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Getting the Most Out of Your GAP Year

August, 2010
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When people hear the words ‘GAP Year’ they immediately think of freeloading teenagers stuck for something to do before university, simply wasting time by lounging around the house and watching television. But this just isn’t the case and it’s this warped image that I wish to dispel. My GAP year has left me with some of the most fulfilling experiences and memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I have no regrets about taking a year out to do this.

charlie-1s1First things first: you should guarantee your place at university. Deferred entry is the best way to do this because you don’t have to stay in contact with the university and do not need to keep checking your e-mails for updates on your applications. Sometimes, when travelling, the Internet isn’t always available or it costs a lot to use. So, the most hassle-free solution is to let your university know that you will not be in contact for a while so that your place is safe. Deferral of entry also means that, although you will feel like staying away forever, you will still have a goal at the end of it all.

Before I did anything, I set my priorities straight and listed the things I wanted to do in order of importance. I began my planning by writing down what I wanted to achieve in the GAP Year and when I could schedule the different experiences I wanted to have. For me, the most important part of my year would be work experience with different companies that had areas based in chemistry because this is the field in which I want to work after university. It is good to make contacts in different companies that will be able to help you out in later life. For example, someone who wants to work as a journalist should try to obtain a job or internship with a local newspaper. My time on work placement provided me with valuable experience and I learned a great deal about the industry from within. 

Having a work-orientated GAP year means that at the end of it you will come out with valuable experience for later life and will have credentials to show to future employers. Universities will also see that you have done more than just travelling around in your time out.

charlie-7sLike most of my contemporaries, however, I wanted to travel with my friends. I planned out two different times in which I could travel that worked around the times that I was going to do work experience. The first 2 months I went away with my two friends from Shanghai. We went to India for 5 weeks and Thailand for 3 weeks straight after the end of school. The second period was from May until August when, along with three friends from England, we travelled all over South-East Asia for 2 months, ending with a fantastic month in Mongolia. This worked well for us all because I had time to complete the two internships and my friends had time to sort out university courses and do some work back in England. If you’re going with friends who live in your home country then make sure you keep in contact with them whilst you are overseas so that you can plan times and places that suit everyone. It’s a lot easier and more fun travelling with a group of friends, but if you have to travel alone you will quickly meet people in hostels and at bars.

Ensure you choose your flights carefully and get the cheapest deals so that you have more money to spend when you arrive at your destination. Budget airlines are easy to find and are not too bad. Sometimes you may find that you have to spend the odd night sleeping on the floor of an airport lounge but it is really never as uncomfortable as it sounds. I found Air Asia to be a reliable and cheap airline with many flights from Hangzhou, which is only a 2-hour drive or a short train ride from Shanghai. Other people I met came all the way by train from different parts of China and crossed the border into Vietnam without much trouble. You should choose a place that you know you’re going to enjoy first because some places can be off-putting for certain people. For example, people that are more up for a good time, enjoying nightlife and meeting people on the beach should consider places such as Thailand or Laos. Those who want a challenging experience with sights and culture should consider Mongolia or India. You can always ask people who have already been to places to tell you what they are like, give you tips on where to go and where to find the best places to stay. They can also help you decide which places are cheapest. For me, India was the cheapest with accommodation under 10RMB a night but accommodation in Vietnam for example is only 20-30RMB per night in the budget hotels and hostels.

charlie-3sThe Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are useful in pointing you in the right direction but there’s no need to use them for everything. You can use the reviews and articles written about different places to decide where to go when you get there and local maps are easy to follow and understand. One of the bonuses of travelling is that you become more independent. This will prepare you for life at university. You will learn how to organise yourself when you have to book train tickets and hotels, cook, explore and, of course, make new friends easily. You also learn how to deal with being ill or injured and you will become more self-reliant in that field. Many people in the more touristy areas will be going to different universities across the world so quite often you will find people who will be going to the same place as you. So, you could end up with friends nearby before you even arrive at your chosen university.

Another good GAP year activity is to learn a new language. Lessons from a tutor or online courses are available easily and if you have enough time and plan your study carefully, you will quickly learn a lot of new vocabulary and develop your language skills quickly. Rosetta Stone courses are also quick and effective ways to learn a new language. Travelling to a place that speaks the language you are learning is also a good idea. Immersion is the best way to improve in any language.

Spending some time living alone in the country in which you are going to university is a good idea because it gets you used to cooking for yourself and using money effectively without spending too much. Whilst I was back in England, I also learned to drive so that I wouldn’t have to do it after university.

charlie-10sAll in all, I can look back on my GAP year as a success. I loved travelling, I learned new skills (driving a car and improving my Chinese) and I also gained a valuable insight into my chosen field of study through the work placements. I am looking forward to university in the UK and I am confident that this year has prepared me well for the next challenge in my learning.

By Charlie Creissen,

graduate from The British International School, Shanghai, Pudong Campus.


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