Planning Your Gap Year
Planning a successful gap year should be done with a decent amount of purpose and intent - it doesn't have to be super-structured, in fact most students taking a gap year are doing the majority of it indpendently. That said, we strongly encourage STARTING with more structure and working into less, thus learning basic risk management, cross-cultural, and other life-safety skills before going out independently. In all our years working with Gap Year Education, we've learned that things change rapidly and there are many considerations to make so please take the time to do your research. Simple things, like establishing rules (e.g., communication, budget, insurance/visas/logistics, self-care, medication, supervision, relationships, academics, etc.) can be the difference between a Gap Year that transforms you, and one that's just "passing time."
Below are a few simple steps to consider as you're working through all of the myriad questions. If you don't follow every paragraph, at least read the highlights to know what's important. One of the best sayings about an experience like this is simply that "you don't know what you don't know" . . . so please take the time to educate yourself.
Step 1: Answer the following Questions.
- What needs to happen to make college a reality after your gap year? Do you need to defer, take a leave-of-absence, or arrange for a Consortium Agreement? What deadlines and deposits need to be paid to secure your position? It's best to have a plan post-gap year, but many times students find a better-fitting college as a result of their gap year so establishing communication while the student is gone to save time and impart deadlines are vital.
- How long do you have for your gap year? It's best to think about a gap year within the existing academic structures for both framing and continuance purposes. Semesters or quarters work best and allow for at least two experiences, with summers to work and earn money.
- Do you want to go with a group or alone? In most cases, within a longer-term plan for a gap year, the best advice is to start in a group setting and then graduate to a more independent form. Have you historically fared better in teams or alone? Where would be best for you to grow?
- How much structure do you need? Will you be able to go it alone and fend safely for yourself? If you need to go to a doctor do you have the wherewithal to ask the right questions and advocate for your own best interests?
- Where do you want to be? Think languages, communication-potential back home, environmental attributes, etc. USA? Latin America? Europe? Asia? Africa? South Pacific? Antarctica? The Moon?
- What do you want to do? Teach? Wildlife? Arts? Environmental work? Study a language or cooking? Learn green building? There is no single "right choice," and often you can choose multiple options within the same organization/setup. Planning for time to wander and perhaps be a tourist is a good (and realistic) idea.
- What's the budget? Do you need to find compensation with room and board? Are there currency conversions that work in your favor? Do you need to work and save money first? Are there airfares and other expenses to factor? Will you be using part of your college tuition? What scholarships and FAFSA monies are out there to help?
- Is it important to get college credit? Doing so opens financial aid doors, but if done poorly can inhibit your ability to get the most out of your gap year.
Step 2: Find the right program.
Finding the right fit for your gap year is a challenge, and one that truly should be taken with perhaps more care than at university. The stakes, in many senses, are higher with a gap year given its intention ... not to mention the fact that they are typically off the proverbial 'beaten path.' While the best way to get to the heart of a potential organization is to apply the Gap Year Standards, some of the best questions to ask gap year organizations and programs are here:
- Who are your typical students?
- What safety structures do you have in place in case of an emergency?
- Do you have any references I can talk to?
- What's a typical day look like on your program?
- How much does it cost? Are there any extras like airfare, insurance, or activities?
- What do you suggest we do to best prepare? Are there books, movies, or articles?
The second part about finding the right program is doing your research and the most important steps are outlined here:
- Don't reinvent the wheel. Of course, and for obvious reasons of safety and expertise, we recommend starting with our GYA Accredited Organizations. They have passed through our rigorous Standards, which of course are recognized by the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.
- For less-structured programs or for the do-it-yourself-er you can visit our Other Gap Year Options Page, or start searching on www.teenlife.com, gooverseas.com, www.vergemagazine.com, www.transitionsabroad.com, or www.wiserearth.org. Don't be afraid to inquire with your own personal relationships too who might be able to set you up with something unique.
- Google the organizations and seek write-ups or reviews.
- Don't discount something that's "out there" without first having done the research. Many people only think of the dangers from 30 years ago without knowing what's currently going on.
- Apply to those organizations that hold your interest and have any necessary safeguards in place and researched. Many are admitted on a rolling admissions basis, but the height of the gap year admissions takes place usually April - July for the fall semester.
Step 3: Know your resources.
Please refer to our Resources pages herein for great ideas and important notes about everything from airfare to money to visas.
Step 4: Prepare yourself.
- For international gap years, make sure your passport is valid for 6 months AFTER the last day of travel. Some places literally will refuse you entry at the border without that extra validity.
- Make arrangements for any visas and vaccinations.
- Make a detailed packing list and don't buy everything new. The travelers that stand out as new (and thus naive) are those with the bright and shiny new backpacks and gear. For a great list of travel tech, visit this recent Huffington Post article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
- Plan for communication. Do you bring a cell phone? Buy a local phone? When should your parents worry (i.e., how often will you communicate with friends and family)? Will you have access to email where you're located or will you have to go to a library or go to town?
- Get a travel guidebook. Either Lonely Planet, or Rough Guides, or Let's Go are the three brands we recommend.
- Build or buy a small medical kit.
- Book airfare. Do this preferably a month in advance and take advantage of student-only fares.
- Arrange for a Visa Debit card and a backup credit card. If traveling internationally, currently it appears that Visa is simply more accessible than the other major credit companies. Additionally, check with your bank to know the fees for using your card outside of the home area.
- Again, for international trips, make sure to register your itinerary with the State Department's Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP)
- If you're traveling with a passport, it's never a bad idea to email yourself a photocopy of the front photo and signature pages incase you need to get it replaced.
- Arrange for an airport pickup. Times of transition (jet lag, environmental, etc.) are when travelers are most at risk so set yourself up for success. Language Schools often can arrange this and if traveling alone are a great way to settle a bit and get oriented to the area before braving strange streets and towns.