Should I Take A Gap Year? (First Time Backpacker Series)

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When I was 17 I was so excited to go to university, but I was also exhausted from exams and studying and, well, just being a teenager. As much as I wanted to continue in education, I also really loved the idea of having some time to myself.

In the end, I went straight to university. And whilst I don’t regret my decision, I do think that I would have benefited from a constructive year out of the education system.

“Should I extend this summer vacation into a full-on gap year?” is a question that I have been asked a number of times by 18 year olds abroad. “I don’t know if I should really be going to university this year or if I should just defer.”

I know how it feels to be that overwhelmed, so I am going to offer the advice I wish someone had given me when I was 17!

Just because you don’t travel now it doesn’t mean that you will never go travelling

When you’re a teenager you often think in all-or-nothing terms. You believe that the choices you make now are truly the be-all and end-all of everything. It certainly doesn’t help when teachers and parents talk in the same fashion. I remember one teacher insisting that if we failed to turn in our homework that we would definitely “fail all of our dreams” and “end up in Tesco”.

By this logic, if you don’t go travelling at the age of 18 you will never go travelling.  You envision getting entangled in grades, student debt, career plans and serious relationships, all of which will prevent you from going on that gap year adventure. I know I thought that.

However, this isn’t the case.

Maybe you will travel right after you finish your course, or perhaps it will be when you’re in between careers at a much older age. For me, it was a couple of years after university. Adventures don’t stop the minute you turn 20!

Adventures don’t stop the minute you turn 20!

Taking a gap year doesn’t mean that your education and career are over

Equally, many young people worry that  if they don’t go to university now they might never go to university. All of their friends will move on without them and be super grown up, and they will definitely be a loser stuck at home with nothing but Netflix for a year.

There are two answers to this:

Firstly, if you don’t want to spend a year out hanging out with your parents and watching Pretty Little Liars for the millionth time, then you need to plan your gap year now. If you want to spend 6 months working and 6 months travelling, then book your plane tickets as soon as possible and secure a job for the minute you finish your A Levels.

Secondly, even the worst case scenario (ie. The Worst Gap Year in the World) will not be the end of your entire life. For a lot of teenagers (and parents), this scenario is that you don’t earn enough money to travel and you end up working in a low-skilled job for a year. However, working full time demonstrates to employers after university that you are willing to work and that you have real-life experience in the job market.

If nothing else, working full time in a job that you don’t enjoy will motivate you to take your further education seriously because you’ll realise exactly what you don’t want to do with your life.

Think about deferring 

If you want to take a gap year but definitely know what further studies you want to embark on, then I highly recommend that you apply now and then defer for a year. This way you have your place ready and waiting for you, and you don’t have to stress about what you’re going to do next. It is definitely easier to apply for courses and write your personal statements when you are still at school with the support your teachers and friends.

The wonderful thing about education is that once you have it, no one can take it away from you. If you are excited to take your course and feel ready for the journey, then it may be best just to get it over and done with so that you can enjoy a less constrained trip when you finally finish your studies.

But getting your education out of the way first is a bonus

It feels amazing to go travelling knowing that you don’t have to return to studying, essays and exams. It’s even better to know that you can grab every opportunity with both hands without any time constraints.

I was able to live in New Zealand for a full year and then spontaneously move to Australia because I wasn’t worried about rushing home to university or anxious about getting qualification – I already had my university degree.

The wonderful thing about education is that once you have it, no one can take it away from you. If you are excited to take your course and feel ready for the journey, then it may be best just to get it over and done with so that you can enjoy a less constrained trip when you finally finish your studies.

If you aren’t sure whether university is right for you and/or don’t know what course you want to study, a gap year might be best

If you aren’t sure about your course, or if you’re thinking of taking a subject only because you are good at it at and can’t think of anything else, the chances of you dropping out or not fully utilizing your time at university are much higher.

University is expensive, student debts are high, and it’s ultimately about learning and gaining a qualification – it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

It’s also worth remembering that in the UK you only receive funding for one undergraduate degree or equivalent qualification. So you need to be sure that it’s the qualification that you want.

Don’t go just because your friends are going or for the sake of it. You should be going because you want to learn and because it will bring you one step closer to a graduate career. Not everyone goes to university the minute that they finish school, so don’t think that you’re going to be stranded and left behind.

If you aren’t sure of where your life is headed or which way is up, use the opportunity to take some time out, look at your options and decide what you really want to do.

University is expensive, student debts are high, and it’s ultimately about learning and gaining a qualification – it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. So don’t go just because your friends are going or for the sake of it.

Your mental health

Depression and anxiety are on the rise among young people – there are more than 80,000 children and young people suffering from severe depression in the UK. Increasing academic pressures and modern issues like cyberbullying make school a very stressful place, and it is completely understandable why you might need a break.

I was exhausted and drained by the end of my A Levels. I cried to my parents that as much as I wanted to go to university that year, I didn’t know if I would enjoy it fully because I was, to put it bluntly, an emotional mess.

My parents told me that my education had to come first and that I wouldn’t get as much out of travelling at the age of 18 as I would when I was older.

So, I went to university. I did well and I immersed myself in university life, but a lot of unresolved issues from school came along with me. Whilst there’s no point in regretting my decision not to take a gap year, I can’t help but feel that taking some time to focus on my well-being would have enabled me to enjoy university more in the long run.

It’s not all about expensive backpacking trips

When we say “gap year” we envision an expensive long-haul flight to Thailand and thousands of pounds in the bank account.

But a gap year doesn’t have to be a “gap yah”. It could mean going for an international internship, teaching at Camp America, volunteering and helping others, attaining a new skill or qualification, or working at a ski resort in Europe.

A gap year doesn’t have to be a “gap yah”

It could even mean taking a year out to work full time so that you have some much-needed cash for when you take your course (with the rise of university tuition fees and end of grants in the UK, this is a definite possibility).

Don’t avoid take your year out because you’ve told yourself, “People like me don’t get to afford years out.” Explore your options before you write yourself off.

Will you get more out of travelling if you leave it for a few years?

In many ways, yes.

When I went travelling at the age of 23 I had more money which allowed me to take more opportunities, I was less impressed by the party side of travelling which meant that I did more with my time and money, and I took more risks than I otherwise would have done – there’s no way I would have hitchhiked across New Zealand at 18!

However, I’m sure I would technically appreciate my Round The World Trip more at the age of 30. And a trip I take at 30 would probably be better utilized when I am 40. And so it goes on.

But the point is that the 23 year old me needed that specific experience.

Travelling at the age of 18 isn’t redundant. If you feel like you want and need to travel the world – to be independent and adventurous – then you will get what you need out of your trip.

Besides, there are so many different options for a gap year. Want to save backpacking for when you’re older and have better finances? Then branch out and do something different.

Do what is right for you

Ultimately, it is up to you. Just remember that whilst it is an important decision, it is not the end of the world if you do or don’t decide to take a year off between your studies.

If you don’t take a year off and go straight into higher education it does not mean that your backpacking dreams are over. Instead just use the time to make those dreams bigger and build your savings account. (Trust me, the more money you have the easier travelling becomes!)

If you do take a gap year, go into it with purpose and planning. However, if things don’t go the way that you want them to then please don’t think that the year is wasted or that your career aspirations are over. No adventure, attempted or otherwise, is a waste.

I hope this article helps and please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me if you have any questions or suggestions – I’m always happy to help!

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