Whether you’re a fresh-faced school leaver or a slightly confused (and sleep-deprived) graduate, taking the next step can be daunting. After all, the decisions that you make now will have lasting ramifications, and if you’re not entirely sure what it is you want to do, you can easily end up on a course or in a job that you don’t particularly like.
Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to reach a decision right away. Taking a year out – or a gap year, as it’s more commonly known – is a great way to give yourself some breathing space and carefully assess what it is you want to do. But more than that, it’s also a chance to see and experience things that can totally change your perspective – and possibly influence your decision in ways that you didn’t expect.
To give you an idea – and hopefully some inspiration - we’ve compiled a list of the best things to do, regardless of your budget and your circumstances. So, put thoughts of career, college and university to the back of your mind and read on; here are seven gap year ideas that could change your life.
1. Travel the world
The traditional way to celebrate your year of freedom is to throw on a backpack, invest in a pair of comfortable shoes and then spend the next 12 months touring off-piste coffee brewing farms in the Bolivian Andes (all while simultaneously ‘finding yourself’, of course).
In reality, though, your experience will likely depend on your levels of funding. If your parents are particularly generous, for instance, then those three months of petting sedated tigers in Thailand will pretty much pay for itself. But if your credit situation is a little more stringent, then you’ll have to find casual work as you go (often labour-intensive, such as on a farm) in exchange for either money or accommodation.
On the flipside, many ‘gap yah’ aficionados describe their time abroad as life-changing, and, admittedly, the thrill of travelling the world on a shoestring budget is a romantic recipe that few can resist. If you do your research, take advantage of the numerous student travel options available and work hard to save cash/have rich parents (delete as appropriate), then there’s no doubt that a year on the road could be the most exhilarating and exciting experience of your life.
2. Teach English as a foreign language
If your bank balance isn’t as enthusiastic as your wanderlust, then another popular way to travel is by teaching English as a foreign language (a practice commonly abbreviated to TEFL). As an in-demand language, you’re likely to find work wherever in the world you choose to visit, with Asia a particularly lucrative breeding ground.
The best part is that you don’t need to be a qualified teacher, either; you can simply take an online TEFL course before you leave that will provide you with everything you need to know. Once certified, it is then a case of searching for opportunities and vacancies online and building up a network of contacts that can put you in touch with various schools, colleges and community groups.
As well as travelling and earning a salary, you’ll also be making a viable difference in people’s lives, making this a satisfying, rewarding and CV-friendly way to spend a year out.
Yet another way to balance travel with goodwill is to sign up to a volunteer programme. There are countless ongoing projects taking place all over the world, after all, especially within construction, conservation, healthcare and education, and they all require as many pairs of hands as they can get. You don’t necessarily need to possess skills in these areas, either, with training given by the volunteer organisations that run the programmes.
Aside from the obvious sense of achievement that helping others brings, volunteering can also do wonders for your CV, which is particularly helpful if you don’t have any other work or study experience. You don’t even need to travel halfway around the world to help people; a quick online search will no doubt reveal a wealth of challenging and fulfilling volunteer opportunities on your own doorstep, and the help you offer will be just as appreciated.
4. Get an internship
If you don’t want to commit to a career or you feel that you need some experience on your CV before you fully dive into the deep end, an internship can be the perfect opportunity to dip your toes. Depending on your aspirations, it can serve any number of purposes; maybe you want to use it as a way into a particular company or industry, or you just want to see if that career in corporate finance is really for you. Either way, it can help you formulate a decision about what exactly it is that you should do next.
An internship with a respected organisation is never a waste of time, either. It will always be on your CV ready and waiting to impress future employers, while the experience and the skills that you will have gained can give you an invaluable advantage over your competition.
5. Get a job
This may seem like strange advice, given that a gap year is meant to be about taking time off, but building up skills and experience in an entry-level role can pay off in the long run when you do decide to move on.
For example, taking a barista job at Starbucks might seem like a strange decision if you want to work in sales, but it’s a great way to acquire customer service skills that will bolster your CV and make you more attractive to employers. Conversely, you may be in a position where you simply have no idea about your future career plans yet and just want to earn some money while you figure things out.
Either way, any form of work experience is useful and, besides, you never know: that barista job could lead to a store management role and a fulfilling career that you’d never previously imagined.
6. Get creative
If you’ve been itching to pursue a creative interest but simply haven’t had the time or means, then a gap year could be the perfect opportunity to indulge. Whether you want to take your camera somewhere and develop your portfolio, get your paintbrushes out and focus on creating that masterpiece, or finally start that novel you’ve always been meaning to write, then you’re unlikely to ever find a better chance.
The key is to be disciplined, though. It’s not an excuse to skip work and paint pictures every day; you’re meant to be genuinely improving and developing your craft, ideally with something to show for it. Whether it’s for purely therapeutic reasons, as a springboard to a creative career, or with the intentions of making money from your output, connecting with your inner artist can be a hugely productive way to spend a year.
Which brings us to our final point…
7. Start a business
There has never been a better – or easier – time to go solo and start your own business; no matter the size or scale of your entrepreneurial venture, anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and a wily mind can start making their own money.
Whether it’s selling your hobby crafts on Etsy, conquering the world of digital marketing or freelancing your unique skillset from the comfort of your living room, having the time to focus entirely on building and developing your company – without the distractions of a full-time job or degree – can be a liberating experience.
Even if you fail, you will have learnt an awful lot, too, not only about business but about yourself, and that is one of the key ideas behind taking a gap year. So, read the books, listen to the podcasts and do as much research as you possibly can in your newfound spare time; after all, in the long run, who knows where some imagination and a decent product could take you?
If you’re a student and wondering what to do with your life, then the ideas on this list will, hopefully, show you that you shouldn’t panic just yet. You don’t necessarily need to take a whole year, either; taking a few months between semesters to take some time out can be all the fuel and inspiration that you need.
Overall, though, whether it’s embarking on the trip of a lifetime, staying at home to construct the foundations of your business empire or simply taking some time out to help others, you’ll be surprised at the answers that a gap year can throw up. Remain open-minded, use your time constructively and make sure that you actually learn something – and it could be the best decision that you’ve ever made.
Have you ever taken a gap year? What did you get up to? Let us know in the comments section below!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 3 April 2017.