Rising competition for graduate jobs has left students wondering exactly what they can do to stand out in the interview room. Does the traditional gap year still open career doors?
By Mary Braid
BBC News Online
Tom Griffiths was armed with a 2:1 in economics from
Manchester University when he joined the growing army
of graduates battling to get a toehold on the
career ladder. To his surprise, employers showed
little interest in his course.
"They were more interested in my gap-year work and
travel, and that I earned money busking with my
didgeridoo," says Mr Griffiths. "They also wanted to know
about my charity fundraising."
Where you went may be less important than who paid
His experience chimes with the findings of a
new study which claims that, as the government pursues
its target of 50% participation in higher education,
a 2:1 is fast becoming the minimum expectation
employers have of graduates.
The study's authors also claim that the current
"Darwinian war for talent" is now so keen that the gap
year - once a straightforward mark of distinction - now
has to be absolutely extraordinary to single
a graduate out.
Straightforward canoeing up the Amazon
is no longer enough. The graduate has to have paddled backwards.
More and more students are opting to take a year out
before and after university. But in a competitive jobs market is the gap year, like the degree, losing its potency?
Mr Griffiths, founder of gapyear.com, insists that the
gap year experience does still count with employers
because it can demonstrate a candidate's initiative,
and communication and decision-making skills.
But he disputes the conclusion of another recent report,
funded by the government, which suggested that structured voluntary and paid placements enhance a CV more than
round-the-world, back-packing extravaganzas.
"If you ask people whether it is better to spend a gap
year in China, teaching orphans English, or to sit on
a Thai beach then most people will opt for the
orphanage," says Mr Griffiths. "But that misses the
"What matters more than what you do is what you got
out of it. Did you do what you did on your own
initiative and did you raise the money to do it
"If you reached the Thai beach all by
yourself then that is more impressive that a
structured stint in China paid for by Mum and Dad."
What the government fails to recognise, argues Mr Griffiths, is that the
gap year has changed beyond recognition since the
1960s, when it was the preserve of a minority of rich
kids who went abroad on character-building adventures.
Competition for graduate jobs is tight
These days 50,000 young people take a pre-university
gap year, which increasingly entails periods of
employment in low-paid jobs.
Wages are stockpiled to
fund future student debts, short periods of overseas
travel and unpaid work experience related to hoped-for
Only 6% of pre-university gap years involve a
supported overseas or home placement. Most young
people structure their own pre-university year off and
often it does not even involve actually leaving home
and vital free digs.
Mr Griffiths says his research suggests that the numbers
embarking on a pre-university gap year will double in
the next few years, partly in recognition of the
career edge they can still bestow.
'Confront and conquer'
Jason Clarke, spokesman for the bank HBOS, agrees that the gap
year can still give the 2:1 student turned prospective employee added appeal.
"The ones that are useful are those that take you out
of your comfort zone," says Mr Clarke. "White water
rafting down the Zambezi is not enough unless of
course you happen to be hydrophobic and you can talk
about how it helped you confront and conquer your
"What we want to know is what people have done,
why they did it and what they got out of it."
Jessica Jarvis, adviser with the Chartered Institute
of Personnel and Development, says the
expansion of higher education is making the graduate
job search harder for students and selection more
onerous for companies.
But she says "framing" the gap year experience can be
crucial, giving an average year out the edge over a
What gappers need to do is tease out what
they gained and learned for potential employers, she says.
Buried under a pile of applications, companies will be
Ms Jarvis agrees that the straight-forward overseas gap
year may no longer be enough.
What may matter more is
a mix of gap year experiences, dissected at interview
into a range of work-related competencies.
Ironically, says Ms Jarvis, in the midst of this vicious
graduate scrum, four out of five UK employers still
complain they cannot recruit and retain staff with the
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Anyone who goes on a gap year of any description simply to enhance their CV is completely missing the point. The only reason to travel and/or volunteer is to broaden horizons, see new and different places, face fresh challenges. There's no doubt that, once back in Blighty, these experiences and skills learned can be very valuable in the job market, but travel is a romantic endeavour, not something to be pursued for the purpose of impressing a human resources officer.
I think most of the big players in the grad job market know that a mixture of a 2:1 from a red brick uni, some good life experience and relevant work experience is more desirable than someone who spent three years in the library and got a first.
Jonathan West, England
Gap years should not be about enhancing career prospects, anyone who takes a gap year to do so lacks the character to succeed either in a year off or in a challenging career.
The reason I spent a year travelling round Asia was to get away from corporate annoyance not to please would be bosses. There's too many people going for the wrong reasons now anyway
Jamieson Bray, England
Pitching up in Sydney, boozing up the Gold Coast and picking a few grapes to fund it adds no value to your CV. Time out must demonstrate real life and useful skills to an employer. Otherwise its just a year long holiday.
As an employer, I want to employ interesting people, and a gap year certainly doesn't hurt in that respect. But the most important thing is just to make sure you spell 'gap year' correctly on the CV. It is amazing how many people don't bother to proofread their CVs and seem to think that I would want to employ someone who can't spell.
What happened to the gap year being plain old fun rather than a business decision!?
Emily, London, UK
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