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The Basics of Planning a Successful Gap Year

This article is by Pro traveler and founder of the Travel Access Project,  Jenn Miller.

Planning a Gap Year is a big undertaking. Where do you start? What are the options? How do you know you haven’t missed some big thing that’s going to derail your trip later on? 

Making the decision to take a year to travel, volunteer or take an internship between high school and college, or university and starting your career, or between one job and the next  feels daunting. There are tons of details to organize and lots of things to consider in planning a Gap Year, and many of them are so unique that making “one size fits all” recommendations doesn’t work very well.

If you’re serious about taking a Gap Year, then starting to plan at least a year in advance is wise.

Still wondering what the possibilities are, and worrying about how you might fund a Gap Year? Read on. There are plenty of options, scholarships, and resources available to help you make your Gap Year dreams a reality.

Gap Year Programs

Many students who take a Gap Year use a program. There are dozens of them out there, from truly off-the-grid outback survival excursions, to international volunteer experiences, to deep cultural immersion adventures, and domestic service programs right here at home.

Starting your Gap Year with a program is a great way to build your skills and confidence before you set out into the world on your own. The American Gap Association recommends a gap year divided into equal parts structured program and independent internship or travel.

But how do you decide which one is right for you?

The right program will:

  • Align with your core values: the organization’s cause is one you believe in
  • Excite you
  • Stretch your limits and push you to grow
  • Have positive referrals and references

Vetting Gap Year programs isn’t easy. One way to be sure that you’re going with a program that adheres to the highest industry standards of safety, ethics, and educational integrity is to choose one that is AGA Accredited.


Using your Gap Year to experiment with potential career paths or expand your work experience is a wonderful way to maximize the long-term value and turn your “year off” into a “year on” for your education, on your own terms.

There are lots of ways to arrange internships, through schools, through businesses, through that guy your dad knows who does the thing you want to do after graduation. But what if you want to aim bigger and higher, or perhaps go abroad? Many Gap Year programs include the possibility of internships or mentored volunteering. Carpe Diem’s Latitude Year is one example of a program that does this well.

When considering an internship, don’t just take the low hanging fruit because it’s there. Try to think about where your career path might take you and consider an internship that will support your eventual goals. Or, go rogue and do something totally different from anything you’ve ever considered, to intentionally stretch yourself and broaden your horizons.

Building an Independent Gap Year

If you aren’t particularly interested in participating in a program, then you can always take the independent route. Independently organized Gap Years tend to be less expensive, can be more tailored to your individual goals, and they provide endless opportunities to make adjustments and change things up on the fly when circumstances change.

If you’re looking for opportunities to volunteer or intern abroad and you’d like to cut out the middle man of a formal program, then I recommend checking out Omprakash, an organization that connects willing souls directly with ethical volunteering opportunities all over the world.

Going the independent route means that you’re taking responsibility for every single aspect of your Gap Year yourself. You might consider hiring an educational consultant who specializes in Gap Year planning to help you. These folks are experts in helping you find the right fit and making sure that nothing falls through the cracks in your planning.

Scholarships, Grants and Funding for Gap Years

Everyone’s big worry with Gap Year planning is funding. How are you going to pay for a year’s worth of travel and experiential education? Is it worth the money? Are there ways to make it affordable for folks who are not from independently wealthy families?

A quick look at the data and benefits of a Gap Year will assure skeptics that Gap Year students do return to university, and when they do, they perform above the level of their non-gap peers and they get through school much faster than non-gap students; they make more money over the long haul in their careers and report higher job satisfaction too. So, yes, it’s worth it.

But how can you pay for it? Making a Gap Year affordable is a multi-faceted effort, from making your program choices wisely, to economizing on the extras. Obviously you’re going to get a job, work hard, save your money and earn the experience yourself. Perhaps your parents will be able to match your efforts. Scholarships are also available. You should apply for them! Check out the list on the GYA financial aid page, of course, but here are a few others to get you started.
Ripley Hunter SYTA Foundation Scholarship (my young friend Sophia won this one this year!)
Travel Scholarship from Ambassador Foundation
Family Travel Forum Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Omprakash Ambassador Travel Grants

Additional Gap Year Resources

The best in-depth resource out there for planning is Gap Year 30 Student from which will walk you through everything you need to consider, from your destinations, to your budget, to immunizations and safety, to education and reintegration at the end of your trip.

Gap Year 30 Parents is a similar e-course for parents. It’s designed to help parents support, encourage, and equip their kids in planning and executing a successful Gap Year. Both of these resources are completely free.

In addition to Gap Year 30 Student and Gap Year 30 Parent, the Travel Access Project is a wonderful resource for anyone planning a Gap Year, or any other sort of travel. An open-source curriculum project at the intersection of adventure and education, it’s the perfect way to deepen your learning as you travel.

Read books, watch movies, create projects, have cultural immersion experiences and then tie it all together in a way that demonstrates the depth of your experience to the powers that be; whether that’s your community when you get home, a university admissions officer, or the gatekeeper during the interview process for your dream job. Travel Access Project can help you turn your experience into a real education and make the whole world your classroom.

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