Thinking about a gap year? Have you ever thought about taking a year off between high school and college, or perhaps undergraduate and graduate school or academics and work? The phenomenon is growing here in the United States as more and more people decide to “log off” the path for a year to spend time doing something different. From volunteering to working abroad, traveling to spending time learning a new language or a new hobby, we love the idea of taking time to enrich your life. We recently had the chance to speak with GapYear.com COO Cormac Scanalan about travel life, and of course, gap years!
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about students taking a gap year. What are the benefits you see in taking a gap year between high school and undergraduate? Is there another time you think taking a gap year would be valuable?
Hi Jillian. Great first question.
The benefits of a gap year are vast! It might sound a bit clichéd, but most who’ve travelled on a gap year consider their time spent backpacking as genuinely life-changing.Gap year travel involves visiting unfamiliar places and meeting people from vastly different cultures. This helps us to appreciate the diversity of our planet and its inhabitants in a first-hand way, something that no book, magazine, or website can really replicate.
Graduate recruiters are known to favour those who can demonstrate not only academic achievement, but life experience as well, so working or volunteering abroad definitely help on a CV, particularly when carried out in countries where English is not the native language.
For many with the desire to travel, the most practical time to a year out is either pre or post university, making these the two most common gap years, but the experience is definitely not exclusive to these two groups.
A whole industry of gap year providers has popped up to address the market need, but in some ways this takes away from one of the fundamentals of a gap year, which is to do something independently. How popular is it to go on a gap year trip and why do you think this is?
Independent travel is an important element of almost every gap year, so the industry does of course need to keep a careful balance.It’s easy to look back at the 70s and 80s with rose-tinted glasses, but alack of accessible information also prevented a lot of people from fulfilling their travel dreams in those days. The core motive behind gapyear.com is to make planning and booking a gap year as easy as possible, enabling opportunities to anyone who wants to travel.
One thing we’ve developed in recent years is our range of complete gap years. These are designed to reduce the stress of planning the most common gap years from scratch, but independent travel is still a very important aspect of these of trips. Our emphasis has very much been on reducing the complexity of booking these gap years, while always remaining conscious not to change the nature of backpacking.
In the wider industry, most organised projects and tours only form a small part of a trip. Most round the world tickets still require some degree of self-organised travel overland, and even when gap year travel does consist of a series of pre-arranged experiences;these are usually connected by significant periods of independent travel. It’s a long way removed from anything resembling a package holiday.
Of course, the industry that has grown up to meet the needs of the gap year market has brought many positive effects from accessibility to safety. It’s also easy to forget that it was only a decade ago that visiting Antarctica was too difficult and expensive for most people to consider. There are only a few more options today, but enough to make the market competitive enough that an adventurous traveller wishing to visit all 7 continents can seriously consider it.
As extended backpacking trips continue to become safer, easier to plan and book, and the list of feasible destinations continues to grow, the gap year will continue to grow with it.
What are some ways to spin a gap year to a potential employer or university to show the benefits, which for many are immense, but intangible?
The specific answer really depends on what you choose do on your gap year. For most, this will typically be some combination of independent travel, volunteering and working abroad, all of which can be very easily used to differentiate your university or graduate job application.
Put yourself in the shoes of a recruiter. Two candidates Andy and Bill have applied for a position at your company, and both are fresh out of university. Both have similar grades, personalities and roughly equivalent work experience. On paper they are very closely matched. But Andy took a gap year.
During Andy’s gap year he spent time with a team of volunteers building a hospital in Ghana. He slept and ate with locals, doing his best to communicate with them, despite the language barrier. He travelled extensively through South East Asia, stopping in Korea to teach English to children and adults alike. Andy planned his own border crossings, and arranged visas in a number of South East Asian embassies.
Andy genuinely has come back feeling stronger, worldlier, and filled with a new level of confidence. There is no spin needed; his stories are as valuable as they are exciting. Andy’s gap year is fairly typical, but his evidence of working in a team, dynamically adapting to difficult situations and giving back to local communities differentiate him from the crowd.
Where are the most popular places to take a gap year right now? What about the most popular things to do as part of a gap year?
Australia, New Zealand and the South East Asia loop (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos) are some of the most popular places for backpacking and independent travel. InterRailing in Europe is another favourite -particularly with travellers from Australia, Canada and the US – as it offers travellers the chance to see a large number of countries on a very reasonable budget.
Many backpackers look to work and travel where they can, earning a wage which is often used to fund extending their travels. Working gap years in Australasia are some of the most common, particularly in Australia where the minimum wage is high, so even unskilled work will pay well as a temp. Japan, China and Korea are some of the most popular places to teach English as a foreign language (known as TEFL), though that is usually more vocational.
Volunteer projects are available the world over, but African and Asian countries are especially popular. The scope for volunteering abroad is perhaps even vaster than the list of places where you can do it. It is possible to do everything from trekking across the Arctic, to learning martial arts from fighting monks in Korea.More popular ideas include environmental and humanitarian projects which usually involve improving local habitats. Animal rehabilitation and childcare projects are also very common.
With gap years becoming more mainstream, do you think we’ll ever reach a point where taking a gap year becomes the norm? Why or why not?
The number of people taking gap years is definitely growing each year, and it’s not just from English speaking countries either. The number of travellers leaving outbound from Spain, Germany and France is on the rise, and there has been a recent surge in outbound travel from Asian nations such as Korea, China and Japan.
I’d love to say there will be a day when it is the norm for everyone, but the reality is that (in the same way that not everyone will go to university) gap year travel isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Our goal is to try and make taking a gap year a viable option for anyone who does want to consider it.
Another way of phrasing the question might be to say “Will there ever be a day when as many people consider a gap year, as consider university?”
I certainly hope so, and I can see no reason why not.
If you could take off and travel anywhere right now, where would you go?
Working in this industry I see so many people taking amazing trips that it makes it very hard to choose just one. That said, the islands of the South Pacific have always appealed to me. I’d love to get out to some of the more remote tribal islands.The likes of Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Kiribati would be high on the list.
Overland adventure to different places or stay in one place for a long period of time?
Three things you can’t travel without.
My DSLR camera.My tripod.And an ample supply of reading material.
Three words you would use to describe your last trip (and tell us where it was!)
Cold, bleak, quirky: It was a weekend in Eccles-on-Sea, North Norfolk.
Or if a two hour drive to Norfolk doesn’t count…
Picturesque, relaxed,dichotomous: It was a week in Alvor, Portugal
Tell us about your first trip abroad!
I was actually less than a month old when I first flew on a plane. It was to attend my auntie and uncle’s wedding in Ireland, but I obviously have no memory of that. In fact, I travelled quite a lot before I started forming long term memories. Other than a few brief flashes of Austria when I was about 3, my first really vivid travel memory is of taking the boat from Holland to the UK. I was a young boy emigrating to England.
I remember getting excited as the ferry approached the shores of England. There were two huge dice just off the coast; some kind of artsy sculpture I doubt too many others will recall, but it stuck vividly as I remember wondering if giant stone dice would somehow be the norm in England (I’m sad to say this is not the case).
My arrival was also shortly after the fabled great storm of ’87. There were felled trees and broken barns all over the countryside, and it gave England a slightly odd, post-apocalyptic feel. Think Tunguska, with tea and crumpets.
Cormac Scanlan is the COO of the travel community and advice website gapyear.com. An advocate of combining user generated content with web technologies to make travel more accessible, he has overseen the development of a vast range of travel products, something which has put him close to the pulse of the gap year industry for the last decade. In his spare time Cormac is a keen photographer and cinematographer.