Taking a year out between A Levels and university is usually a preserve of the wealthy middle classes, as most gap year abroad organisations charge large amounts to go on their programs. However, don’t let this put you off volunteering as there are one or two more reasonable ways to take some time out through volunteering work.
An Introduction to Gap Year Programs
Why Volunteer After Your A Levels?
Volunteering is a great way to gain some life experience, broaden your horizons and learn more about where your skills lie. If you choose the right gap year volunteer program it might help in deciding on a career. No matter how much time you’re able to give over to a volunteer project it should be a worthwhile experience for the organisation you’re helping as well as your own development.
Why Do I Have to Pay Sometimes?
You can organise your year abroad programs or volunteer placements yourself and even join existing projects but it is fairly difficult and takes a lot of time to make the contacts you need. These organisations and charities that charge also offer in-country support, too, so if something does go wrong you aren’t a burden on your host family or project. However, be sure to do your research as not all volunteer abroad organisations have you and the host community’s best interests at heart.
Will a Year Out Improve My Employment Opportunities?
Ultimately employers are wanting more than academic qualifications these days: life and work experience are imperative to getting ahead in the job market. Make a gap year count - this isn’t the time to lay back and relax, it’s about focus, networking and absorbing every experience that you encounter.
If used properly a gap year can help you to develop to your full potential. On the other hand, a poorly organised year out can be a complete waste of time too. Here’s our pick of one or two of the best gap year ideas and programs...
A Pick of the Best Gap Year Programs
This is a registered charity - and a not for profit operation - so it makes for a good cheap gap year travel option. Costs are kept to a minimum for volunteers with the fee for registration on a volunteer project abroad varying from £210 to £350 depending on how long you go for (from 1 week to 1 year). A wide range of volunteer programs are available - from environmental to archaeological schemes - as well as creative projects such as helping to run music festivals and events.
To get a better understanding of what the UNA Exchange is all about, go to: Unaexchange.org.
World Wide Volunteering
This organisation is enormous offering over 1.6 million placements a year. They offer volunteer programs overseas and in the UK. The type of placements offered include motivating ex-offenders, supporting disadvantaged young people, working in schools, joining flying medical missions in Mexico and conserving and rehabilitating orang-utans in Malaysia.
You can also work towards WWV certificates, Gold, Silver and Bronze awards relating to the number of voluntary hours you have completed. The bonus is these certificates are recognised by UCAS so it offers an extra boost to university applications.
Get the lowdown on World Wide Volunteering over at: Wwv.org.uk.
The Voluntary Service (VSO)
The Voluntary Service is an international development charity that helps people in poverty around the world. To volunteer with them you generally need qualifications or experience, as it's highly competitive and the skills learnt are much sought after. However, they do also offer placements abroad if you are under 25 and are taking a gap year between your A Levels and university.
To learn about the range of ways you can help out with the Voluntary Service, go to: Vso.org.uk.
Hutong School, China
This school in China takes volunteers to help with community projects and charities around Beijing and Shanghai. Included in the volunteer program are Chinese lessons of usually six hours a week (making it ideal for a linguist). The idea is to fully immerse the volunteer in daily Chinese life, so a greater understanding of the culture is gained through teaching and visiting charitable organisations.
To find out about the Hutong School, go to: Hutong-school.com.
As a volunteer abroad organisation, the key to Raleigh’s success is that they are committed to sustainable development projects more equipped to explore remote areas and knowledgeable about your host countries culture. They have been working with some projects for as long as 10 years in the likes of Borneo, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Tanzania. The programmes that they offer, though, do not cater for those who want a full year abroad as they only run to 5, 7 or 10 week placements. In this relatively short time, however, you'll do some fantastic, meaningful work, as well as having a great time.
Find out more at Raleighinternational.org.
Volunteering at Oxfam
A great gap year doesn’t have to involve flying half-way round the world to volunteer – there are plenty of fulfilling (and career-enriching options) nearer to home. There are very few large towns in the UK that don’t have a branch of Oxfam on or around their high street, and all of these provide fantastic volunteering programmes involving everything from helping others to picking up some invaluable retail and administrative level work experience.
To get more information on working in an Oxfam shop, check out: Oxfam.org.uk.
Community Service Volunteers
Another home-based gap year program involves working with the Community Service Volunteers, with any number of fulfilling opportunities to preserve historic buildings, mentoring, befriending, supporting the homeless and empowering disabled people across the UK. There are lots of ways to easily develop your knowledge, learn from others, gain experience in different disciplines, meet new people and give something back with community service volunteers. This is also something that can carry on once you go to university or get a job as there are lots of community based projects that are flexible.
To find out more about Community Service Volunteers, go to: Csv.org.uk.
Another of the better options amongst the paid gap year programs is being an au pair for a year. If you love children then taking care of a family's little ones might be the perfect solution. There are placements all over the world so you can pair working with learning a new language or building on one you’re hoping to study. The duties do vary from host family to family; some just want childcare, while others would like basic cleaning and cooking to be done, too. The job usually comes with full board and lodging and you get paid some pocket money for your free time.
To see the worldwide possibilities, click here.
Let Someone Else Take the Pain Out of Booking
Choosing - and then arranging or booking - a gap year program abroad can be an extremely time-consuming and stressful business. If you're not one of the most organised types, it might be better to leave it up to the professionals.
While there are a few leading gap year travel companies to choose from, G Adventures stand out. A tour company which covers more than 100 different countries, it has specialist guides for all of them called CEOs or 'Chief Experience Officers'. There can be a lot of wasted time if you travel alone; this is by no means your fault it’s just it’s often impossible to know what, when and how is the best thing to do when you’re on the road in a foreign country. This is even less the case when you plan to take in more than one country (or even continent!) With G Adventures you'll find you'll experience and fit more into 14 days than you would in 2 months of trying to organise it yourself. See the range of opportunities on offer at Gadventures.com/.
Two more of the best gap year travel companies are STA Travel (Statravel.co.uk) - who have been around forever - and Real Gap (Realgap.co.uk). Both offer a range of options from volunteering and paid work to tours and adventure travel - because, after all, it doesn't have to be just about hard work.
Like our roundup of a few of the best gap year ideas? Think ahead to the next step with our pick of some of the best companies to work for.
Alternatively, if more studying’s just not for you, check out a few of the best alternatives to universities.