Taking a year out before going to university or college can seem frivolous, particularly to a parent. The concern is often that the student in question will never return to their studies after frittering away their time, serving piña coladas in beach bars or simply lying on the sand. Meanwhile, students themselves often worry taking a year sabbatical will mean missing the boat and getting left behind.

But a gap year can be one of the most enriching and decisive moments of a student’s life as long as it is purposeful and well-structured. In fact, students admitted to Harvard University are actively encouraged to take a year out before knuckling down to the course of their choice.

The final years of school are so academic and intense, students often struggle to get a clear perspective on the next stage of their lives, one that will inevitably shape their futures. In this respect, a gap year can help to flag up areas of interest, and the skills and strengths that can be channelled and built upon, as well as shining a light on what various professions entail on a day-to-day basis.

As Sinews Psychologist and Counsellor at King’s College Alicante, Irene Magallón González, says, “It is not easy to know what to study or what to do at the age of 17 or 18. There are only a few students who, mostly by vocation, are clear about what they want after school. Some need to discover who they are in the real world to find out.”

Although there are many offers out there for exotic experiences, a gap year does not have to cost a fortune, or revolve around one ready-made trip. In fact, the gap year has particular merit if the student organises it themselves, making sure it encompasses a range of activities, including earning some money!

“Embarking on a journey to discover what we have come to do in this world is perhaps the greatest challenge of our existence,” says Irene. “If the path is well organised, it can certainly be a very enriching experience, where learning through experience takes on a greater role. This is sometimes what brings us closer to success in the personal, emotional, work and social spheres.”

To make the gap year purposeful, here are some basic elements you might like to consider and combine:

Internship: If you are not clear where any given university degree might lead, get in touch with various companies or institutions for a short internship. Even a brief immersion in a profession that could be yours will help to clarify if it’s right for you. Aim for at least four internships during the year.

Earning money: Financing yourself and your plans for the year will help you to feel capable and independent. There is also nothing like earning a basic wage to motivate you in your studies. A spell behind the counter of a coffee shop or at the till of the local supermarket is a sure-fire way of sharpening your ambition.

Volunteering: If it’s done properly, volunteering can be extremely rewarding but it is important that you realise what is expected of you and find the right program. The volunteering aspect of your gap year can start locally and culminate in period abroad, Covid permitting. Local volunteering will give you an idea of the nuts and bolts of what might be involved and trigger the resourcefulness and initiative needed to optimise the experience.

Honing a skill: This could be perfecting a language, learning online marketing techniques or perhaps a course in equine therapy or camp monitoring, depending where your interests lie.

Travel: While travel has currently been curtailed, it may open up in 2022 and volunteering in any chosen destination is one way of getting the most out of your trip, giving you a specific purpose along with a deeper and more thought-provoking insight into the local culture. Alternatively, a specific physical challenge such as cycling down the West coast of America or hiking the Himalayas will give your trip focus.

Blog: Documenting your year or even just part of your year with photos and entertaining anecdotes is a great way to make sure you keep it on track.

As King’s counsellor, Irene, says, “A gap year is definitely another way to start the journey, the important thing is always to keep walking.”