Make the most of a gap year with expert advice

Education professionals share tips on how to plan for, and make the most of a gap year

Photo: istockphoto
School is a vital part of your child's life, which is why we always get experts to help answer your questions.

For our summer issue, we talked to counsellors from different schools to know more about the gap year, what it means for students, if this year-long sabbatical is worth taking the risk and how to make the most out of it.

If you have burning questions you'd like to ask education professionals, email us at and we'll get experts to chime in and perhaps feature you in our next issue.
Plan the gap

Plan the gap

When a train approaches a station, you are reminded to take a bit of caution as you step onto the platform, to avoid a fall or at the very least, an embarrassing stumble. A similar cautionary approach is useful for students planning on a gap at the end of high school, before starting university.  The break of a gap year can be exciting and fruitful, but without planning it could leave you regretting lost opportunities.

Tips for planning

Why? The reasons you are taking a gap year will help determine what to do with your time. If you are hoping to improve your chances of getting into college, identify what needs to be strengthened – be it test scores or evidence of preparation for the course. Then find an avenue to help you develop. For others, they may want to be independent through travel or work. No two gap years are alike – its pace and content is dependent on individual needs.

How? This can be tedious, particularly if it involves completing applications, whether for jobs, internships, language programs, visa requirements, and most importantly, funding this experience. Many organisations offer a ‘gap year’ experience, but these are costly. Do your research and evaluate what you are getting for your money before you sign up for one of these. 

Time management. A full gap year can be up to 15 months between high school and university. You may also have time available as never before – your weekdays will not be structured by an external force.  Maintaining a routine is key to making this a satisfying experience.  

Reach out. While independence is alluring, trying to manage all this is daunting for anyone, much less someone stepping into the world of adult responsibilities for the first time. Seek help from parents, teachers and counsellors, family and friends who can assist you in navigating the process. 

When it’s over. Don’t lose sight of your end goal. Application paperwork and deadlines become your responsibilities, and you should no longer assume you can rely on your counsellors or teachers to keep you focused and aware of what you need to do.  

Your goals may also change over the course of the gap year. Things that seemed essential in your senior year may no longer hold the same appeal or importance. Flexibility is as important as preparation in your gap year.
-Tim Stokes  and Natasha Tavares, High School Counsellors Western Academy of Beijing (WAB)

Be a volunteer

Be a volunteer

Photo: Thinking Beyond Borders

For students who chose to volunteer during their gap year there are a few key questions to answer: Why are they volunteering? How will it affect their future? What skills will they need to obtain? 

Apart from altruism, some main reasons why students want to volunteer include taking the time to make important life decisions, getting outside of their comfort zone, learning new skills or reinforcing current skills. 

Many Year 13 or Grade 12 students do not know what they want to pursue at university or in life. Taking a year allows them to gain positive experiences while maturing and contemplating their future. Many volunteering posts are in areas of the world where students would be out of their comfort zone, and this is often life-altering. Experiential learning will reinforce existing skills while developing new ones. 

Gap Year candidates should also consider how the experience will help their future. Whether they apply to university or not, they should think about what specialist, day-today skills and general life skills they acquire will add value to their life and resume. These skills should aid in their development and enhance their university application or resume. Careful research using the 5 Ws: who, what, where, why and when, will help make volunteering experiences memorable. 

If a volunteer remains open-minded, is engaged and works hard, they will learn more about themselves then they could ever have imagined. This newfound knowledge will most definitely assist in their transition to their next adventure in life.

Tips for volunteering

Research. Meticulously look into the company, country and city. What will be the impact on community and the environment?

Budget. Cost of the year of volunteering:  look for charities who will send you, look for sponsorship to support you financially and think about all costs such as flights, accommodation and visas.

Safety. How safe is the city and country? What type of behaviours are acceptable? Use your common sense.

Skills. Are there any required skills for the job? How will skills learned augment your career prospects and, or university applications? Be engaged Immerse yourself in the tasks and the local culture to make the most of the experience.

-Brian Chesher, University and Careers Counsellor The British School Beijing (BSB), Shunyi

Get work experience

Get work experience

Photo: Abhijit Bhaduri/

Academically speaking, ISB students are fully prepared to take on the university or college experience at the institution of their choice. Our curriculum sets a solid foundation of fundamental understanding and conceptualisation and our students often take advantage of additional summer programs in preparation for their academic career. However, the immediate transition from high school to a college campus is not a one-size fits all shift. 

For some, there is a significant benefit in taking a gap year before continuing their studies. Gap years are individualised, allowing for the flexibility to decide what areas of growth graduates want to focus on.  

Regardless of how a gap year is spent, graduates will grow and cultivate invaluable life lessons and real-world skills such as developing interpersonal relationships, handling increased responsibility, and time and financial management skills. Graduates who postpone university for a year often use that time and those experiences to help solidify future plans and distinguish what the right path is for them to pursue when they begin university. 

Tips for internships 

Experience desired. Students can pursue something relevant to their chosen degree. This is invaluable as things they think they know end up being not at all what was expected once they experience it. Or, choose something outside the scope of their degree – this allows for inter-disciplinary learning. 

Due diligence. Make sure the organisation you’re looking to intern in is reputable and that the internship will offer you the ability to gain insight into the career field. 

Be pro-active. Make sure your time is well spent and valuable to your learning. Ask questions and take on additional duties. If you have your heart set on role within the company, ask someone in that role to lunch and ask about their experience and their advice on your next steps. Often, it is through the duties that you didn’t really expect that you learn the most and obtain the best insight.

Keep in touch. Send a thank you note at the end of your time, ask about future possibilities or other opportunities such as internships during the school year. Future work (both paid and unpaid) are often a result of connections made in previous positions.

Do your research, take initiative, make a good impression and keep your options open. Internships provide opportunities for growth. 

-Eileen Ruthe Student Life Coordinator International School of Beijing (ISB) 

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