Planning a Productive Gap Year During a Global Pandemic

This has been a very unusual year; exams were again cancelled and a lot of our expectations for universities have changed. So, if you are wondering if you should be taking a gap year this is the right resource for you. These are the ten questions you should ask yourself before making that decision.

  1. Do you know what you want to do in the next five years?
  2. How much real-world experience do you have?
  3. How will you pay for your education?
  4. What will you do during your gap year and why?
  5. How can you start planning your gap year?
  6. Should I do a deferred entry or post-results UCAS application?
  7. How does your desired university see gap years?
  8. Do you need to improve your results?
  9. What will university be like in 2021? 

1. Do you know what you want to do in the next five years?

Please don’t worry if the answer to this question is "no". Also, notice I didn’t ask if you knew what you wanted to do for the rest of your life. The world is constantly changing, so the chances are that the work you will do when you graduate has not yet been invented!

So focus on what may be the next right step on your path into that unknown future. If you do not feel confident about what you want to do in the short term, and how this could affect your future options, then taking a gap year may be worth considering. You may well find your ideas become clearer.

However, this year, a lot of things that you would have done in a normal gap year like travel  may still be a lot more restricted of because of Covid 19. So additional planning will be necessary

2. How much real-world experience do you have?

If you go to university, it is important to study something that you will enjoy, and which will give you options. Many students find it useful to take the time to think about their strengths, learn about the “real world” and then make an informed decision.

Volunteering or completing an internship in your desired area of study can either confirm your choice or show you that a path is not right for you. It could also mean that when you study at university you have a framework to understand better the abstract and theoretical aspects of your field. It is also worth thinking about getting some paid work. Due to the extraordinary circumstances we are facing you may take some time to volunteer to help those affected by the pandemic.

This year you need to be aware of government guidance to ensure that you are safe particularly if you are working, volunteering,  or travelling.

UCAS has produced a very useful guide to taking a gap year


3. How will you pay for your education?

Let us assume for a second, that you want to spend the next three to four years studying for a particular profession. Changes to university fees and funding in the UK mean that most students will graduate with large amounts of debt. This could make someone significantly worse off after a failed attempt at university. So make a budget and think about your options.

A well-spent gap year could allow you to develop practical skills, make money, build contacts that won’t just make you a more attractive university candidate, but will also allow you to save money, reducing or eliminating graduate debt. But, in order for a gap year to be effective it must be carefully planned, or you may end up worse-off financially.

Many students would be financially affected by this pandemic and there are a number of organisations that can offer advice and support.


4. What will you do during your gap year and why?

A gap year should not be seen as an extended holiday. A poorly planned one will not impress universities. Getting out of the habit of being in education could make you a less desirable applicant and make you less motivated to get back into full-time study.

As you know travel is likely to continue to be restricted for some time. So, make sure you have very clear objectives and plans.

There are a number of free online learning opportunities offered by top institutions. Take some time to explore these courses as the will keep you engaged and give you additional skills. There are many resources to learn languages and a lot of new experiences are possible from the comfort of your own home.


5. How can you start planning your gap year?

There are two main ways of doing a gap year. The first option is to apply to university during your A levels and then ask for a deferred entry. This means that once accepted into university, they will keep your place so you can start the following academic year.

The second option is for you to take a gap year and then apply. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach (see below).


6. Should I do a deferred entry or post-results UCAS application?
If you have decided that you definitely want to take a gap year it is important to consider whether you will apply to university before finishing your A levels and defer your place, or if you will apply after your results.

Deferring your entrance for a year has obvious practical benefits like having UCAS support and access to your referees while you apply, removing hassle when your focus is elsewhere, and ensuring you will go back to study after a year.

Places for deferred applications, however, are limited and competitive. In addition, it may restrict your ability to change your mind. You must ensure you understand the relevant deadlines and contracts with universities when accepting a deferred place.

Applying after A levels has the big advantage that you (and the universities) know your results, removing some of the uncertainty from the process. But, you will need to deal with correspondence, and possibly interviews during your gap year. Think about how you can manage this.

Many universities will consider deferred applications but offer you a direct entry instead; So, this may not be an option.


7. How does your desired university see gap years?

All universities and programmes will have their own views and requirements, so it is important that you do you research in advance. Many universities may ask to see a proposed plan and for you to demonstrate that you will maintain academic engagement. Therefore, they may want to see evidence of an internship, work placement or simply a structured reading plan.

Anisa Zina, admissions tutor at SOAS, describes a gap year as a “potentially positive experience”. She explains that it shows that a candidate has “made a conscious decision to return to education”.

Views in Oxbridge are more varied. While the St Peter’s College Website at the University of Oxford describes a gap year as “excellent preparation for university”, other departments (eg Maths at Oxford), are receptive to the study break, but require that specific academic work be completed during it.

Similar views are held at the University of Cambridge where engineering hopefuls taking a gap year are expected to maintain academic engagement through recommended websites such as: NRICH or Isaac Physics.


8. Do you need to improve your results?

Last year’s exam results were unprecedently controversial. This year the process of Teacher Assessed Grades is different but you may be in a situation where you can no longer access your desired university. It is possible to take exams in the Autumn but you may, given all of the disruption of the last year, opt for a one-year A level course to help you get the grades you deserve. Institutions like MPW and many other CIFE colleges are able to offer accelerated A level options which could help you to secure stronger applications at top UK and World Universities.


9. What will university be like in 2021?

It is fair to say that university in 2020-21 was unlike any other year. The student experience was vastly different and for those looking forward to the social student experience like fresher’s week and student parties or someone keen to attend face-to-face lectures it was not be a good year to start. It remains to be seen what life on campus will look like this year but it does seem like the situation in the UK is improving and that universities, like every other aspect of society, will be gradually returning to business as usual.

Should I stay or should I go?

In sum, whether or not you should take a gap year is a very personal decision. There are advantages if you have done your research and have a clear plan. A well-executed gap year can clarify your choices and give you a wide variety of skills allowing you to mature as a student. It could also help you save money and make you a more attractive candidate.

On the other hand, a poorly planned gap year may result in a lot of debt, cause you to lose interest in academic study and make you unattractive to specific university programmes particularly in Maths.

Before making a decision contact the university you wish to attend and find out the impact a gap year could have on your admission.

Keep in mind that if you didn’t secure a place at your dream university a gap year and a one-year A level course could help you achieve the grade you deserve.

Our Advice page links to more cife articles.  

Related article on this site

University or not - 10 questions to ask yourself

Article updated: 30th June 2021

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