Gaps years are a waste of time if you don’t do these 5 things

Mar 14, 2016

Top media boss Sir Martin Sorrell thinks gap years are a waste of time – or does he?

If you go by headlines you might be led to believe that Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest advertising company, thinks gap years are a waste of time but that isn’t entirely true. In fact, the 71-year-old recalls his own gap year as invaluable and life-changing.

No, what he really said is that gap years are a waste of time if they are not properly organised. Most students taking a gap year aren’t given enough useful things to do and so end up wasting that time.

Sir Martin heads up WPP, a global company with 190,000 employees in 112 countries. He’s led a successful career in media that spans almost five decades and so I think it’s a wise student and graduate that takes note of what he has to say about making the most of your gap year.

Here are the five things you need to do in order to ensure your gap year isn’t a waste of time:

  1. His first piece of advice is to study abroad, and this could include either undergraduate or postgraduate study. The reason for this seems to be mainly for the language opportunities studying abroad presents, and if you can study in a country that speaks Mandarin, even better. The media boss regretfully confessed that he speaks no foreign languages at all while his wife speaks five.
  1. Choose your gap year programme carefully not only by vetting the opportunities they have on offer but also by looking at how well organised they are. Are there set job roles, tasks, schedules or projects? Sir Martin’s main criticism is that most programmes are ill directed and ill organised so that students are not kept usefully occupied.
  1. Are the tasks you will be asked to do actually useful in the working environment? You may not be always able to choose what you want to do but whatever it is, it should be the type of task that develops the skills employees ask for. You should have the opportunity to solve real business problems. For example, Sir Martin developed his analytical skills quality-checking hire purchase agreements in one role and his sales skills selling television equipment in another.
  1. Another criticism made by the media boss is that although he studied at Cambridge and Harvard, his felt his education had been too narrow. A gap year can add that broader element to your education through the opportunity to develop a wide range of highly sought-after soft skills, such as leadership, teamwork and resilience. Look for the opportunity to take on new responsibilities and experiences you’ve not had previously or might not get to experience at home. Learn about the local culture and how the people who live in the country you’re working in interpret the world. Keep a diary of the little things you notice – it’s not just about what you can bring to the role but also about what the people you serve can teach you. Make a note of how the experience of working abroad changes and affects you.
  1. One final point made by Sir Martin is that education needs to change in order to meet the needs of our changing world. In this respect, the most useful language skill after Mandarin, he believes, is coding. Learning how to code should be compulsory in schools, he said. If you can marry your gap year experience with the opportunity to learn even basic coding skills, then you will be well equipped to speak the language that lies behind all business growth today.

In order to gain the most from them, gaps years should be well planned and thought out. While you may be considering a gap year as an opportunity to take a break from studying or from having to make a decision about what type of job you want to do, you should still keep in mind that their main purpose should be to benefit your career prospects.

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