How to Plan A Gap Year

April 18, 2018
Year On TeamGap Years

Sometimes, being a student involves an anxiety-inducing combo of bad nerves and uncertainty about the future. There’s a heap of pressure to start “adulting” and to make major decisions about your educational and professional goals. Take this tale of two such students.

Student A is at the very end of their senior year and gearing up for college. Or, at least that’s what everyone says she’s supposed to do, right? However, she’s not totally convinced by all the hype.

Student B is a college freshman feeling out of touch with university life. He’s super unmotivated by his courses, yet he’s feeling pressured to declare a major.

For both students, a gap year sounds like the perfect way to self-reflect and figure out their next goals in life. However, they’re overwhelmed about how to plan a gap year. With this guide, you can organize a successful gap year and return home with newfound clarity about your next steps.

Deciding How You Want to Spend Your Gap Year

There are a range of different, yet equally amazing ways to spend a gap year. Here’s how to narrow down a gap year that matches your time, interests, and budget.

Decide How a Gap Year Fits into Your Schedule
  • Analyze how a gap year could fit into your current lifestyle. Do you have any major personal commitments coming up–like a family event or trip? If so, consider postponing your travels.  
  • Figure out how much time you can take off. Do you have a few months to spare or can you dedicate a full year? Gap years are flexible and can fit into just about any schedule.

Gap year scheduling: You’ve got options!

If you’ve been accepted into your dream college, you can still do a gap year. Ask your college admissions advisors about deferment options.

Pro tip: Still in high school and haven’t applied to colleges yet? Take advantage of your student advisory resources. Work with advisors to apply and enroll in a college before you head off for a gap year. Returning back from a gap year and having to navigate the college application process alone can be a serious buzzkill.

Already in college but want to take a year off? Ask your college counselors about their withdrawal or deferral policy.

Determine Your Gap Year Goals

What would make your gap year epic? Use it to achieve an important life goal. You’ll return home with new skills that could also be used on your resume. Not sure how to determine your goals? Here’s a two-step process for figuring it out:

how to plan a gap year

  • Step one: Write down what gap year ideas gets you pumped. Does exploring the Maasai tribe of Tanzania through adventure travel get your juices flowing? Your specific gap year interests will help you choose your gap year goals.
  • Step two: Decide what you hope to gain from your gap year. Dive deeper and flesh out the specific goals you want to accomplish while gapping. Maybe it’s learning a new language or participating in different cultural traditions.

Remember the students we mentioned earlier, Student A and Student B? Let’s take a closer look at their gap year goal mapping.

  • Student A wasn’t ready to go directly from high school into college. So, she decided to sign up for a coding internship in Peru with Year On. Her gap year goal was to become fluent in Spanish and learn more about coding.
  • Student B was feeling underwhelmed by freshman year of college. So, he decided to teach English in Thailand for a year. His goal was to spend time reflecting on what his true passions are and decide on a major.

Gap years offer several ways to reach your personal goals. Here are some of the most popular options:

Volunteering. A gap year of volunteering could be spent caring for disabled children, teaching computer skills, or assisting with environmental conservation projects. As a volunteer abroad, you will be integrating into a vastly different community and pushed outside your comfort zone. However, the experience will also broaden your perspectives and improve your ability to adapt to new environments.

  • Example: Megan is looking to learn more about the challenges of animal conservation across Africa. So, for her gap year, she decided to volunteer in Namibia with a cheetah conservation organization. Megan’s gap year will introduce her to the ways villagers are taught to manage potential conflicts with cheetahs. This will develop her skills for a future career in animal welfare and introduce her to new methods of animal protection.

Interning. Have an idea of what your professional goals are? Looking to get a feel for a specific industry? Sharpening your skills with a gap year internship is a fantastic option. 

  • Example: Derek loves staying on top of breaking news and plans to study journalism in college. For his gap year, he’s decided to intern at a South African TV station. This will help him learn the ins and outs of the news industry and make his resume shine for future media positions.

Traveling. Gap year programs offer amazing opportunities to see the world in a variety of different ways. You can travel while volunteering, learning a new language, or exploring a new culture.

  • Example: Lisa has spent time studying the cultures of Southeast Asia. So she’s decided to spend her gap year backpacking through Cambodia and Vietnam. Her travels will give her some time for introspection to decide what she wants to major in during college.

Language immersion. Looking to become fluent in a language? You can spend your gap year taking language lessons and practicing what you learn in a new country!

  • Example: Candace wants to become fluent in French and eventually work abroad in a francophone nation. She is signing up for a gap year program in Paris that will give her language courses and develop her conversational French skills.
how to plan a gap year

Teaching English. Comfortable in front of the classroom? A gap year spent teaching English abroad could be a great option for you. Note: some programs/countries require teachers to have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. TEFL courses can be taken in your home country or even while you’re gapping!

  • Example: Jason has always wanted to visit Costa Rica. He decides to spend his gap year teaching English to Costa Rican students while living with a local host family. This will immerse him into Costa Rican culture and help him explore his college major options in education or marine biology.

Working. Who said a gap year had to be a huge dent on your wallet? Many students opt to work abroad and save money during their gap year through jobs like au-pairing or even working on a cruise ship!

  • Example: To save money and pick up office management skills, Michelle is doing a work abroad gap year in Australia. Her gap year program connects her with an admin job and free housing. She will return home with work experience and a nice chunk of change!
Narrow Down Your Gap Year Preferences

Here are some key questions to reflect on as you narrow down your gap year options.

How much structure do you need for your gap year? As a gapper you can travel two ways: with an organized program or totally on your own! Let’s compare the two options.

  • Organized gap year programs. With programs like Year On, most gap year details will be organized for you. Aside from any extra traveling, you won’t have to worry about finding accommodations, coordinating logistics, or finding your own project. You’ll also have a built-in social network and round-the-clock staff support.
  • Self-structured gap year.  Are you a student who wants complete control over your gap year? Then a self-structured gap year is your go-to. Without program fees, your gap year will be cheaper. Still, keep in mind that every detail of your gap year will be on you to plan! Tip: use free tools like online cost of living calculators to help budget in-country expenses.

Where do you want to go? Is there a city or country that’s been calling your name? Jot it down as a potential gap year option.

What is your budget?

As you compare gap year program fees, analyze your personal finances. Coming up short on cash? Apply to programs that offer scholarships and grants, hold a gap year fundraiser, or get a part-time job and save.  

Do you need/want to receive college credit for what you do in your gap year?

Gap years don’t have to mean putting your academic life on hold. There are organized gap year programs that can be applied to your college credit. #Winning!

Conduct Research and Apply

Once you’ve mapped out your goals and preferences, it’s time to find your favorite gap year programs.Some students research programs by googling phrases like “gap year business internship in China.”  However, you’ll have to sort through a gazillion results—ack! A less stressful method is to meet with your high school or college advisors for guidance. There are also handy online gap year directories to match you with the best programs. And, for even deeper insight, don’t skip out on reading program reviews.

Common questions to ask when inquiring about gap year programs:

  • How much is the cost of the program and what does it cover?
  • Is travel or medical insurance included in my program fee?
  • How is the program structured?
  • What does a typical day look like?
  • What will my in-country support system be like?
  • On average, how many students apply for the gap year program and how many get in?
  • Can I read reviews from previous gap year fellows?
  • Can I get college credit?
  • What are my accommodation options?
  • How long are your gap year programs and when do they begin?
  • Will cultural excursions be scheduled in?

Found your favorite program? Time to chat with family. Tell your parents all the incredible ways a gap year will help your future success. Remember, the better it sounds the more likely they will help with funding!

Plan the Logistics
how to plan a gap year

So your gap year game plan is officially on. Now it’s time to focus on the logistics. Keep these tips in mind as you plan.

  • Be mindful of application deadlines for programs. From visas to booking airfare, it’s important to stick to all deadlines to keep your plans hiccup-free. However, give program staff a heads up if you’re running behind on a certain requirement.
  • Ensure your finances are in order. Do an honest evaluation of how much you can spend on your gap year. Responsibly budgeting for program fees or self-structured gap year travel expenses is crucial to gap year success.
  • Get your passport and visas. Traveling abroad solo for your gap year? Contact the embassy of the country/ies your gapping to. Then ask for details about visa requirements.
  • If you are traveling with a structured program, your visa application process will depend on what gap year program you are registered with. Some organizations submit application documents for gap year travelers. Other programs, like Year On, provide gappers with detailed instructions on how to apply for a visa on their own. For Year On gap year fellows, this information can found in our Voyage handbooks.
  • Get necessary vaccinations and other health items. Independent travelers should check with the CDC website or a travel health specialist for recommended immunizations. Ask about any specific health threats in the locations you’re heading to. Gap year program advisors provide students with details on necessary vaccinations and potential health risks.
  • Travelers/health insurance. All gappers should purchase travelers or health insurance. This can cover anything from medical expenses to lost luggage. Some gap year programs actually cover insurance in their program fees. Self-structured gappers will need to purchase on their own.
  • Seek out the necessary accommodations and transportation requirements. If you’ve joined a program, you will receive guidance about in-country transportation and booking airfare. Accommodation is also typically arranged by gap year program staff. Self-structured gappers will have free reign on how they wish to travel and bunk each night.
  • Identify a communication method. Ask your program for info on local SIM cards and WiFi hotspots to stay in touch with folks back home. And, if you’re traveling on your own, online expat and travel sites like “Too Many Adapters” are useful resources of advice for travelers.
  • Pack accordingly. Former gappers and program advisors are packing gurus—seriously! Ask them for suggestions on what to carry for where you’re jetting off to. Gappers will also find plenty of useful packing tips right on the web.

Note:  If you gap with Year On, our team will send you all the information you need and provide support to help you plan and stay on track for starting your gap year!  

Additional Resources

The following links will be helpful as you plan your gap year!

Scholarship directories

Financial aid

Cheap flights for students

Sites to compare programs

Fellow stories

Travel websites

Student Persona Outcomes

Time for a final check-in with students A and B! Let’s look at all the epicness that came out of their gap year plans.

  • Student A. After thorough research, Student A spends a gap year volunteering with women’s empowerment in Peru followed by computer coding in San Francisco. She falls in love with coding and has decided to major in computer science.
  • Student B. Feeling bummed about his freshman year in college, Student B decides to take a break. He decides to do a gap year teaching English in Thailand and has a blast tutoring Thai kids. Student B realizes that education is his true passion. He returns back to campus life motivated and clear on his professional goals.
An early, well thought out plan = gap year success

Now you’ve got the lowdown on how to plan a gap year that’s unique to you. This is an experience that will probably have a major impact on the rest of your life. So, putting in the proper time and planning is truly worth the effort.

Ready to kick off your gap year journey?  Speak with our Year On gap year specialists today to start the process!

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