So, you’ve decided to take a gap year after high school. Now what? An internet search will reveal droves of possibilities, from international service learning to backcountry survival to language immersion. However, searching for gap year programs–all of which promise meaningful experiences and feature websites brimming with Instagram-worthy photos–can sometimes feel like browsing Facebook Marketplace for furniture. How do you spot the gems in the sea of “well-loved” (read: beat-up) particle board? Since the gap year program you choose could have an incredible impact on your life and career trajectory, read on for important considerations as well as a list of reputable options.

What are the qualities of solid gap year programs?

Gap year programs should meet high standards for communication, safety, and leadership. Accordingly, the Gap Year Association (GYA), a nonprofit recognized by the US Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission that works to develop gap year standards, recommends “starting with more structure and working into less,” and encourages prospective gappers to choose programs that allow them to hone skills related to independence, cross-cultural communication, and risk management. Moreover, the GYA–in addition to facilitating gap year conferences and professional development–oversees a stringent, multi-round accreditation process for organizations that offer a gap year after high school. Accreditation standards include those related to pedagogical integrity, leadership, support, safety, ethicality, and communication, among others. Most importantly, accredited programs offer college credit and allow students to use 529 savings accounts to cover associated fees.

As such, all programs below either feature a GYA Accredited Program Seal or are listed in GYA’s Member Program directory. Although Member Programs have not undergone the accreditation process, they have satisfied eligibility criteria related to length of time in business, insurance/registration, risk management, and organizational information availability.

For my gap year to be recognized by colleges, do I have to choose a GYA-accredited program?

No, but not all gap years are created equal, particularly in regard to safety and communication. For example, if you’ll be in a remote location, does your gap year program have a contingency plan for medical emergencies? Does the program respect the local community in which it operates? What type of training is required of program leaders? In addition, if the program partners with outside organizations for volunteer and internship placements, do those programs operate with a similarly high level of safety and integrity?

The bottom line: spend ample time vetting your gap year after high school. Read reviews. Ask gap year programs for an alumni contact list. Attend a USA Gap Year Fair to explore and chat with program providers.

If a gap year program is not GYA-accredited, make sure that the one you choose has similar standards of operation. To that end, some highly respected, non-GYA-accredited gap year programs include The Intern Group, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps (3-12 month options are available in certain fields), City Year, and Habitat for Humanity.

Gap Year Program List

After identifying eight popular gap year program categories, we rounded up a diverse array of possibilities. In each category, we’ve profiled 2-3 providers who offer programs of various lengths. Since your gap year after high school can be a full year experience or combination of shorter experiences, you might choose to mix and match depending on your interests and goals

1. International Gap Year Programs

Where There Be Dragons

Where There Be Dragons provides an “unfiltered” and rugged experience to program participants, who will travel responsibly and experience day-to-day life in a particular community. Accordingly, examples include “Environmental Sustainability and Community Happiness” in Bhutan to “Mandarin Language Immersion” in Taiwan.

  • Length: 3 months or 1 year
  • Tuition: ranges from $6,750 (independent programs) to $18,950 (structured programs)
  • Locations: Taiwan, Indonesia, South America, Nepal, Southeast Asia, China, Bhutan, Guatemala, Western US, Morocco, West Africa, Southern US
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Global Citizen Year’s Take Action Lab Experience

While living with other students from all over the world, you’ll apprentice at a South African human rights institution for 4-5 days a week. Apprenticeships can be in areas from food security to girls empowerment to early childhood education. In addition, there are ample cultural immersion opportunities.

  • Length: 4 months
  • Tuition: $21,000
  • Location: Cape Town, South Africa
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Irish Gap Year

Three semester-length programs are offered: the Adventure Leadership Program (Irish nature and culture immersion) the Irish Arts & Culture Program (arts community immersion), and the European Expedition Program (history and outdoor adventure). They also offer a 10-week internship program where you’ll work 40 hours a week in Dublin while living with a host family.

  • Length: 10-11 weeks
  • Tuition: ranges from $6,750 (internship program) to ~$18,000–27,000 (semester-length programs)
  • Location: Ireland and Europe
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Additional International Program Providers: Carpe Diem Education, ARCC, EF, The Leap, CIEE Global Navigator, Pacific Discovery.

Looking for a more independent international option? Check out Omprakash’s Widening Circles Program.

2. Outdoor/Wilderness Gap Year Programs

National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

In addition to gaining leadership skills, students can explore the wilderness, participate in homestays, engage with the local culture, and take part in service learning experiences. For example, courses in Tanzania include a service and cultural exchange expedition, a scientific research expedition, and a 2 ½ month bush camping and homestay experience.

  • Length: 1-3 months
  • Tuition: ranges from ~$7,000-$24,000, depending on program location and length
  • Locations: Tanzania, India, Alaska, Mexico, New Zealand, Patagonia, Pacific Northwest, Utah, Rocky Mountains, Adirondacks, Wyoming, Teton Valley, Southwestern US
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Tidelines Institute’s Glacier Bay Year

Programming includes seminar-style academic classes that cover topics from ecology to literature as well as 20 hours per week of community labor (which can range from building fences to gathering kelp). In addition, students “form a political body that partially governs their own program,” live in tight-knit quarters, and explore the Alaskan wilderness.

  • Length: 6 months
  • Tuition: $46,750
  • Location: Southeast Alaska
  • GYA Status: Member

Living City Project’s CityGAP

Remote locales and solar showers not your jam? Based in NYC, this outdoor experiential program features topics like urban planning, crisis response, equity and diversity, identity and civic imagination, and arts & culture. Finally, each semester includes an internship and an individual project.

  • Length: 14 weeks
  • Tuition: $9,750
  • Current Location: New York City
  • GYA Status: Member

Additional Outdoor/Wilderness Experience Providers: Adventure Treks, Outward Bound, Kroka Expeditions, High Mountain Institute, Alzar Gap, Gap at Glen Brook.

3. Career-Focused Gap Year Programs

Absolute Internship

Through both on-site and remote internships, students can choose to gain skills and experience in 1 of 26 different industries, from architecture to entrepreneurship to publishing.

  • Length: 4-24 weeks, depending on location
  • Tuition: ranges from ~$2,000-10,000, depending on location and program length
  • Locations: Virtual, Barcelona, Beijing, Hong Kong, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Stockholm, Tokyo
  • GYA Status: Member

Dynamy

An experiential education program that encourages career exploration and life skill building, Dynamy provides internship placements in one of nine areas (ranging from automotive to culinary to business management). Also, students participate in workshops, mentoring, and adventure challenges.

  • Length: 4 months (semester); 9 months (full year)
  • Tuition: $12,000 (semester); $23,500 (full year)
  • Location: Worcester, Massachusetts
  • GYA Status: Accredited

4. Seafaring Gap Year Programs

Sea|mester

During their voyage, students will receive a high-quality academic experience while traveling the world and gaining competency in a laundry list of areas, from sailing to SCUBA to ecological awareness. For example, the “Antigua to Grenada” voyage focuses on marine biology while “Caribbean to Mediterranean” focuses on bluewater sailing.

  • Length: 20-90 days
  • Tuition: ranges from ~$7,000~30,000
  • Locations: Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Pacific, Indian Ocean
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Sea Education Association (SEA)

Every program follows a shore-to-sea model. As such, students spend several weeks preparing for their voyage at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts before setting sail. Current sessions focus on climate change, biodiversity, and environmental justice.

  • Length: 3 months
  • Tuition: $18,500 (non-credit); $29,900 (credit)
  • Location: Woods Hole, Massachusetts (shore); Tahiti, St. Croix, Key West (sea)
  • GYA Status: Member

International Field Studies’ Forfar Marine Science Program

In addition to earning their PADI Open and Advanced SCUBA certifications, students will cover topics like Bahamian culture, climate change, ecotourism, and blue hole water chemistry through lectures and hands-on labs.

  • Length: 6 weeks
  • Tuition: $5,499
  • Location: Andros, Bahamas
  • GYA Status: Member

5. Academic Gap Year Programs

Greene’s College Oxford

Via Oxford and Cambridge’s signature tutorial style of teaching, students will explore three to four subjects of their choice. They’ll also have many social and cultural opportunities within the surrounding city.

  • Length: anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months
  • Tuition: tailored to each student depending on number of subjects
  • Current Location: Oxford, UK
  • GYA Status: Member

IYRS School of Technology and Trades

Three STEM-based, hands-on certificates are offered: Composites Technology, Digital Modeling and Fabrication, and Marine Systems. Students will design and build projects that could range from surfboards to drones.

  • Length: 6-9 months
  • Tuition: ranges from $21,000-25,500, depending on program
  • Current Location: Newport, Rhode Island
  • GYA Status: Member

School of the New York Times

An entryway into journalism, NYT’s gap year program gives students the opportunity to explore a social, cultural, or global topic each week. They’ll also receive mentoring and attend professional development and life skills workshops.

  • Length: 6-12 weeks
  • Tuition: $9,975 (6 weeks); $17,950 (12 weeks)
  • Current Location: New York City
  • GYA Status: Member

6. Sustainability/Conservation Gap Year Programs

Animal Experience International

Whether you want to make a difference in the lives of bats, dogs, sharks, or elephants, you’ll be able to do it through AEI. All programs follow the consent-based tourism model and adhere to the highest standards of animal welfare.

  • Length: 2-4 weeks, but can plan longer experiences
  • Tuition: ranges from $1,000-3,000, depending on program length
  • Locations: Australia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Thailand, Mexico, Cuba, Mongolia, Spain, Nepal, Kenya, Croatia, South Africa
  • GYA Status: Member

Rising Earth Immersion

For students who are interested in environmental sustainability, social and ecological justice, and community living, Rising Earth has it all. Topics include permaculture, homesteading, and mindfulness.

  • Length: Semester
  • Tuition: N/A
  • Current Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • GYA Status: Accredited

7. Creativity/Arts Gap Year Programs

Pizarts

An artist mentor and portfolio design program, Pizarts gives dancers the ability to increase their creativity, create individual film projects, and engage with the community.

  • Length: 4 weeks (Puerto Rico); 3 months (NYC)
  • Tuition: $3,500 (Puerto Rico); $15,500 (NYC)
  • Locations: Puerto Rico and NYC
  • GYA Status: Member

Cow House Studios

Students spend a semester making new artwork and honing their creative practice via open-ended studio time as well as workshops. Mediums include drawing & painting, digital & darkroom photography, video & animation, and sculpture & installation.

  • Length: 12 weeks
  • Tuition: ~$17,000
  • Location: Wexford, Ireland
  • GYA Status: Member

Berridge Creative Semester

After choosing an artistic concentration (options include film, theater, studio art, music, or stage/screen design), students participate in related classes and workshops. They’ll also be immersed in French culture.

  • Length: 3 months
  • Tuition: $16,500
  • Current Location: Normandy, France
  • GYA Status: Member

8. Language Immersion Gap Year Programs

Amigos De Las Americas

While living with a host family in Ecuador, you’ll intern with a local organization and be immersed in Spanish language and culture. In addition, you’ll receive leadership training and participate in group excursions.

  • Length: 15 or 36 weeks
  • Tuition: $13,775 (15 weeks); $24,795 (36 weeks)
  • Location: Cuenca, Ecuador
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Chinese Gap Year in Taipei

Students will improve their Chinese via intensive classes and 1:1 sessions, participate in cultural immersion, and travel. One quarter is equivalent to a full year of university Chinese.

  • Length: 3, 6, 9, or 12 months
  • Tuition: ranges from ~$6,000-8,000 per quarter
  • Current Location: Taipei City, Taiwan
  • GYA Status: Accredited

Siena Italian Studies

In addition to participating in service learning and living with a host family, students will immerse themselves in Italian language and culture. They are required to take a 3-week Italian intensive followed by a semester-long Italian course.

  • Length: 4-16 weeks
  • Tuition: ranges from ~$5,000-18,000, depending on program length
  • Current Location: Siena, Italy
  • GYA Status: Member

Final Thoughts – Gap Year After High School

Your gap year can take you literally anywhere in the world and provide you with skills and experiences that will last for a lifetime. Therefore, spend time choosing a gap year provider that adheres to high standards for programming, safety, and leadership–you’ll be glad you did.