7 Tips For Anyone Considering A Gap Year

Enrollment for gap year programs has grown an average of 20% over the last 7 years. In fact, chances are you know someone who has gone on or is thinking about doing a gap year. But how up to date are you on what makes a great gap year? Much like the college selection process, finding the right gap year to match your gap year goals can be overwhelming and fraught with misconceptions.

Here are 7 tips that students can use to help them determine what kind of gap year is right for them.

1. Personal Goals For The Gap Year

Choosing a gap year program is a very big decision that can involve the whole family.  Programs can be very expensive, and for this reason it is important that students and parents be very upfront about their desired goals of the program for the student. Parents and students have to be aligned here because the wrong program selection is no fun for anyone, including the other students on the program!

2. Identify The Basic Areas Of Interest (Geographic/Cultural/Activities)

Once you have the basic goals for your gap year program clear, starting to look at the program options can be overwhelming. Keep it simple. Think about what part of the world (culturally and geographically) and what types of activities interest you. This simple exercise will narrow the field considerably. From there you can start to measure up the quality and fit of the programs left.

3. Citizen Of The World?

Is the student 18 going on 25? That is to say, is the student ready for the heavy immersion and independence that certain programs offer/require? Or perhaps they are on the younger side and still finding themselves socially and in the world. Programming philosophies can vary drastically in this area, so it is important to get a sense of how much free time is built into the schedules of the participants throughout their whole experience. 

4. Academic vs. Skills-Based

Is the student looking to get ahead or catch up in certain academic areas for college? If so, you certainly don’t want to be backpacking the globe half the time. There are wonderful programs with a focus on academics, but students and parents need to ask the hard question about the goals of the gap year experience. Skills based programs, on the other hand, are focused on particular life skills that are practical and experiential, be it herding cattle, rock climbing or building schools in Nepal. Both options can be great fits for students, but can also be very different in experience.

5. Visitation vs. Immersion

There is always a balance between how much travel you do and how much immersion you experience. Some students are really focused on a deep cultural and geographic connection with a culture or place. If so, a program that does not move around as much would be preferable. There are also the programs that do a lot of travel, in that case, you will be prioritizing the visiting of the places and not the connection with the culture. There are compromises, however, that can offer a bit of both, provided there are at least 2 weeks in any given location. These programs can offer the best of both worlds.

6. Group Size

Much like choosing between a large university or small college; this variable asks whether you feel more comfortable within a larger group or smaller group. Common thinking is that smaller groups can offer a more intensive bonding experience, and larger groups offer a more dynamic and varied cohort experience. It is also said that smaller groups can be more inclusive of everyone. However, two variables that really count are: the will of the student to ‘put themselves out there’; and the ability of the group leader to facilitate a healthy group dynamic. If you have concerns in this area, it would be wise to ask for the group leader’s group facilitation methods and philosophy.

7. Trip Leaders/Organizational Leadership

Last and perhaps most important: who is responsible for your student? Do your homework on this point as this is really about safety. While this experience is meant to be life changing and adventurous, if the program is not organized and run by experienced and capable leaders, it might be memorable for the wrong reasons. That said, remember, how long the organization has been around is not as important as the experience and competence level of those running the programs. Ask some hard questions about the leaders’ age and experience, participant to staff ratio, and organizational relationship history in the places the participants will be. Look for the connection the organization has with the towns and communities where the programs will be run.