by Flora Carr, The Telegraph, August 16, 2017
In September 2013, Sophie Hetherton found herself steering a 70ft racing yacht, guiding it down choppy waves up to 15 metres high.
At just 18, Sophie was the youngest female crew member in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, an intensive 11-month sailing race around the world.
While her school friends moved into their new university accommodations, Sophie was sleeping in cramped quarters alongside 20 other crew members (none of whom had access to a shower).
“The hardest parts were the bitterly cold races across the Southern Ocean and North Pacific,” Sophie, 22, told The Telegraph.
“A combination of sleep deprivation and spending hours up on deck, freezing cold and constantly being hit by icy waves challenged me mentally as well as physically.”
Although battling gigantic waves and seasickness isn’t for everyone, Sophie represents a new type of 'gapper', as students increasingly use their gap year not only to ‘find themselves’, but also as a chance to challenge themselves and enhance their CV.
Three years after she completed the race, Sophie has recently graduated with a 2:1 from Warwick, and she is in no doubt that her unusual gap year prepared her for the world of work.
“So many of the skills and lessons I learnt are transferable to the working environment,” she explained.
She cites teamwork and an ability to work alongside people of all ages as examples.
“The perception and purpose of a gap year has substantially changed in the past decade,” says Iwan Williams, the Exam Results Helpline Careers Advisor at Ucas.
“It used to be viewed as a way for young people to ‘dip out’ of the ‘real world’ and take time to go on a voyage of self discovery.
“That’s certainly something people might consider but less and less people are doing it.”
When it comes to gap years, more students are looking for experiences that will not only prove enjoyable, but also fuel their CVs.
But are they worth it, and what kind of new gap year experiences should you be looking at?
Many students seem to think so. According to Ucas, 92,245 19 year-olds started university in September 2016. Of these, a “significant number” took a gap year after finishing school.
However, pupils are often advised by parents or teachers that certain universities and courses prefer students not to go on gap years, as students may fall behind in their studies and need catch up time.
Iwan Williams suggests that if you do choose to go on a gap year, it’s advisable to show that your year was or will be well spent.
“Universities will want to see that the year has been spent positively and not been wasted.
“Self-development is key and whether this is through travel, gaining work experience or volunteering, think about how this could be evidenced,” Williams told The Telegraph.
“Some universities will want to interview applicants during the process but all will read a personal statement. So, make sure this details the valuable experiences and skills learnt and how this will be put to good use during a degree course. This is essential.”
What kind of experiences are out there?
Not everyone can stomach 11 months at sea, but there are plenty of opportunities that combine adventure and enhancing your employability.
Laura Morrison, 20, decided to indulge her wanderlust by going on a six-week art history course in Italy, before starting her Foundation Diploma in Art and Design at Falmouth University.
“We started in Rome and ended in Venice,” Laura said.
“Each day the lecturers had something planned for the group and would take us to different sites and galleries. We visited the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and the Villa Farnesia in Rome, to name a few!”
“It was very hands-on during the day, and then in the evening they would let us do as we wanted.”
Internships are also hugely popular for students hoping to bulk up their personal statements and CVs.
Beth Evans is the Director of UK Marketing at Projects Abroad, a company that organises tailored internships abroad, including Medicine, Law and Business internships.
She told The Telegraph: “We’ve seen an increasing number of students join an internship style project in their gap year.
“This experience will enhance their CV and university application, as well as improve their soft skills such as teamwork and public speaking.
“Recently a student joined our Journalism project in Sri Lanka, and since returning home has secured a 6 month internship with Google News Labs.”
According to Ucas, a significant number of the 92,245 19-year olds who started university in 2016 will have gone on a gap year
A gap year is also a good way of buying time before committing to a three-year course, and for some students, an internship related to the course they’re looking at can be a great way to test the waters.
“We are seeing a trend in internships overseas and in the UK [that enable students] to test their chosen careers,” explained a spokesperson at The Leap, another company specialising in tailored gap years.
“They combine the fun downtime of gap year travel with an internship for a win win solution.”
In terms of location, “Asia and South America are last years news”.
“Madagascar and Namibia are our current best sellers.”
What if I just fancy a holiday?
Interning for a year may not for everyone, even if it’s abroad.
So if you’re looking for a for a more traditional travel experience, why not try breaking up your year, allocating time for both work and play?
Saskia Tempest-Radford, 23, recently graduated from Exeter with a BA in French and Spanish. During her gap year she would work odd jobs for several months before travelling for a few weeks.
“All the travel experiences were very different,” she explained. “I wanted to have something random and wacky, some total wanderlust, and then some culture and backpacking.”
In-between working as a nanny, running paid errands and interning at Reuters and Gorkana, Saskia squeezed in three-weeks interrailing, a month in Indonesia and a two-week Russian language course in St Petersburg, all funded by the odd jobs she worked during the rest of the year.
However, whatever you decide to do on your gap year, whether it's interning, travelling, or studying, make sure to make the most of your year.
"Having had that year out gave me the confidence needed in the next step of my life," explained Sophie.
"It's been over three years since I finished my gap year adventure, and still to this day I know it taught me invaluable lessons."
For more information about university courses available this year through Clearing, visit the Telegraph Clearing App.