Annette Hutchinson asks: ‘it is worth it?’

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Is a gap year right for you?

Thirteen years of compulsory education is a long time, so it is little wonder so many people choose to take a break after school before going to university. From volunteering or backpacking to paid employment, there are many ways to fill a gap year, but how will it affect your prospects? We’ve had a chat with some university admissions tutors, recent graduates and chemistry employers so that you can decide if a gap year is right for you.

What the universities say

Liam Cox, of the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham, UK, says students who have taken a gap year ‘often come back with a sense of maturity, better organisation and time management skills, all of which lend themselves to a subject like chemistry, where you do need to be organised and plan your week ahead.’

A worry for some students is that they will forget everything they learnt at school but Cox doesn’t see this as a problem. ‘Different people take varying times to adjust to things,’ he says. ‘So if you’ve forgotten your chemistry, that might be your disadvantage, but somebody else is struggling with getting out of bed for a nine o’clock lecture when they’ve not got their mother to wake them up.’

Deciding how to use your gap year is important. For Bhakvik Patel from the University of Brighton, UK, it’s all about variety. He’s encouraged by gap-year students who break up their year with different ‘mini projects’. This gives students a ‘more diverse experience than someone who’s going to just one location for the year.’

Talking about gap-year plans in your UCAS personal statement is a great way to sell yourself to admissions tutors. The key thing is to relate your plans to the skills you hope to develop. ‘Admissions tutors want to see what an individual is going to gain from that experience and how it’s going to contribute to their success in the future,’ says David Read, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Southampton, UK.

What the graduates say

‘I changed completely. I was so much more confident,’ says recent graduate Amy Styring of her gap year. Before studying archaeology and chemistry at university, Amy worked for a few months to fund a trip to Brazil. She had planned to do voluntary work at an archaeological site there, but when this fell through at the last minute, she ended up volunteering on a farm. Amy has used this experience in job applications as an example of her independence and initiative.

What the employers say

It may seem like a long time off, but before you know it, you’ll be a applying for your first ‘proper’ job. So what do your future bosses think of gap years?

‘As a recruiter, I look at how [a candidate’s] life experiences contribute to their skill set and a gap year may impact on that’ says Ian Bell, who works for Afton Chemical Ltd. He says a gap year itself is neither positive nor negative, ‘it’s what they’ve done with that luxury [of having a gap year], that’s of interest.’

Jacquin Wilford-Brown, from International Paint Ltd, says she often finds the qualities she’s looking for in candidates who’ve taken a gap year: ‘If you’re talking to someone who has taken a gap year, they often have more experience that they can draw on and you can get a better impression of who they are, and what they can do. If they haven’t, they might still have the same qualities, but it might just be harder to find out.’

So, whether you decide to take a gap year or not, you won’t be disadvantaged when it comes to applying for university or securing a job in chemistry. But if you do decide to go for it, make sure you have a plan, so that you can get the best possible experience from the year, and develop skills that will help you in the future.

Gap year jobs

Any job you do in a gap year is bound to help you develop new skills, but if you look around you may be lucky enough to find a science-related job. Here is a couple of ideas to get you started:

YINI (Year in Industry) arrange paid placements for gap year students in UK science companies. 

School science technician – for hands on chemistry experience, why not ask your school if they have any technician vacancies?

Top tips

  • Keep up your chemistry during a gap year
  • Take a revision guide with you if you go travelling, and glance at it every now and again.
  • Keep up-to-date by reading magazines like The Mole, Chemistry World or New Scientist.

This article was originally published in The Mole