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Written by Jenny McWhirter on 29 / 03 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

Unlike Martin Sorrell’s opinion that gap years are wasted and aren’t contributing to students’ education, many gap year students return from their adventures abroad feeling that they have benefitted greatly from the experience.

I believe that all gap years are extremely beneficial but often students struggle to explain the nature of these benefits in such a way that strikes a chord with an employer.

Gap year students ultimately don’t need to stop travelling, nor find more career related experiences. Instead you must be able to explain these four key points:

  • 1. What a gap year is

  • 2. What you did

  • 3. How the experiences will position you above other candidates

  • 4. How this will benefit your potential employer

Sound like a difficult challenge? Having recently gone through the gruelling process myself, I wanted to share my tips and useful sources that allowed me to ace those interviews.

Start by Understanding Your Employer

Cormac Scanlan over at Gapyear.com has been on both sides of the process and helpfully advises us to begin by understanding what our employer wants.

Ultimately academics is a small part of what any employer is looking for. Yes, doing your best and getting high grades are important but ultimately when it gets down to the interview, everyone has the grades.

Instead employers look for skills and traits.

Skills comprise of what you are able to do – these are exactly what Martin Sorrell focuses on. However, skills aren’t the top of the employers list – ultimately skills can be taught.

Traits are about who you are, your personality, work ethic and how you approach life. These things are vital to an employer as they are almost impossible to teach an employee and if that employee is to get on well in the company they need to have the same ethos as everyone else.

One of the best ways to strengthen your traits is to have a varied and original experience. A gap year is perfect for this and I recently wrote an article on How to Make Your Gap Year Original. For the employer an interviewee who can draw on experience from outside the classroom proves their ability is tried and tested in the outside world.

Proper Preparation is Vital

Do Include It On Your CV

The biggest mistake ‘gappers’ often make is to underestimate the value of their gap year. They shy away from mentioning it, or will broadly say they ‘travelled’.

Instead your gap year should be seen as a valuable resource. You should qualify your gap year activities as working experience where your activities can be seen as productive – such as volunteering, working, blogging or learning a language.

Rachel Taft suggests rather than stating that you took a year to travel, be sure to give the employer a flavour of what your year involved and the challenges that you overcame. Then relate this to the desired skills or traits the job requires.

Including this on your CV helps you to start thinking productively about your year and also primes the employer as to your strength as a candidate.

Prepare Your Story Emphasising Your Traits

Once you’ve crafted a CV and started to think about how your gap year really benefited you and you’re talking on the employer’s level, it’s now time to get your interview responses ready.

For every interview you should try to anticipate the questions the interviewer may ask and prepare your answers. The best answers, Sasha Murray explains, produce a narrative rather than two or three words. The narrative gives the interviewer an insight into how you work.

By being selective with your stories you can show your potential employer that this puts you above the other candidates in two ways:

Firstly, experiences such as planning your year out, working as part of team, making yourself understood in a foreign environment all showcase how you are adaptable, push yourself out of your comfort zone and deal with stressful situations in a mature way.

Secondly, the use of exotic examples will make you memorable to the interviewer. If you think that they may interview 6 people in one day. Many graduates will all pull on university stock examples; a gap year story will stick in your interviewer’s mind.

All this said, once you have focused on your potential stories make sure you don’t waffle. Pick a highlight, a key point you are trying to make that relates to the question and ensure you give enough detail to exemplify your trait.

So now you’re prepared and know which scenarios are best to draw on for different questions, what can you do during your interview?

Talk Methodically Through Your Gap Year

You’ve prepared for questions where you can draw on your gap year experience but when you’re in interview how should you go about explaining your gap year?

Explain Your Reasons

It’s important that you showcase your gap year was a deliberate choice. Whether your motivation was to gain a sense of the world, understand different cultures or simply to take some time out before you have responsibilities these are all valuable reasons for taking a year out.

You can then explore how you used this drive and passion to see your planning and preparation through to ensure that your gap year came into fruition.

Follow Up With The Results

So you’ve put all this hard work in to making this dream year a reality. It’s now time to explain to your employer the benefits that helped improve you as a person and employee.

At this point you’ll hopefully have the interviewer on board but it’s no use just listing to him or her that you gained confidence, maturity, responsibility, etc. No instead, like any great essay you need evidence. Draw on those stories you’ve prepared and summarise the most important traits you gained, like the video below.

Which traits these are will widely depend on what sort of position you are applying for. Be sure to match your experience to that job role. John Lees emphasises the importance of always relating your experience to how this has made you the ideal candidate.

Judge the Situation

You’ve now spoken constructively and productively about your gap year and how this makes you stand out. It’s now time in the interview to take a moment to judge the situation.

All of us who have travelled know very well that you can talk about your life-changing experience for hours. However, it’s important to not waffle (read these 7 top tips to avoid waffling) and certainly do not use your gap year experience for the sake of it.

The interviewer will probably ask you to provide an example of a trait or skill, as looked at by Harvard University, which has put together some sample behavioural interview questions. If you have relevant experience from a similar job that perhaps you held during university then don’t pick a gap year story over the most relevant.

A gap year is great experience, but it is not the ONLY experience you have.

Be Confident and Own It

Nothing speaks louder than actions. Even if you don’t get a chance to speak about your gap year as much as you hoped. Or maybe you’re worried you didn’t express those traits well.

Remember that the biggest things you learnt from your gap year were probably confidence, adaptability and independence (I recently looked at How Travelling Boosts Personal Development, which you can look back at.) Keep this in your mind and exude those qualities.

It will be clear to an interviewer that you’re qualified for the position if you can express these qualities in your demeanour. You belong in this interview so go for it and embrace the challenge, just as you did when you stepped off that plane for the first time.

Interview Ready

There we have it, a few ways to start talking about your gap year in a productive way that will have your interviewer eating out of your hand. It’s time to stop shying away from talking about that gap year and embrace it for your future job interviews.

If you are about to head on a gap year, then it’s important to ensure you use your time productively so that you have those all important highlights.

Photo by Mish Sukharev.

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