Being just about to begin my second year of A-levels, I (and every other seventeen year old) am faced with the decision of what to do with myself once school finishes for good. All of the power is put into our hands as we choose whether to apply to a university or an apprenticeship, take a gap year or go straight into work. After speaking to a few other students with different perspectives on the topic, here are some of the most common pros and cons for each option, as seen through the eyes of those making the decisions.
First of all, the most traditional and popular route: University. Pushed by schools and colleges, university is presented as the most “respectable” option and tutors and careers advisors are able to offer masses of resources to help with the application process. Perhaps the most appealing benefit of university is the lifestyle and the idea of being able to live like a student for longer. Meeting new people, moving to a different city, partying and “living your best life” is an undoubtedly pull for many teenagers. Not having to grow up and enter the world of 9 to 5 jobs immediately gives an opportunity to experience more of the world before settling down. In addition to this, the idea of doing a degree and getting to further study your favourite subject is appealing. Furthermore, an increased number of universities offer foundation courses which provides an alternative route to university and allows students to test the waters of their chosen degree before committing. However, there is one glaring, ugly disadvantage to university: debt. Student loans and tuition fees are scary and complicated to understand. As well as this, university being such a popular route means that there are so many postgraduates coming out with little to distinguish themselves from one another. Another disadvantage to consider is the lack of practical skills that may be gained through more hands on routes, as discussed below.
The next, quickly emerging option is apprenticeships which have the undeniable advantage over universities as they allow money to be earned rather than debt to be accumulated. Being able to earn whilst gaining hands on, practical experience allows future candidates to stand out from the crowd of postgraduates. However, apprenticeships seem to have a lasting stigma around them for being a less academic option for those who couldn’t get into university. Furthermore, schools give very little information and support to students considering these options and so the process of applying appears much harder. Finally, it seems as if an apprenticeship denies teenagers the ability to live the student lifestyle and forces us to grow up perhaps more quickly than preferable.
A Gap Year
Next there’s the idealistic option of the gap year. The stereotype of “finding yourself in Thailand” appeals to so many people because it allows students who have been in the education system for years to take a year out or more to travel, work and just experience life out from behind a desk. It allows time to pursue other passions and interests and gives opportunities to discover different cultures, people and learn real life skills that can’t be taught by a teacher. However dreamy this sounds, the price tag brings this option back to ground. All of this discovery has to be funded and unless you have rich parents willing to finance this adventure, have been saving up for years or planning on working the year, it is quite a challenging goal to make real. Plus, if not properly planned, the year could easily turn into a waste.
Finally, the option of going straight into work means that money is instantly being earnt and puts students straight onto the career path, building up a CV and practical skills which other options may not offer. However, this does mean that students are forced straight into the adult world of work and opportunities such as student travel, friendships and lifestyle may be missed. As well as this, going straight into work means less opportunity for further learning.
Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the choice isn’t as clear cut as it once was. Universities have been forced to cancel open days and whilst online alternatives have been provided, it isn’t the same. Many students may choose to hold back a year meaning that next year’s entries may be more competitive or teenagers may look to pick less traditional routes such as a gap year. However, travel bans may mean these plans have to be put on hold as well. The situation with the economy means jobs and apprenticeships may not be as widely available. As well as all of this doom and gloom, no contact with careers advisors has meant a serious lack of help with personal statements, UCAS applications and general advice.
However, on a more positive note, attitudes towards apprenticeships and going straight into work have changed and people are starting to be far more aware of the pros these options offer. There are companies and organisations offering voluntary work placements abroad for gap years and universities are becoming more aware of the strain debt may put on lower income families and are offering more support and implementing measures to make sure the student intake is more diverse than ever. Besides, if plan A doesn’t work out, there are still 25 other letters in the alphabet!