Gap years – valuable learning experience or just a year of binge drinking?

I was reading a report today in The Guardian about student gap years, which claimed that for many young people, they are basically just an excuse for a year of excess – remote beach raves, drug fuelled orgies, and sexual promiscuity. Sounds alright to me really…
With Bee now in her final year of compulsory education, (I am so OLD!), it’s something I’ve found myself thinking more and more about – what exactly should I be encouraging her to do after school? Obviously I won’t be pushing her to settle for a nice little job in Subway, but is university nowadays really the best option? Do I want her to saddle herself with thousands of pounds worth of debt so early in life? And what about a gap year then – do they serve any purpose, or are they just a waste of time?
I had a gap year, but I didn’t do any travelling in mine – educational or recreational. When I finished my A-levels I had a one year old baby, and I needed time out to plan my next move. I didn’t waste the year though – I had a part-time job looking after two young children, I took GCSE drama to keep my hand in in the whole learning department, and was of course rather preoccupied being a mother.
I really would rather Bee didn’t spend the year after college with a toddler in tow, which means my own experiences aren’t going to be terribly helpful in terms of helping her decide what to do with herself after A-levels.
So what do you reckon – are gap years a once in a lifetime opportunity to have Amazing Life Experiences? Should I be encouraging Bee to take time out before university, and come to that, should I be promoting higher education at all? Maybe the Subway management scheme is the best route to job security…


  1. 6 September, 2010 / 7:03 pm

    I went straight to uni after school and I’m very glad I did because pretty much all the jobs I have ever applied for require a degree.

    I would definitely encourage my daughter to go to uni, and also do a gap year, but perhaps after uni, if she has a proper plan, as opposed to just wasting it away. If I went straight after school I probably would have been a bit out of my depth. Then again, my brother went on his after school and survived!

    I took a delayed gap year (18 months) a couple of years after Uni and went travelling. I travelled all over the world, lived in Sydney, had so many amazing experiences and met so many new friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with now. I bungy-jumped, sky-dived, climbed glaciers and dived. Yes it involved drinking huge amounts and guys (I got my heart broken a few times), but I came back with so much confidence and had the time of my life.

    I will definitely encouraging my daughter to do one (in about 18 years time!)

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:47 pm

      Wow! That sounds like the dream gap year – just how I imagine it should be :-) I’ve skydived, but I passed out mid-air, so not sure I’m really cut out for that much excitement in one year…

  2. 6 September, 2010 / 7:20 pm

    I have to agree with 21st century mummy, there are a lot of jobs out there where you need a degree just to apply, whether your degree subject is relevant or not. Looking back at some of the roles I’ve done over the years, many were roles where a degreee was considered “essential”, God knows why, I’ve employed graduates myself and there aren’t necessarily any good ….

    Personally I consider university and/or a gap year to be very useful “life experience” and (if you can justify the cost of either) a good idea all round. Except of course in the case where a particular teenager isn’t exactly “university material” (and I don’t necessarily mean “not too bright”, but attitude etc also). I never experienced the gap year, although my daughter did go on a gap year to Italy (well sort of) where she worked with my family in the family business. She “grew up” very much in the time she was away, as well as learning an awful lot about Parma Ham, salami etc (family business !)

    A degree isn’t always needed, but I do think that even if you work your way up in an organisation, there can come a point where not having a degree can hamper your progress, a sort of “glass ceiling” to your career if you will, same as some people eventually “have” to go down the MBA route (can’t justify the cost myself).

    Anyway, I say “go for it Bee”, as long as the cost can be justified. it’s a once in a lifetime experience.

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:48 pm

      I think you’re right Steve, the fact of having a degree, regardless of whether or not you actually ever use the content, shows a lot about a person’s ability to commit to something and work at a certain level.

  3. 6 September, 2010 / 7:42 pm

    A year out has given James a chance to grow up a bit and get really motivated to start Uni in 2 weeks time. It has not, unfortunately, encouraged him to save any money..

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:50 pm

      You’re right, motivation must be a big part of it. After 12 years of school and two of college, university must be the last thing a lot of kids feel like doing!

  4. Vicky
    6 September, 2010 / 7:57 pm

    As you know, I have been a little bit unconventional in the way I have ‘managed’ my career up till now! I resat my GCSE’s because I had been too interested in kissing boys to pay attention at school and then went on to work my way up the ‘admin’ ladder (admittedly I didn’t do too badly). However, I changed career aged 28 then found myself aged 32, redundant and with nothing more than 5 GCSE’s and to my name – not a great place to be!

    Trying to do Uni now, in my 30’s, with a mortgage and an 8yr old is challenging to say the least, but realistically I would never have managed it at 18 – gap year or no gap year.

    So, in answer to your dilemma – I don’t have a clue what to suggest you encourage Bee to do! Would she get discount at Subway (that may swing my vote, what with being a skint student and all…)

    Helpful aren’t I?! xxx

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:51 pm

      Hmmm…very helpful, thank you sweetie :-)

      (Will find out about Subway discount).

  5. Michelle
    6 September, 2010 / 7:57 pm

    I’m at uni now, on and off, at the ripe old age of far too old. Had I gone to uni at 18 I’d have done a degree in something odd (and not at all useful) and wasted the time I spent working. The work route at 18 can be a fab way to learn about life, whilst earning the money to have the fun :-) which means you don’t need to fund the binges. I’ve studied, and worked, in every one of the past 20 years which means my parents, or the government, haven’t needed to contribute to my education or fun and I now have useful qualifications which I can use.

    My brother, to give a comparison, has three government funded degrees (and isn’t using much, if any, of the knowledge he gained during them), has just divorced his gap year excess and is working, happily married now, as a uni lecturer in the middle east – so isn’t paying back in tax all those uni fees from years gone by lol!!

    Can I have a gap year now please?

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:52 pm

      I think you’re allowed a gap year at 65 :-)

      It’s a good point though about knowing what you want to do. It is so hard at 18 to even imagine your life in ten years time – how can you be expected to know what you want to do with your life?? I’m still not sure now!

  6. maryfclark
    6 September, 2010 / 8:13 pm

    A difficult decision for you and for Bee: what does your gut tell you?
    I have a friend who spent the first half of her gap year depressed b/c she didn’t get the grades she needed to go somewhere she wouldn’t, she reckons now, have been happy. She spent the second half working in a charity shop and now feels really ready for university. She also has a totally awesome, world-beating score in an online computer game. She thinks it has been a year well spent :)

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:53 pm

      My gut says a degree is important – when it happens though is another matter… I guess I should think about asking Bee what SHE wants to do :-)

  7. 6 September, 2010 / 8:37 pm

    Here in Ireland many schools have a ‘gap year’ – called Transition Year – after Junior Cert (exams at 15/16). The children are in school but do all sorts of entertaining stuff from putting on shows, running campus companies and attending adventure courses to volunteering in the community and work experience.

    i think going to College at the same time can often feel like the thing to do and perhaps a gap year when you are a little more mature would be a better idea: Several of my friends went on gap years in their twenties before they settled down and it worked out really well for them.

    I know that I will be terrified if my 17 yr old wants to go on a Gap Year after she finishes school next summer: she’s just so not grown up!

    Hope it all works out for you and Bee

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:55 pm

      That sounds like a great way to spend a year! I know what you mean though – I worry now about leaving Bee in the house alone, I can’t imagine her travelling the world alone in two years time!!

  8. Fuzzy Logic
    6 September, 2010 / 8:45 pm

    I’m 29 and now at uni studying to be a mental health nurse. I think if I had of gone straight after school I would have done something useless and with my nursing I know I’ve found my calling (even if I am a little bit crazy myself – all helps right?).
    Plus I’m also a single mum. Its hard work doing it on your own (and I chose to, I kicked him out after all but thats another story).
    I wish I’d been travelling. I wish I’d seen more of the world. I wish I could take a gap year before I start work but maybe once I qualify and I’ve done a couple of years in the NHS, Monkey and I can take a year out in Australia. We’ll see…
    If I could have my time again, I’d say go out to work for 5 years, save some cash to go travel the world then its time to find what area you want to work in, get a degree and then its time to grow up and join the big bad world.
    My fuzzy logic, for what its worth :)

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:57 pm

      I like that logic :-)

      I just feel like you only get one shot really at a degree, and 18 seems so young to be investing so much time and money in something you’re not really sure about – it’s such a lot of debt to get into on a whim…

  9. 6 September, 2010 / 8:47 pm

    My gap years were from approximately age 19 . . . to 31.

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:57 pm

      Nice. Plenty of time to consider your career plans then :-)

  10. Lucy
    6 September, 2010 / 9:01 pm

    There is a LOT of spare time at uni to have all that “gap year” experience which mainly involves 1. drinking and shagging boys, which is very easy to incorporate into normal university life, and 2. doing some valuable career-related work, which you can easily do during your university summer holidays which go on for ABOUT THREE MONTHS. Volunteer for things, get involved with clubs, suck up to your lecturers and plead for admin work and work experience from anyone senior enough, find out what everyone’s dad does to work out who to make friends with (I would say mum, but everyone at Exeter had a daddy with a business and a mummy with an apron and a horse).

    And don’t
    for god’s sake don’t

    • 7 September, 2010 / 12:59 pm

      I read that as ‘get involved in clubs, suck off your lecturers…’
      I know you too well…

      I was thinking of getting her to do something like Surf Science? *snort*

  11. 6 September, 2010 / 9:54 pm

    I went to uni at 19 and didn’t have a gap year or go travelling but I knew I wanted to work with special needs children and had my career planned. I wish I did go and do some summer camps in America that is the only thing.

    I don’t know what I would recommend to Baba really, I think it depends on what you know about yourself, and what kind of person you are.

    • 7 September, 2010 / 1:00 pm

      I’m very impressed – 19 is so young, you did well to know what you wanted to do. Is it still what you do now? Do you still enjoy it?

  12. 7 September, 2010 / 5:47 am

    I had a gap year before uni. It definitely gave me the opportunity to grow a little – i worked, earnt my own money, travelled. I was much more prepared for uni when i started, those that came straight from school always seemed a little green, a bit lost, though obviously they got into the swing of it just like everyone else in time.
    I also think, had a travelled after uni as others did it would have set me back more on the work front.
    And of course now i can’t travel because responsibilities have set it.
    In any case, uni is full of drinking, promiscuity etc. You need a bit of time out before you get thrown into the viper’s nest!


    • 7 September, 2010 / 1:02 pm

      Damn it – I really missed out. There was no drinking and promiscuity during my degree! I don’t suppose living an hour’s drive away and having to go home straight after lectures helped matters though..

  13. 7 September, 2010 / 7:18 am

    I feel like I’m living your life a few years behind you! When I finished my a-levels I had a wee one year old baby too. I went straight to Uni cos I hated the thought of getting behind. I did the first course I found that would let me on (considering I’d done my 2nd yr at 6th form part time). The degree was boring as…. Luckily it fitted into my life as a young mum quite well as it was only 8 hrs a week so most of time I didn’t actually feel like a student at all. I guess it was worth it to actually get a degree although the first benefit was simply that a bank will lend you more to get a mortgage if you’re a ‘graduate’. I also went in the days when there were still grants but had I paid out loads I might have been a bit bitter about doing a degree that seemed pretty useless at the time. Maybe if I’d taken more time to think about what I wanted to do I would have chosen something I could really get into…..although 13 years on I’m still no better at knowing what I want to be when I grow up!

    Anyway, my son is now in year 10 and I’m too having to think about whether I should be subtly steering him in any directions….. Maybe I should be making a list of my fave shops where he could poss get discounts…

    • 7 September, 2010 / 1:06 pm

      I think you are! I did a pretty dull degree too – it wouldn’t have been my first choice that’s for sure! I only did the course because you could do the first year at my local college – a whole year of politics, history, sociology and economics (YAWN!) – fortunately I vaguely enjoyed the economics part, and could focus on that in the second and third year!

  14. 7 September, 2010 / 3:51 pm

    From my experience studying a vocational, hands-on degree – Journalism – I’d really encourage your daughter to go to university and to study something that automatically equals a job when you graduate. Often if you study something more general like history or even English, it means you then have to study further to finally get a job – e.g. a masters/teaching qualification/law training on top, which equals more debt. I also went on a gap year but only after two years of career work after graduation so I was able to save money and also put my first feet on the career ladder. I simple saw the world on my gap year which was the most amazing experience, meeting great people, seeing wonderful sites. If we work so hard all of our lives – why shouldn’t people enjoy a gap year?!

    • 8 September, 2010 / 1:57 pm

      That’s a really good point Stephanie – I know so many people who finished degrees and then didn’t really know what to DO with them – studying something that will actually help you get a job seems common sense, but so few people actually seem to do it!

  15. Alison Reid
    7 September, 2010 / 4:40 pm

    Hi Jo, I read this article too – it’s one way to spend a gap year! I agree that travel can be a good thing anyway if someone wants to take the chance just to see the world. But it’s also possible to have gap years which can open doors for you later, if you do something that’s genuinely interesting for you. Mine did that. It was partly luck, but also I did something that involved travel and working. I wasn’t thinking all that much about the future at the time at all, but it did give me good stuff to put on a CV, etc! and all that grown up stuff, and that all helped later on – in fact I think it gave me a career opp that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. I suppose the thing is put thought into what to do with the time, but not to put too much pressure onto what you want to get out of it. If that any makes sense.

    • 8 September, 2010 / 1:59 pm

      I think that’s true of a lot of things isn’t it? When you do something you enjoy, and have fun, you often find other opportunities come along without you having to seek them out. A bit like dating I guess – don’t think about meeting someone, just think about making the most of your life, and you attract other people and opportunities into your life.

  16. 9 September, 2010 / 7:02 am

    I took a gap year and worked in New York in the industry I am in now and it provided me with a years work experience and an amazing life experience. Everyone else was in Thailand taking drugs, but I figured I’d be going to art school and be doing that for three years, so…

    I think university is what you make of it, but some of the most talented people I know didn’t go to university and learnt their trade by doing it.

    One of my cousins studied medicine, hated it, but used the skills she picked up to travelled to Sierra Leone to work in an aid hospital and rediscovered medicine and now works in John Hopkins. I think Gap years can be important, but getting pissed for a year and taking drugs is just a bit of a lame excuse for experience. IMHO.

    • 9 September, 2010 / 9:23 pm

      It does seem weird that people want to have a year of drinking and shagging BEFORE university, on top of the further three years.

      Did you go to New York knowing what industry you wanted to get into, or was it that experience that led you to other things?

  17. 16 September, 2010 / 2:30 am

    I’m travelling longterm with my son, and can highly recommend a later life GAP year (or two). We tend to meet a lot of people in their late 20s and early 30s, who have worked for a while, are sick of it, and are escaping, rather fewer drunken teenage shaggers (though I guess we’re in the wrong places).

    Push comes to shove, if your DD wants to do it, tho’, she will…

    • 17 September, 2010 / 8:39 pm

      Wow, that sounds fab! I’m guessing from your site name that he’s nine? He must be loving it!

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