Gap year programs can involve anything from volunteering to traveling to farming to studying, or any combination you can imagine. There is no clear-cut definition of a gap year because they are individualized to the people who are taking them. While one student may work for nine months to fund three months of solo travel, another student may be able to afford an all-inclusive gap year program. Some students may dream of formally studying Portuguese in Brazil while others may choose to move to France, work as au pairs, and immerse themselves in the culture that way.
The following list offers an idea of the options that are available, but isn’t all-inclusive. Talk to your high school guidance counselors. Look for programs through your prospective school. Apply for jobs in your hometown. Doing a little searching on your own will help you find or create the perfect gap year for you.
Participate in a gap year program.
USA Gap Year Fairs offers fairs around the country to expose students to their gap year program options. If there isn’t a fair near you, the website offers a list of (and links to) all the programs that might be advertised at a fair. You can narrow your search down by type: academic, adventure, community service, conservation, work, or travel and culture. The Gap Year Association maintains a list of accredited gap year programs that adhere to high standards of education and the safety of their participants.
Thinking Beyond Borders offers gap year programs that combine cultural immersion with education. Gap year programs are all different; they may involve travel, volunteering, internships, cultural immersion, or some combination. Certain programs may only travel to Asia while others focus on South America. Choosing a program is generally more expensive than volunteering for a nonprofit, finding an internship or job, or traveling on a budget. However, organized programs may offer experiences that you would have an otherwise hard time finding.
- Applying for gap year programs: The application deadlines vary by program and program length. For instance, Thinking Beyond Borders offers a Latin America Gap Semester, meaning there are two deadlines, one for the fall (July 31) and one for the spring (January 15). Oyster Worldwide links students with international volunteer and work opportunities throughout the year. Their search allows prospective participants to input their ideal project type, destination, the length of travel, and when they would like to start, and returns possible opportunities. If you have missed the deadline for a yearlong program, there are many shorter programs for which you can still apply. Consider working on another project (work, volunteering) closer to home until you can leave. However, if you are even thinking about a gap year, starting your search as early as possible (way before high school graduation) will guarantee you a range of choices.
You can volunteer either abroad or domestically, for a large nonprofit or a small, local one. There are drawbacks to volunteering abroad, however, as highlighted in the Huffington Post: Often people who volunteer abroad are doing it more for the experience than to make long-lasting progress in an underprivileged country. To make matters worse, young people often don’t have the necessary experience and skills to make a significant change abroad. This short-term volunteering abroad is being dubbed “voluntourism.”
It isn’t hard to make a real impact, though. Programs like AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity offer gap year students the opportunity to volunteer and make a difference in a meaningful way. AmeriCorps volunteers are stationed throughout the United States and may work on any number of projects: responding to natural disasters, clearing public trails, assisting senior citizens or homeless individuals, collaborating with FEMA, or expanding literacy, just to name a few. Generally, volunteers must be at least 18 years old and projects last 10 to 12 months.
Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization that offers both domestic and international long-term internships and positions to individuals who are interested in volunteering. The goal of Habitat for Humanity is to increase access to affordable housing worldwide, but projects also include disaster relief and neighborhood renovation and revitalization. Programs vary in length. Students may also be able to contact local volunteer organizations and work on various projects for the duration of their gap years.
Young people with an interest in agriculture, sustainability, and ecology often prefer to develop their knowledge and skills hands-on. Working at a farm, garden, or vineyard provides experience much more relevant to environmental interests than a college course would. Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an organization that connects volunteers with work opportunities at farms in over 50 countries.
For a small fee (usually $30-50), potential volunteers can access a network of organic farms in the country of their choice. The idea is that the farm will offer accommodations and food in exchange for four to six hours of daily work. If you’d like to volunteer on a farm, you must first subscribe to the network in the country of your choice. Then, you can browse different volunteer opportunities and make a final selection. Consider the work required, the accommodations you’ll have at the farm, and the length of the job.
Be an au pair or nanny.
An au pair is a young person (usually, but not always, female) who travels to a foreign country to work in a host family’s home. His or her tasks include housework and childcare. Many families prefer that their au pairs speak with their children exclusively in English. In exchange for work, the host family offers the au pair a weekly stipend and accommodations in the home. In fact, the term “au pair” is French for “on par.” The idea is that nannies are treated equally to (on par with) family members. They may receive additional benefits like airfare, a subway or bus card, paid utilities, a cell phone, or tuition at a local school. AuPairWorld allows you to create a profile and then search for family matches in any area of the world. If you already have a specific destination in mind, try one of dozens of websites, like Au Pair Paris or Au Pair in Spain.
If you’re looking for a bigger adventure that takes you to multiple destinations, consider a backpacking trip. These days, trekking across Europe or South America is almost a rite of passage for outdoorsmen and women everywhere. Sites like the Savvy Backpacker can help you map out your European itinerary. South America Backpacker can help you do the same south of the Equator. Long backpacking trips across foreign lands require a lot of planning beforehand. Travel blogger Nomadic Matt offers tips on banking, food, hostels, and more. You might also cut costs by using Couchsurf to sleep on locals’ couches for free.
Page last updated: 09/2018
Making the Decision to Take a Gap Year
Gap Years and College Applications
Alternatives to Four-Year College
Internships for College Students: What You Need to Know
Discover Four-Year Colleges
Community College: Why and How to Apply
Vocational Education Programs: Why and How to Apply
Online Degree Programs: Why and How to Apply
The Military: Why and How to Join