Updated for 2023-2024
Need time before taking your next step after high school?
Then consider a gap year.
An increasingly popular route for students and young adults, 35% of high school students have thought about taking a gap year after graduation, according to a TD Ameritrade survey. And most experts expect the gap year to only become more common in the coming years (it’s gone mainstream!).
Now, if you go on a gap year adventure, you may worry that others, like your family and potential university or employer, will feel you’re slacking off. Stop that line of thought!
Gap year programs offer the opportunity for self-improvement through travel, study, research, and work. You can even enhance your resume if you spend your time wisely. That’s why many education experts, including guidance counselors, encourage taking a gap year. And studies prove that students who take a gap year achieve higher GPAs and graduate earlier.
So, does a gap year sound right for you?
If so, look over this guide. You’ll learn all about gap year programs and how to determine which gap year program suits you best.
What Is a Gap Year?
A gap year is typically (but not always) the year after high school and before college. During a gap year, students take time to experience a different community and culture, gain work experience, study new skills, and/or reflect on their life and what’s ahead.
Often, students choose international gap year programs abroad in a foreign county. Their gap year experience may involve volunteer community work and offers a number of learning opportunities. Experiencing a different culture and getting to know the world often provides an academic boost for participants. Time taken to travel and immerse oneself in the culture helps them to become global citizens.
Ultimately, what you do during your gap year depends on your personal goals, budget, and preferences. For instance, if you want to take a year off before dental school, you may consider a dental volunteer abroad program. Or, if you wish to explore the history and culture of Europe but must remain within a set budget, arrange a travel itinerary that includes volunteering, teaching, or interning (as that can offset expenses).
The point is this: Make the most of your gap year! Do what will benefit you now and over the long run.
Why Should You Take a Gap Year?
There are a number of reasons you should choose to take a gap year. If you’ve always wanted to travel abroad and experience international cultures, while learning and offering help in a local community, a gap year is a great opportunity.
A gap year will help you develop a greater understanding of the world and develop empathy for fellow human beings. It may also springboard you into wonderful academic opportunities. Many universities love to see students who have a breadth of experience and who are familiar with many different cultures. Here are some other reasons you may consider a gap year:
- A gap year gives you a break after high school to recalibrate for college
- A gap year helps you clarify your goals and better understand your passions
- A gap year enables you to truly make a difference in the lives of others who may be less fortunate than you
- A gap year helps you mature and gain experience in learning new things and overcoming challenges
- A gap year may help you expand your knowledge in a chosen field
Avis E. Hinkson, an expert in higher education, describes the value of a gap year well. “A gap year is a wonderful opportunity for young people to take a year to follow a passion before attending college,” she attests. “Some will have internships, some will travel, some will fulfill religious responsibilities, and some find paid work. All-in-all, they will grow and mature.”
How Do You Pay for a Gap Year?
Gap years can be expensive, but you don’t have to foot the entire bill alone. There are a number of scholarships and grants available for volunteering abroad and gap years, which you can check out here.
How Do You Prepare for a Gap Year?
While not always necessary, if you’re going to a foreign country, it doesn’t hurt to learn the native language beforehand. Being immersed in another culture certainly takes some getting used to, and if you are able to communicate, your experience may be less of a culture shock, and more enriching and enjoyable.
To prepare for a gap year, be sure you are mentally ready and that you are comfortable being far away from family and loved ones. Know how to live on your own.
How Do You Pick the Right Gap Year Program for Your Needs?
Finding the right gap year program for your specific needs may take some reflection and time. Be sure you get clear on what you want your gap year experience to provide before you jump into a decision. Here are some things to consider when deciding which gap year program is right for you.
1. Determine Your Purpose
Why are you taking a gap year? What do you hope to accomplish? Is it for academic purposes? Is it for fun? Is it to experience another culture? Or are you looking to gain experience in a specific field of study? Having your purpose clear in your mind will help you as you decide on a program.
2. Decide How Long You Want Your Program to Be
As the name implies, a gap year program generally lasts a year. That said, some programs are shorter or longer than others. If you determine how long you want to be away, you’ll have an easier time narrowing down your choices.
3. Keep Your Budget in Mind
How much can you afford to pay for your gap year? Without a doubt, some gap year programs are more costly than others. Keep your budget in mind before getting too far into your gap year planning. If you live in the United States, a gap year in South or Central America, may be more affordable than one in England or Spain.
You’ll want to factor in the cost of plane tickets, accommodation, program fees, food, and souvenirs. Things can really add up, so be sure to overestimate when you’re determining how much a specific gap year program will cost.
4. Think About the Program’s Focus
Each gap year program has its own focus. And some programs are more hands-on than others. While some programs will simply get you placed with an experience, others might be there facilitating the experience and helping you every step of the way. Different programs are better for different needs. Decide what you’d prefer.
If you want more autonomy, find a program that is more hands-off. Also, select a program that really narrows in on whatever it is you want to get out of it. For instance, if you are studying wildlife, a gap year in the Amazon rainforest may be superior to one in a large European city.
5. Understand Accommodation
Where will you be staying? What will the living situation be like? Will it have the comforts you desire? Will you have a host family? Will you be able to bring a roommate? Understand that if you visit a country that is less developed than your own, the living conditions may be different. Make sure you understand this going in. If you visit Africa, for instance, you may live differently than if you travel to Scotland for your gap year.
6. Keep Climate in Mind
Have you thought about the climate? Do you prefer humidity or drier weather? Remember that seasons differ depending on the part of the world you’re in. For instance, when it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, it’s winter in the southern, and vice versa. Just know a bit about the climate and seasons before you go so you know what to expect.
7. Know The Meal Situation
You’ll need to eat when you’re abroad. Would you prefer a gap year program that provides meals, or would you rather fend for yourself? What about having someone from your host family take you in as one of their own? These are all things to consider.
8. Factor in College Plans
How will the gap year line up with your college plans as a future student? You’ll want to look into this well before planning your gap year. Can you gain college acceptance and then defer your start date? Or will you apply after your gap year? What about a college bridge year program where you can participate in a fellowship?
Some prefer to have their college plans all set up and have a spot waiting for them when they get home. Others have had difficulty getting accepted to the school of their choice and want to take some time to improve your resume and test scores. Gap years can work for that too.
How Do You Create a Good Gap Year Application?
Most gap year programs will require you to go through an application process. Often, you’re competing with other impressive students when applying. There are some things to consider in this regard.
Don’t just jump into the application. Each gap program will have different requirements, and you should become very acquainted with those requirements before applying. Some programs will only ask for contact information and logistical preferences. But other organizations will ask for high school test scores, essay responses, resumes, or even interviews. There are a few applications that are even timed. These are all things you want to know ahead of time.
On your application you’ll almost always need to indicate your desired program and when you want to leave. Before you apply, check dates to make sure you know when you’ll be leaving and coming back. Plus, gap year programs aren’t free. So, before you apply, you should calculate the total cost. Then, make a plan for how you’ll pay all of the expenses. This might help you decide between different programs as well. You don’t want to apply for a program that you can’t afford.
Regardless of what you need to include in your application, you’ll want to iron out the kinks. Spruce up your resume, have someone look over your essays, and practice interviewing if necessary.
When you apply, make sure to pay close attention to the details. If you’ve prepared well, you’ll rock it.
What Are Some of the Best Gap Year Programs?
There are several gap year programs to choose from, but here are our favorites.
Founded in 2007, IVHQ was established on the idea that volunteer travel should be high quality, responsible, and affordable. IVHQ was started online by Dan Radcliffe from his family farm in New Zealand. Now it is one of the premier volunteer travel organizations in the world. IVHQ operates in more than 40 countries and has provided volunteer abroad programs for over 130,000 participants hailing from more than 100 countries across the globe.
Volunteer in Bali: Ubud and Lovina
Looking for a tropical island getaway where you can also help the community? Volunteer with IVHQ in Bali! There are 9 year-round projects to choose from. Travel to the cultural center of Ubud, where you can volunteer to teach English in an afterschool project, to assist teaching in a kindergarten, to help with construction and renovation in schools and community spaces, to support turtle conservation, to improve environmental education on recycling and sustainability living, or to encourage healthcare education promoting health and wellbeing. Or head to the coastal town of Lovina, where you can lend a hand with kindergarten support and teaching, or with school and community renovation. During your free time, go snorkeling or diving, embark on a cycling or trekking tour, explore temples and waterfalls, and much more! IVHQ’s trips to Ubud and Lovina, Bali start from one week at a very affordable $385.
Embark on an adventure to Costa Rica with IVHQ, where you can choose from sixteen volunteer programs in San Jose, Manuel Antonio, and beyond! Some highlight programs that you can be a part of include:
- Childcare and working with children at daycares and schools
- Turtle conservation and research
- Healthcare at clinics for disabled children or the homeless, nursing homes, and ambulance services in San Jose, Maneul Antonio
- Construction and renovation
- Teach English at public schools, in homes, or even at a local fire station in Manuel Antonio, in San Jose
- Eco-agricultural conservation in the central highlands of Costa Rica
- Special needs care for students with intellectual and physical disabilities
Another trusted organization, GoEco, has amazing opportunities to volunteer in wildlife rescues and sanctuaries, in animal and marine conservation projects, and in medical and healthcare projects based in some of the popular destinations.
Since 2006, GoEco has offered affordable volunteer abroad programs and internships in over 40 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Australasia, Central America, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. With more than 150 different programs, GoEco is a great organization to check out if you’re looking for a variety of impactful trips to choose from, from wildlife conservation to teaching English. GoEco was recently recognized as the Top Volunteer Abroad Organization from GoAbroad, Top Eco-Enthusiast by Greenmatch, and has been recommended by Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and more. As a volunteer, you will have 24-hour support from the GoEco team, from start to finish. Currently, GoEco is offering a special travel grant where you can stay for the 3rd week free! Check out the qualifying programs here!
- Zimbabwe – African Wildlife Orphanage: Volunteer abroad at a wildlife orphanage in Zimbabwe to care for various wild animals that have been injured or orphaned. Volunteers work closely with these animals to rehabilitate them before releasing them into a Protected Area.
- Indonesia – Bali Sea Turtle Rescue: Join GoEco on the beautiful island of Nusa Penida, just off the coast of Bali! Work hands-on with injured sea turtles and release the rehabilitated back into their ocean home.
- Thailand- Hua Hin Teaching and Childcare: Teach English to children ages 6-18 years old with local teachers while immersing yourself in Thai culture. Known for being a beautiful beach destination, Hua Hin has golden beaches for swimming and snorkeling during your free time.
- South Africa – Wildlife Sanctuary: On this program, you will travel to South Africa for two weeks to three months to volunteer in a sanctuary for orphaned or injured animals. Volunteer tasks focus on construction at the sanctuary and hands-on care for animals such as elephants, lions, cheetahs, hippos, and hyenas.
- Australia – Wild Animal Sanctuary: Lend a hand at a sanctuary that provides a safe, natural home for some of Australia’s unique wildlife such as koalas and kangaroos. This sanctuary provides refuge for rehabilitated but unreleasable, injured and orphaned animals.
- Costa Rica – Animal Rescue and Conservation: Experience Costa Rica with this unique program! Volunteers will work closely with injured sloths, monkeys and other Costa Rican wildlife and immerse themselves into the local culture through Spanish language lessons, exploring the capital of San Jose and living with a host family.
Maximo Nivel is an educational travel organization operating in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru since 2003. They have over 4,000 individuals traveling, volunteering, and learning with them each year. They’re best known for the Spanish language immersion offered in their programs, and they offer gap year programs in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru. Or, you can opt to visit multiple countries, each for a short time. Maximo Nivel’s programs are typically six months long and include flexible itineraries.
Example program: Volunteer in Costa Rica
Choose among several locations and fields! For example, you could care for underprivileged children in San Jose or assist with sustainable coffee production near Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. You may also join a beach conservation effort on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Fees begin at $695 for one week. Four weeks cost $1,495 and each additional week after that costs just $185. Get all the details here!
Projects Abroad has enabled over 120,000 volunteers to serve over the last 25 years. They prioritize safety in all of their programs and stand committed to creating lasting change in the communities they serve. Truly one of the most reputable organizations for gap year and volunteer abroad excursions, Projects Abroad has been featured by the likes of the BBC, Time, and The New York Times.
Example program: Global Gap Year
Want to volunteer your way around the world? Then consider Projects Abroad’s Global Gap Year! The program lasts 28 weeks, and you get to travel to Ghana, South Africa, Peru, Nepal, and Thailand all in one trip. You’ll gain experience in a myriad of fields, from conservation to construction to childcare. You’ll encounter different cultures and see famous and beautiful places, like the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal and beaches of Ao Nang in Thailand. And you’ll team up with fellow gap year adventurers to tackle challenges affecting local communities. How wonderful is all that?
The Global Gap program fee is $29,995. Apply here to get your spot before it’s filled!
Global Vision International (GVI) was founded in 1998 and has programs in 13 countries. GVI staff runs each of their programs in order to keep each program legitimate and safe for volunteers. A number of GVI programs fit perfectly for a gap year. Programs last from two weeks to six months. Options include wildlife conservation, healthcare, and teaching projects.
Example program: Community Development Internship in India
Travel to the tropical state of Kerala, where you’ll work on sustainable development projects as you discover India. At the beginning of this internship, you’ll receive training and mentorship and then you’ll have the opportunity to put your skills into action. Projects focus on education, skills training, infrastructure improvement, and more. The internship will benefit anyone, especially those looking to build a career in education, engineering, international relations, or sustainability.
The internship costs $6,880 for 24 weeks. Interested? Apply on GVI’s site to get in early!
African Impact began as a small family-run business in 2004. They were chosen as GoAbroad’s Top Volunteer Abroad Organization in 2018. Most African Impact projects span 2-12 weeks. But, some are as short as one week, and others are as long as three months. You can do everything from an entrepreneurship internship in South Africa to participate in lion conservation efforts in Zimbabwe.
Founded in 2015 by Daniel Botha, Surfpop is a South African-based organization that aims to build a sustainable future for vulnerable children from township communities around Muizenberg, Cape Town through a powerful formula of surfing, education and life coaching. They have hosted over 350 international volunteers for their two surf volunteer projects in Cape Town.
Surfpop is very unique compared to other international organizations due to their long-term outlook on supporting the needs of the local community. On average, they work with each child beneficiary for around 8 years, after which they help them find sustainable employment or provide them with employment within the Surfpop organization. Their holistic model of surfing, education, life coaching and nutrition also sets them apart from most other organizations.
Surfpop is the only Volunteer Forever partner that exclusively focuses on surf volunteering, so if you are a surfer or have a strong interest in surfing, Surfpop is definitely an organization you will want to check out!
Surfpop’s surf volunteer program is based in the beautiful seaside town of Muizenberg, South Africa. As a volunteer, you will play a critical role in helping disadvantaged children escape poverty, crime, and drugs. Through their comprehensive after-school program, you will not only teach children to surf and swim, but also tutor them on more formal academic subjects such as math, English, and computer literacy.
Surfpop’s volunteer program is open to volunteers ages 18 and up. No prior experience with surfing is necessary. This program starts at roughly $500 USD per week with a minimum duration of four weeks. The cost of the program includes accommodation, breakfast, airport pick-up, orientation, 24/7 support, and surf lessons. Volunteers will also receive surf gear rentals for their stay.
Operating in 17 countries across Asia, South America, and Africa, PMGY provides gap year programs as short as one week and as long as 36 weeks. Founded by volunteers, for volunteers, PMGY prides itself on being completely transparent with program fees. The projects in their network are also risk-assessed by their International Team. Plan My Gap Year puts you in touch with fellow volunteers before your journey so you can get to know each other in advance.
Example program: Medical Volunteering in Arusha, Tanzania
Work in a government hospital in Arusha, a city known as a gateway to African safaris. Your help will ensure Arusha’s poorest people get medical services. Note you can work in a variety of departments, such as gynecology, pharmacy, pediatrics, and HIV testing.
Great for those aspiring to a career in healthcare, fees range from $789 (2 weeks) to $4,419 (24 weeks). Apply on PMGY’s site!
Love Volunteers (LV) has grown to 100 programs in 30 countries since they started in 2010. Most of their projects are compatible for a gap year. They typically have a one or two- week minimum and a 24-week maximum stay. However, depending on the local team for a project, they are willing to arrange longer stays. They offer programs working with animal care, childcare, healthcare, construction, education, conservation, and much more.
Example program: Marine Conservation in Bali
Journey to Tianyar, a traditional fishing village in beautiful Bali. There, you’ll build an artificial reef to protect the fragile marine ecosystem, participate in beach cleanups, and educate locals and tourists about conservation efforts. This program suits those looking to study science, as well as any nature lover.
Fees range from $339 for one week to $2,429 for 24 weeks. Sign up on Love Volunteers’ site to reserve your place!
Agape Volunteers has been facilitating valuable service experiences in Africa since 2009. Specifically, they have programs in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and Tanzania. They choose programs where they know volunteers can make a real impact. They offer more traditional programs like animal conservation, teaching, and healthcare. But, they also have more unique opportunities like teaching music and coaching sports. Many of their programs are ideal for a gap year. The maximum length of each program differs, but many can be an entire year. Plus, you can choose to add experiences like overnight safaris and trips to waterfalls and hot springs to your program.
Example program: Animal Conservation in South Africa
Head to Marakele National Park, a breathtaking and vast wildlife sanctuary in the heart of the Waterberg Biosphere. As you soak up the beauty, you’ll work to protect endangered species in the park, including elephants, leopards, cheetahs, black and white rhinos, hyenas, and buffalos. How amazing does that sound?
Fees for this gap year project span from £1,530 (2 weeks) to £4,870 (12 weeks). Register on Agape’s site!
A Broader View began in 2007. They have almost 250 programs in 25 countries. They’ve raised over 3.5 million dollars and have put the money toward constructing orphanages, schools, and wells. A Broader View has all-inclusive trips for gap years with a variety of projects. Programs cover many needs such as arts, sports, midwifery, empowerment, healthcare, and more.
Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) has 24 years of experience and has sent more than 35,000 volunteers abroad internationally. They specialize in child development and were granted Special Consultative Status by the United Nations.
Example programs: Gap Year Programs with CCS
Cross-Cultural Solutions offers three gap year programs:
- Spanish Immersion Gap Year: Visit Peru, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, and soak up Latin American culture as you perfect your Spanish skills. You’ll even get to explore Machu Picchu. Reserve your spot here ($11,500 for 12 weeks).
- Around the World Gap Year: Visit Peru, Panama, Thailand, Ghana, Greece, and Morocco, and do valuable service work in each country. For instance, you’ll get to work at a refugee center in Greece. Apply today to get your spot ($24,500 for 32 weeks).
- Custom Gap Year Program: If you wish, CCS also offers a custom program. You talk with a director and choose which countries to visit.
Fronteering specializes in less-visited volunteer locations in South America, North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. When looking for a gap year off the beaten path, Fronteering offers programs with animal wildlife, communities, environmental conservation, and indigenous peoples. Projects are typically two to eight weeks. But, some programs are longer.
Naturally Africa facilitates learning programs in Africa that typically last between two and eight weeks; although, some programs are longer. Local teams manage each project, and each project is based on local needs instead of volunteer demand. Projects include teaching, community outreach, sports coaching, conservation, and healthcare. Naturally Africa encourages using their projects for gap years.
Frontier has almost 30 years of dedicated volunteer experience. With projects in more than 70 countries, they have truly made a global impact. Construction projects, conservation efforts, and teaching opportunities are a few examples of their offered experiences. Frontier has gap year advisors who will reach out when you apply to their gap year programs to help you plan the best experience.
Example program: Southeast Asia Ethical Adventure Trail
Travel with Frontier through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. See ancient sites like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Have the night out of your life in Bangkok, Thailand. And explore the spectacular scenes of Halong Bay, Vietnam. You can do that all in one trip! Along the way, you’ll volunteer in community development, teaching, beach and marine conservation, and more. It’s a good way to give back to the local communities you visit.
This ethical adventure costs $4,095 for 10 weeks, and is a great way to spend your gap year. Sign up now before it’s too late!
Globalteer was founded in 2006 and currently has projects in nine countries, notably Colombia, Peru, and Cambodia. They have many wildlife care opportunities for turtles, elephants, monkeys, bears, and more. They also offer teaching and community outreach programs. Their projects fit with planning a gap program. Many of them can be up to three months long with the option to participate in projects as short as one week.
Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) offers programs in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Focused on providing teens with life-changing experiences, GLA’s gap year programs suit those graduating high school. You can do everything from study Mandarin throughout China to wander through the Amazon in Brazil.
Raleigh International focuses on the impact young adults can have on the world. Their work contributes to many United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including no poverty, clean water, and quality education. Raleigh offers gap programs in Nepal, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Tanzania, and Malaysian Borneo. Raleigh Expeditions, as they’re called, last 4-10 weeks (from $3,100). These expeditions combine community service, environmental initiatives, and adventure.
Having a Successful Gap Year
Now that you know all about gap years and how to choose a gap year program, it’s time to act. In addition to referencing this gap year guide, read over some of our other resources.
For saving money on your adventure:
- Learn how to volunteer abroad for free
- See cheap gap year and volunteer abroad programs
- Get all the info on gap year scholarships and grants
For specific programs in various destinations: