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Wednesday, 16 August, 2000, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Get ahead, get a year out
Sixth formers used to be asked: "Where are you going to university?" Today, they're just as likely to be quizzed on where they're going before heading into academia.

Good exam results? University beckoning? It seems a growing number of prospective students are now subscribing to the adage that experience is the best teacher - and taking a "gap" year.

Employers and university admissions tutors are also coming to appreciate the estimated 40,000 sixth formers who decide to delay their entry into higher education.

But what to do in the 15 months between putting your pen down in the exam room and "going up" to your chosen seat of learning?


For the vast majority of those who "take a year out", Australia is the favoured destination.

Prince William and Zara Phillips
"They call them 'tinnies'."
Parents are left to ponder the character-building experiences their offspring will gain working, or merely frequenting, the pubs of Sydney.

This year's most famous "gapper", Prince William is himself set to go "Down under" - following in the footsteps of his cousin Zara Phillips.

Prince Charles is among those sceptical of allowing school leavers, even those fresh from Eton, off the leash in foreign parts, according to the Mail on Sunday.

The Prince of Wales doesn't want to see his son "cavorting around the globe", it says.

Tom Griffith, founder of, says globetrotting has its virtues.

"I learned about myself, learned about other people. I wasn't an adult at 18. I was cocky and arrogant. After I came back I felt I'd turned into an adult."

Voluntary work

Although packing up a rucksack and hitting the road undoubtedly hones teenagers' life skills, devoting a gap year to helping others cuts more ice with employers.

Volunteer feeding penguins
Altruism looks good on a CV
A "constructive" year can provide young people with "soft skills" - such as initiative, decision-making and problem-solving - which other university graduates lack, according to a new survey.

Every one of the 89 top companies questioned by the Association of Graduate Recruiters said voluntary work gave gappers valuable confidence and leadership skills.

Although there are plenty of opportunities to lend a hand in the UK, volunteer posts are available around the world.

Carefully chosen, the cunning gapper can prove their altruism, polish their CV and get a tan.

Experience work

Prince William's antipodean jaunt is thought to be no more than an extended holiday. The budding art historian is rumoured to be spending time at a London auctioneers, experiencing the world of commerce.

Commuters waiting for a train
Get a head start and stand out from the crowd
The young royal is also expected to prepare for his other future occupations, getting to grips with both the kingdom of Wales and life in the Welsh Guards.

Though few gappers have such glittering careers in prospect, it can pay to dip a toe into the world of work, says Mr Griffith.

"If you compete for a job against graduates with the same qualifications as you, gap year work experience lets you say to employers: 'I've already worked with clients.'"

Recruiters fear more than a third of graduates are poor at building such relationships.

Of course many gappers seek employment not to fill their CV, but to fill their bank accounts.

The NUS already estimates that 42% of students work during term-time - even missing lectures - to meet tuition and living expenses.

With one in five college applicants deciding to cut costs and stay at home, gappers hoping to finance a flight from the nest have their work cut out, quite literally.

Higher learning

Taking time to reconsider their university career may be the best thing many gappers do in their year out.

"It's the sum of the other two sides, I tell you!"
A Local Government Association inquiry into the current school year has suggested that applying for university places before exams results skews the whole process.

Armed with their actual results, gappers may well be more able to set their sights on the exact course and university to suit them. A worrying 13% of young students quit their first university prematurely.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals warns that gap years should be put to good use if teenagers what to impress admissions tutors.

"They prefer to see that gap years are used most productively - as a learning experience that bears some relevance to study," says a spokeswoman.

"The confidence and maturity that can result from gap years can help students' clarity and motivation while at university, but there are concerns about losing the study habit, or losing track of a specialist subject."

Many maths departments worry that a year spent in industry, digging wells or on Bondi Beach won't do much to keep Pythagoras' theorem fresh in a gapper's mind.



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16 Aug 00 | UK Education
16 Aug 00 | Scotland
22 Jul 00 | UK Education
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