of Education Journal Middle East pp.21-22.

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