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How to Plan a Gap Year

Gap year. Two words that can conjure romantic images of months volunteering abroad yet simultaneously elicit panic and confusion. What is a gap year, anyway? And how do you make the most of it?

First, let’s define what a gap year is. A gap year is a period of structured time off between high school and college, meant to refresh your outlook, deepen your perspective, and provide a much-needed break from formal education. It’s essential that the time you take is well-planned, meaningful, and will benefit you in the long run as a person as well as a student.

One of the most popular options for a gap year is to volunteer, study, intern, or work internationally. Although the options can seem endless, start by narrowing down your interests. Some programs may last for a full year while others finish after a few months. You’ll have to be intentional about your goals so that you can develop a feasible, creative plan of action. Start by answering these questions:

1) What do you hope to accomplish during your gap year?

Gain a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Certification? Look into Oyster Worldwide’s TESOL in Thailand. Travel to multiple countries? Check out Cross-Cultural Solutions Around the World Gap Year. Volunteer in a developing community? Camps International Camp Kenya is a great option.

2) Is there an experience you've always wanted to have?

Do you love marine conservation? Consider Gap Force’s Marine Scientist Training. Want to work as an au pair? InterExchange’s Au Pair France might be right up your alley.

3) Is there a certain country you're interested in?

Consider programs that blend excursions with academics and language study, such as Where There Be Dragons China Semester or Aardvark Israel Immersion Programs.

4) Do you have a hobby or skill you would like to further develop or build on?

Perhaps you’re an outdoor person who is interested in the medical field. Blend wilderness adventure with rescue and leadership skills as part of NOLS Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester. If you would love to explore a number of different skills, Winterline’s Global Skills Gap Year Program will help you build over 100, from map reading to robotics.

5) Interested in all of the above?

Options like Youth International’s South America Program blend home stays, outdoor adventure, cultural exchange, and community service work into a comprehensive immersive experience. Become a Senegal Fellow with Global Citizen Year, and participate in flexible community apprenticeships combined with a home stay. LeapNow’s LEAPYEAR program, which counts as a full year of college, is an intensive year of internships, group travel, and retreats.

If it’s not possible (or you don’t want to) go abroad, there are plenty of wonderful experiences to be had stateside as well. Train in mountain sports in Montana at Ridge Mountain Academy, combine academics with wilderness expedition in Vermont during Kroka’s Winter Semester, build leadership skills with Outward Bound, or travel to Washington, D.C. for an academic and internship experience through American University Gap.

I narrowed it down. Now what?

Evaluate multiple program options and do your research. The Gap Year Association provides a range of programs that meet specific standards and are accredited by the American Gap Association, ensuring that you’ll have the safe, quality experience you’re looking for.

Next, decide how your gap year will play out. If you haven’t chosen a structured 9-12 month program, you’ll likely have to combine several experiences. While it requires more planning, choosing this route can offer financial benefits as well as exposure to multiple countries (or multiple parts of one country). You can choose two semester-long experiences, or blend a one-semester experience with an independent internship, work, or volunteer placement in the spring. For example, in the summer/fall, combine Pacific Discovery’s semester-long experience in Australia and New Zealand with several weeks of independent travel. In the spring, complete a 3-4 month-long Australian WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) placement, exchanging 4-6 hours of work per day for food and lodging.

Prepare for the unexpected.

When traveling for an extended period of time, you must be well-prepared. A crisis that occurs on a solo internship abroad is much different than a crisis at home. If traveling internationally, make sure passports, visas, and other paperwork are in order. Be sure you have up-to-date vaccinations and medications for the region you’re traveling to (such as antimalarials), that you’re protected by an appropriate insurance policy for health or medical emergencies, and that you check State Department travel advisories. Have a plan for how you will communicate with family members and friends and consider obtaining a global sim card, especially if you’re traveling to a developing nation.

And most importantly…

Plan to go back to school. Once you’ve had a taste of the real world, it may become difficult to head back to your studies, especially if you don’t have anything lined up. The best choice is to apply to college as usual during your senior year of high school. Once accepted and enrolled, submit a request to defer admission. Be sure that admission deferment is an option at the schools to which you are applying.

Once your deferment has been granted, it’s worth checking to see if it’s possible to gain college credit for your gap year experience. Additionally, be aware that financial aid packages may change if you choose to defer, so inquire with your school’s financial aid office about how deferment could impact your college budget.

A well-planned gap year teaches skills integral to a successful college experience, such as cultural awareness, work ethic, focus, and self-reliance, and can ultimately be applied to any career path. Having a set plan in place for how the time will unfold (and ultimately culminate) will help you make the most of your life-changing learning experience. Happy adventuring!

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