Moving towards plan B: Use the gap to get ahead

So you have your matric results and they are not what you expected? You might not have done as well as you hoped and not got into the institution you applied for. ­Perhaps you have been told that you have not been accepted into your preferred course but have been offered a place for a course you have not heard of or one you do not really want. Or perhaps you have done better than you expected, but have not applied for anything and are now full of regrets.

How do you move on from here? How do you pick yourself up and make the most of the year that lies ahead? Let us look at your options and the various scenarios:

You did not get into your institution of choice
First consider your original choice. Did you actually meet the ­requirements for admission from the outset? Many applicants gloss over this and do not realise that there are specific subjects that you need for specific courses. “Required” subjects are what you must have. “Recommended” courses are just that — nice to have but if you do not have them you are still eligible to apply.

However, this may mean that applicants who have both required and recommended courses may get in ahead of you. Any institution will outline the points that you need to be considered for a course. Take note though: being considered and ­getting accepted are not the same thing. Many institutions have hundreds more applicants than places to fill. You may face stiff competition, especially for well-known courses, such as medicine or engineering.

It is very common for applicants to put all their eggs in one basket and fall short by doing this. An example of this at the University of Cape Town is when would-be applicants put both their first and second choices in the same faculty — for example, first choice medicine, ­second choice physiotherapy. Both these courses receive thousands of applications for very few places. It is not uncommon for above-average matric candidates to be refused both courses and then they do not get a place in other faculties because they are already full.

So you may find that you have to go back to the drawing board. We will consider later what you could do with the year, but one thing you must do is research your options more thoroughly. Start by finding out why you did not get into the course you wanted. The reasons may help you to know what to do. Some candidates choose to rewrite certain key subjects, such as maths or science, but this does not always guarantee acceptance the second time around. Consider too that if your maths and science marks were poor even though you worked very hard, would you enjoy or even manage a course that relies on expertise in those subjects?

It is a different matter if your circumstances were key factors in making you perform poorly — you might have experienced poor teaching or no science laboratories, for instance. Here your marks may be a poor reflection of your ability, which is why tertiary institutions have alternative admissions tests to identify ability. Make sure you ask institutions you apply to whether they have an alternative admissions programme. You may be eligible for entrance into a programme that provides extra tuition and support in the first few years so that you are not disadvantaged by poor schooling.

Think about why you chose your course in the first place. Have you applied for a course because it is one that you have heard of or that has been suggested to you by parents or teachers? There may well be a host of other possibilities in other faculties or other institutions that you do not know about that have easier entrance requirements and subject matter that you will enjoy.

Lack of proper research of study options is common. Most failing or unhappy tertiary students admit to making incorrect assumptions about the courses they are doing and to not doing sufficient research about courses. Remember that at tertiary institutions there are many courses with subject matter that you do not come across at school and may not have heard of.

So be ­adventurous in your research. Also look at other ­institutions that you had not considered.

You have nothing in place for 2012
Perhaps you did not apply for ­anything because you did not know what to apply for or did not think you would do well or could not afford to? If you have nothing else in place, do not despair. The year ahead may seem daunting, but you have two things in your favour that are immensely important for making study ­decisions: time and head space. There are many ways that you could use this year that will help you to move forward.

Research study and financial aid options
Start by thoroughly considering your options. Information from institutions can be daunting but use as many sources as possible to find out about your options. Try not to limit your search to one institution. Try to look at all the faculties of an ­institution. (See “Researching your study options”)

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme assists students who cannot afford to study. This is ­government money given to all institutions and administered by them. You may have to apply for a course of study first and then for financial assistance. Ask the institution to which you are applying what its financial aid scheme entails or ­contact the National Student Financial Aid Scheme directly: Tel (021) 763 3232, email: [email protected], website: .

Get paid or voluntary work
Use the rest of the year to put ­yourself in new situations. Many matrics fear stagnating and ­getting lazy if they do not study after school. But that is up to you. Sleeping late, partying and watching lots of ­television will not help you to make the most of the year. You will have to be proactive. You do not have to be studying to make progress on your skills development and formation of career ideas.

Any work experience can be ­useful and can be part of your career ­building. Remember, being a ­waiter can expose you to skills such as dealing with customers, working under ­pressure and having to manage your time. These are useful, transferable skills needed in many graduate jobs later on. As a matriculant you must accept that you will not necessarily find a job through the newspaper or on the internet but may personally have to visit places you are interested in, taking your CV with you. Put the word out to ­people in your family and the community that you are looking for a job. You might be surprised at what you could secure on a short-term basis.

Also consider voluntary work. This is an excellent way to get experience in an area you are interested in. If you are committed and reliable in a ­voluntary position, some organisations pay a small stipend for your travel costs. So think of your interests: if you love children, consider crèches, schools and childrens’ homes. If you love sport, consider helping out with coaching or volunteering for the committee of a sports club or a gym. If you love animals, consider vets, animal rescue organisations, ­aquariums or grooming parlours. If film-directing fascinates you, become an extra or a runner on a film shoot. Use your ­hobbies and interests to give you ideas. If you are in an interesting ­environment take every opportunity to learn and ask questions.

Do a short course
By this time of the year ­applications to universities and universities of technology are generally closed, other than for short courses. So consider doing a short course elsewhere that could give you a useful skill. Many colleges still accept applications in January and this could be an opportunity to do a short course in an area that ­interests you. It could also serve as a way of testing out a subject area you are considering without committing to two or three years of study. A client I dealt with did a commercial banking course that provided her with a skill that secured her jobs that funded her studies later on.

Do the things you never have time for, including careers research
Get your driver’s licence or apply for your passport. Also use this time to find out about careers that you are curious about or are considering. If you know someone who has a job that interests you, ask if you can interview him or her for 30 minutes. Ask about the job, what he or she studied, what skills are needed and the worst and best aspects of the job. This is a valuable reality check and will help to ensure you do not have unrealistic or romantic ideas about certain careers. This is called informational interviewing. Find out more at .

So it is definitely not the end of the world if you are suddenly faced with an unplanned gap year. Many students we have met who were in this situation reflect that it was the best thing that happened to them. It gave them time to take stock and reconsider their options. There is so much ahead of you that will shape you and mould your choices. You have not missed the boat. Take it a step at a time and make the most of the opportunities this year will provide.

Researching your study options

  • Write to as many institutions as you can to request their 2013 prospectuses;
  • Make an appointment with the admissions office to discuss ­anything you do not understand in the prospectus;
  • If you are interested in a ­particular degree and diploma, find out what subjects or ­modules it ­contains. If this is not in the ­prospectus or on the website of the institution, contact it for more information. This will give you more of an idea of what to expect;
  • Make sure you attend open days. Do some reading beforehand and use the day to ask questions and clarify your options;
  • Ask for the course outlines of the subjects you are looking at. Many applicants make wrong ­assumptions about what subjects are about;
  • Speak to friends and ­relatives who are studying at the ­institutions you are considering. Ask to see their textbooks and course notes and find out if you can attend a day of lectures with them;
  • Some institutions have a “buddy” system that enables you to link up with a registered student and attend lectures with them; and
  • Concentrate more on the ­subjects you would study rather than the career you would go into at the end of the course. Choosing a course that you think you would be good at and enjoy is the first step. Career options with your course are often more varied and complex than you may imagine and you will have plenty of time to research your career options while studying. Your career options are not necessarily set in stone once you have made your study choices.

Ingrid van der Merwe is a senior careers adviser at the Careers ­Service: Centre for Higher ­Education Development, University of Cape Town. Her particular area of interest is pre-admissions career and study choices.

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