How do you fry a young brain? Hannibal Lector could offer you a few tips - as, no doubt, could the staff running some of Britain's top seats of learning. For summer is not a happy time for finalists.
Exams, dissertations and the overbearing knowledge that how you perform may well affect your future prosperity, happiness, and well-being, all combine to create one of the most stressful and mentally gruelling experiences of your life.
No wonder then that so many decide they need a break from it all. Last summer, an estimated 150,000 students and graduates took time out for some travelling - and the numbers are rising.
Many of those were recent graduates surprised to find the job market so competitive, says gapyear.com founder Tom Griffiths. "There's a gap between what graduate recruit- ers are asking for and the skills many graduates actually have when they leave university," he says. "Many people finish their studies expecting to walk into a great job, then discover just how difficult that is - so they decide to go travelling, instead.
"A year out can be a great opportunity to build up the skills employers are looking for while also having some unforgettable, life-changing experiences."
But won't falling a year behind your peers in the job market damage your long-term career prospects? Not necessarily, says Keith Dugdale, head of recruitment and resourcing at KPMG.
"It's absolutely critical you have experiences outside of your degree if you want a decent job. If you have a good degree, plus evidence of personal development, plus work experience, then you'll be top of the tree, and a gap year can be a real asset to your CV."
Just how useful your gap year is, however, comes down to two crucial factors, says Keith.
"The first thing we look for during interviews is how a candidate has actually spent their year out - the more stretching, challenging or interesting their experience has been, the more interested we're going to be in them. There's a huge difference between stacking shelves in Tesco for twelve months and working on an Aids project in Africa.
"The second critical factor we look for is whether they have reflected on the experience - what have they actually learned? We find that a lot of people look good on paper, but in an interview can't talk sensibly about what they've taken away from the experience and how it has actually changed them for the better."
One popular option is to join a structured programme run by one of the established gap year organisations - a choice made by graduates Lisa Berwin, Edd McCracken and Megan Davies.
Like many on a gap year, Lisa Berwin, 23, planned to combine several months of care-free travel with a stint of volunteer work - choosing i-to-i, one of the largest year out groups. She spent six months travelling in New Zealand, Australia and south-east Asia, before taking up a two-month journalism placement at a newspaper in Sri Lanka.
The experience proved even more startling than she'd expected though - her placement began just two weeks after the devastating Asian tsunami. "It was very scary before I got there," she says, "I had no idea what to expect. They sent me out to interview survivors and aid workers. It was very upsetting seeing all the suffering and being able to help so little - but the small things you do really can make a difference. I spent a lot of my free time working at a nearby school and managed to raise enough money to replace their piano that had been destroyed by the flooding. A lot of people remarked on how grown up I seemed when I returned to Britain. I know it's a clichÃš but it really did change me as a person - I feel so much more confident after spending time away." The experience also provided her with a job: she now works as a copywriter for i-to-i.
Edd McCracken, 26, works at the Sunday Herald, but before settling down to his career as a journalist, he decided to do something completely different. "I always wanted to get into journalism, so my gap year was more about taking a break from the stress of studying and looking for a job. I just decided to enjoy myself and do something really random - and I'm really glad I did. It made me lighten up and not be so worried about where my career was going."
With the help of Bunac, Edd obtained work visas for the United States and Canada, and spent over six months travelling and working on numerous jobs, ranging from a bouncer at an Irish pub in Seattle, to a deck hand on a sail boat, to a ski rental technician in the Canadian Rockies.
"I don't agree with the whole 'getting it out of your system' attitude to gap years because I still enjoy travelling, but I definitely feel more settled in my job now than I would if I hadn't gone away - it was a really positive experience for me and really cleared my head. I've made some great friends all around the world."
Megan Davies, 23, decided she wanted some time out between finishing her degree and starting her masters in geophysical hazards, so joined a 10-week programme in Chile run by the youth development charity Raleigh International.
The scheme was broken down into three phases - environment, community and adventure - during which her team helped build a medical centre on a remote island, assisted with a road construction project, and then went sea kayaking for three weeks.
"I had an absolutely fantastic time - the locals were so friendly; and we saw penguins, sea lions and seals when we were kayaking; it was torrential rain one day, amazing sunshine the next - the trip has given me memories I'll keep with me forever.
"It made me realise that you can't just wait and hope something will happen for you - you can achieve anything but you have to go out and make it happen."
- Got more questions about gap years? Come to the Mind the Gap session at the Guardian Summer Graduate Fair on June 7.
Saturday May 28, 2005