Unsure About University? Our Guide to Gap Years in 2021

Called intercalating, or taking a gap year, many students decide to take a year out rather than go straight from secondary school to university.

Called intercalating, or taking a gap year, not all students decide to go straight from secondary school to university.

Some students decide early on that they'll take a gap year, to gain further qualifications, experience, or even put aside some savings before going off to university. Others might have a change of heart and want more time to make a decision, and others still take a break to make new plans if Results Day didn't go as expected.

For other students, it’s a more open-ended decision to give themselves time to try other things and decide whether university is truly the best path for them.

For other students, it’s a more open-ended decision to give themselves time to try other things and decide whether university is truly the best path for them.

Even if this isn’t the case, familiarising yourself with alternative options can be a good way to make sure you’re definitely applying to university for the right reasons, that you’re making the right choice.

So what could you do with a year out?

Foundation courses

Foundation courses in the UK are 1-year programmes which students take between secondary school and university, designed to help prepare students for further academic study. They can be offered by both universities and UK colleges.

A standard requirement for certain practical arts degrees (like photography and visual arts), they are also common for science and training degrees, as well as international-student specific courses designed to equip you for higher education in English.

Depending on your home country and chosen curriculum, you may be required to complete a foundation course as part of your undergraduate admissions requirements: this is because a lot of countries around the world are one year shorter at high school, but one year longer at university, compared to the UK.

Note: Don’t confuse foundation courses with foundation degrees. Foundation degrees are 2+ year hybrid degrees (half-academic, half-practical workplace experience) which are an alternative to traditional vocational degrees.

MOOCs and language courses

Many universities offer free courses to the public, giving students an opportunity to explore fields they’re passionate about, or which they might never have considered! Many people don’t realise so many interesting, free programmes exist, but there are countless options: Harvard University alone offers over 600 free online courses.

MOOC are great examples of these kinds of courses. The acronym stands for Massive Open Online Courses, and they can cover academic subjects, career development, application preparation, supplemental learning, corporate eLearning and training, and much more. 

Another educational option is to focus on your language skills. You can even find providers who combine intensive language courses with immersive travel abroad programmes.

Resits, retakes, and remarks

To have your grades remarked is to appeal to the exam board to reconsider your score. A resit is to redo one specific assessment, and a retake means redoing all of the marked components of a course.

Most curriculums allow students to ask to do a combination of the above, including the International Baccalaureate and A-Levels.

If it’s an English Language Test you’ve not met the results for, and you can’t retake it in time, it’s worth seeing if your first choice university accepts results from alternative providers with quicker turnaround results, like TOEFL or, even faster, DEP (the Duolingo at-home exam).

Note: Though we’ve linked providers’ lists of universities which recognise these qualifications, universities can update requirements at the last moment, especially during Clearing: it’s imperative that you check with your individual university directly!


If you’re all set when it comes to your academic achievements - meaning you don’t need different results or a foundation course to meet your future entry requirements - a year out can instead be any excellent chance to dip your toe into the world of work. 

Students choose to pursue all kinds of paid work on their year out. For some, this means finding a job in a field related to what they’d like to study, whereas for others it’s just a means to end, so they can save up money for their studies.

Though we’d absolutely recommend trying to find something related to a field you’d like to pursue at university, even a totally unrelated job can still teach you some valuable transferable skills: bartending can teach you valuable money-management and people skills, for example, whilst teaching young kids could help you discover a passion for education.


What exactly is the difference between a job and an internship? Well, in theory, internships are a halfway point between classroom learning and practical professional experience.

In practice, it’s a little more complicated and can depend from one internship and job to the next. As a general rule of thumb, however, internships provide you with the chance to gain valuable professional experience in fields you otherwise would not have the qualifications, or required skill set, to work in.

It’s also worth saying that internships can be either paid or unpaid - but either way it’s rare for people to earn as much as they would in a job. Unfortunately, this means that they’re not accessible to everyone.

One silver lining of COVID-19, however, is that the amount of digital internships (also called virtual internships) available has grown exponentially: suddenly, students like yourselves can apply for positions all over the world, without worrying about living costs (if staying at home is an option) or visas!

Top tip: Got a virtual interview? Looking straight into the camera is the best way to mimic eye contact with your interviewer, but it’s not always the easiest thing to remember to do!

If, after a few practice calls, you feel like you still can’t get the hang of it, shrink your own video tile (or your interviewer's) and manually position it at the very top of the middle of your screen. It’ll give the illusion that you’re actually looking straight into the camera.


One time-honoured tradition of taking a gap year, especially amongst UK university goers?

If done right, travelling abroad for your gap year can be immensely professionally (and personally) fulfilling. From broadening your horizons to actually work experience abroad (hello internships to volunteer experience). 

Travelling key is to plan strategically, and to think ahead about what you’d like to get out of each experience, and set yourself regular achievable goals.

You can either plan travel around work and professional opportunities, or look for organisations who offer gap year packages for students which combine travel with either paid, or unpaid internships.

Some companies require students to pay them for the experience. This is often to cover the costs of accommodation, food, visas, travel, and leisure activities… but beware of exploitative voluntourism packages which often take advantage of both volunteers and local communities themselves.

Now, we know, this year it’s a little more complicated. COVID-19 travel requirements are still evolving every few weeks and international border restrictions fluctuating.

In fact, unlike in other years, it’s probably unwise to allow travel to be the sole - or even main - motivation for taking a gap year. Students should be mindful of the fact that travel plans could get cancelled at the last minute.

Remember, it’s more important than ever to consider how easy it would be to get home, and what resources you’d need at your destination should your return travel be delayed.

It's also worth noting that many gap year programmes are advertising full refunds if COVID-19 forces students to cancel. These can be a good option if you’re feeling uncertain about committing.

When will you apply to university?

Some students choose to wait until their gap year to apply for university, as they plan to use the time to do a little soul-searching or pursue activities which will help them stand out as applicants.

Others apply in their final year of secondary school for the following academic year. Called deferred entry, it means that you’ll already have your place this autumn for next September, and you can focus your gap year on all of the fun things above - not more applications.

Thinking about the UK? You actually can apply for deferred 2022 entry through Clearing, both as a direct applicant (meaning you’ve not yet applied to a UK university this year), or as an existing applicant (meaning you’ve declined or missed your existing offers and are now looking for an alternative course).

Some universities, having seen a drop in student enrollment both in 2020 and 2021, have slightly lowered their entry requirements. This has got some students predicting that, come 2022, university admission requirements will be much harsher, and feel pressure to apply this year.

Other students, however, think it’s wiser to wait and see. The truth is, the right decision is the one that feels right to you. To learn more about 2021 opportunities and applying this year, visit the rest of our Results Resources