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Gap years, volunteering and charity work for graduates - what are my options?

The immediate, post-uni period is filled with common feelings and experiences among new graduates. There is the undoubted sense of pride, relief and sheer elation that the exams and coursework are finally over and all that hard work has paid off. For many, it's the perfect time to take stock, consider the future and enjoy a well-earned break without any real worries or pressures. For many others, though, it may be a period of acute fear and uncertainty as life-changing career choices loom large and new graduates are faced with the daunting prospect of actually joining the "real world". For all these feelings and experiences, a gap year may well be the answer.

Certainly, tight economic times and the growing number of graduates emerging from Britain's universities mean that landing that all-important first job is becoming ever harder. According to a poll of 200 major firms by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, members of the Class of 2010 are vying with an average of up to 70 other applicants when they attempt to secure a job. Given such stiff recruitment competition and the general longing of many new graduates for an extended berth of freedom, it's small wonder a large proportion opt for the gap year route.

Yet nor should such an option be regarded as a simple cop-out from the task of getting hired. It has long been a jobs market truth that employers respect graduates who have shown initiative through extensive - and enriching - extra-curricular activities. Martin Pennington, director of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, notes that there are certain value-adding extras that university leavers can undertake which may help them gain an advantage over other applicants. "These are not just things that you do if you fancy it or you've got the time, but things that are highly regarded - to the extent that they are going to be included on degree reports and therefore form part of your offer to any potential employer," he says.

Whether it be internships, volunteering and charity work or an extended period of frivolous globetrotting, the gap years business is an ever-growing one which presents a huge amount of options to university leavers. At RealGap.co.uk, for example, site visitors can find a range of guidance and possibilities for long-term travelling adventures, with expeditions, hiking and sports coaching among the featured links.

Prospective gap year takers are also encouraged to incorporate certain philanthropic ventures such as teaching English in the deprived school of a developing country or working as a conservation volunteer in an overseas national park. As RealGap.co.uk observes, such work could also add significant weight to a personal CV. "Education brings understanding, job prospects, confidence and so much more - you could be involved in bringing that to people," it says. 

Others looking for a more dedicated volunteering experience might consider joining the cause of a charity during their gap year. Amnesty International runs a volunteer programme at its offices in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, with participants encouraged to get involved in a range of different campaign roles including marketing, media and general support. 

Among the gap year opportunities, the organisation offers graduates the chance to "develop skills, knowledge and experience in computer literacy, dealing with public enquiries, office administration and team-working" while having an "opportunity to be a part of an exciting programme of work, making a real difference to people's lives". As an added benefit for new graduates, Amnesty says that those who have worked with the organisation for three months or more can request a reference as well as advice on interview techniques when they come to apply for a job. It's an offer that shouldn't be sniffed at - particularly when the jobs market remains so competitive.

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