UCAS applications - I'm just starting out.
If you want to take a gap year but still apply to university at the same as everyone else, then you can defer your entry. To apply for deferred entry is really easy: you just tick a little box on the UCAS application. But before you do that, make sure you check that the courses you're applying for actually accept students who have deferred entry. Some competitive subjects, some universities, and some courses don't like students who have deferred entry. They want students who come straight from school, so there's no gap in their studying. Before you apply for a course and deferred entry, make sure that they are going to accept you.
You're going to need to explain your decision to defer on your personal statement. You’ll need to explain why you decided to take a gap year, and why you decided to defer your entry. If you can't come up with a good reason, or if you can't explain it well enough in your personal statement, then you're going to be in a little bit of a tricky situation. You're going to need to have plans (or at least an idea of plans) in place. You can't just turn up at the interview and say, "I'm going to play computer games for a year." Because, unless you're applying for computer games design, they won’t see the advantage. You have to have a plan; you have to do something productive, something useful, something good with this year.
If you want to defer your entry after you’ve already confirmed your spot, then contact the university directly and see if they will allow you to make the change. If you've applied for deferred entry but then don't want to take that up anymore, this a little bit of a trickier situation, because the university might not have places for you straight away. If they've allocated your place for a year later, there might not be space for you to start this year.
If you want to take a gap year, the advantages of deferring entry are that you're going through the process with all of your friends at the same time. You're applying at the same time, getting offers at the same time, you have the whole experience on results' day and the anxiety about what is going to happen. And when it comes to teachers writing your references, you're much fresher in their minds as opposed to having to remember you a year later. Applying at the same time and deferring entry is going to be a much easier application process.
Your other option is taking a gap year and then applying a year later so you have your grades in hand. Now, you can go through the process with your peers, writing your personal statement, but don't actually apply. Leave your application till September and get it in right when the UCAS applications open. Because you're already applying with your grades, you can pick and choose your universities a little bit better because you know whether you're going to meet the grade requirements or not. And because you've done this, the universities might give you an unconditional offer. You might also have firm plans in place because you've had more time to work out what you're doing on your gap year. When you apply for the UCAS deadline in January, you may not know what you're doing over the summer. But if you leave it for a year and apply when the next round of applications open in September, you might have got your gap year plans already sorted out so you can better answer questions in your personal statement and in an interview as to why you're taking a gap year and what you're going to get out of it.
If you're going to take a gap year, you’ve got two choices: You can apply with everyone else and defer your entry, or you can get your results and then apply and take your gap year later, knowing that you’ve got a place waiting for you when you come back. The downside of this is that you might be invited to interview while you’re planning on trekking a rainforest or relaxing on a beach.
Gap years are fantastic, amazing things, but only if you use them properly.
If you are feeling burnt out after years in the school system, you can take a gap year between the end of school and the start of university. If you're going to go down this route and take a gap year, I'm afraid it can't just be sitting around playing computer games, hanging out with your friends, and working in the local supermarket. You have to have a plan, otherwise this gap is going to look weird on your CV, and it's going to be hard to explain to universities when it comes time to apply. This time can be put to such fantastic use.
You can go abroad and travel on an epic journey. You will be the envy of all of your friends who are back at home studying, especially when they see your Facebook and Instagram and see all the amazing places that you are visiting. (Although, making other people jealous shouldn't be a reason for you to go traveling!) You can go and teach English, or art, or drama, or music to under-privileged children in countries around the world where they don't have as many opportunities as we do. You can go work in hospitals or orphanages, or you can go and dig wells for communities. You can do things that can have a long-term, lasting impact on all the people that you're going to spend a year helping.
You can work in an animal sanctuary, or you could find an ecological conservation project that you're really passionate about. Maybe this links in with your degree, or maybe this links in with your long-term career goals. Maybe it doesn't, but then you could find a project where you can give back to the community while you're taking a year off.
If you want to stay local, then you can go work in a care home, or you can work on a community project, or you could pick a cause that you're passionate about and spend a year trying to make it better. Doing petitions, sorting out things in the local park, talking to the council, talking to the local community, trying to fix whatever projects—whatever thing that you decided needs fixing.
If you wanted to stay at home, you could be entrepreneurial. You could spend the year setting up a small business, and this has loads of advantages. It's going to give you loads of skills for when you get to university. You could be making money, and this could be a long-term thing that could keep you sorted out money-wise while you're at university.
You could go away from home and do a big working project. You could go work on a farm, you could go abroad and do fruit picking, or you could do a really interesting internship somewhere. This gives you the opportunity to learn skills related to the career that you potentially want to be following after university. If you're going to live abroad, you should immerse yourself in that culture. It maybe something completely different to what you're used to—or it may be somewhere that speaks English, but somewhere that needs an au-pair. Either way, you can go properly get into the culture, and learn the traditions and customs of your host country.
The advantage of taking a gap year is the massive wealth of experience you're going to come away with. You're going to come away with new skills, and you’ll be able to get on with people that you didn't necessarily think that you'd get on with. You could be earning money while you're doing this. You've got the chance to be refreshed after years and years churning your way through the exam factory that is our school system. You're going to come out of this a little bit more mature, a little bit more independent than you were before. And you’ll have time to reflect on what you're about to do next. Is university really what you want to be doing? You've got the opportunity to undertake a massive challenge, something that you'll really, really be proud of. Something that you can take and give back to the world, give back to communities that are less fortunate than us. Sometimes we take what we have for granted. We don't realize how access to clean running water, and access to electricity is actually a privilege that so many people in the world don't have. You have the opportunity to spend a year doing a little bit towards fixing these problems.
However, as brilliant as I think gap years are, there are a few disadvantages to them. If you don't plan them well, it can just be a massive waste of time. You may have all these grand plans to go off and save the world, but if you don't actually get around to doing it, then you're just sitting at home for a year, which is a dull waste of time.
If you go on an epic journey that will make everyone jealous, then that is going to be really expensive. You might have to work and save up for this. You might have to take a loan out from your parents, or from a bank, which you'll have to pay back, and that's a lot of money.
While you are off doing amazing, fantastic things, you may decide that you don't want to go back to university. Now, some of you may see this as an advantage, and some of you may see this as a disadvantage, but this could be a massive interruption in your life plan. Then the shock of going back into the school system—into the university system, into the exam system—might be a bit hard for you to get used to.
Then while you're off having amazing fun on all of your adventures, you may forget everything you have learnt at A-Level. So when you start in your first year at university, there are going to be people who have only been a few weeks out of A-Levels, and you may find yourself at a little bit of a disadvantage. Now if you decide to take a gap year, you're going to have to expect to talk about it in interviews and explain why you took it. Please make sure you have a proper plan in place for this. And if you do go off on a gap year, I'm very, very jealous!