If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already convinced that a gap year is for you.
But what are you actually supposed to do with 365 days of absolute freedom? Take a look at what it means to take a gap year, and our top gap year ideas to inspire you.
What to do during a gap year
Most people take a gap year because they’re not sure what comes next for them. For many people, the first time they’re given the space to look at what they really want out of life and their career is during a gap year.
While our school years leave us with specific knowledge and skills, like how to read and solve for x, most of us have to find our own way to learn about ourselves and the world.
It might be easier to follow in the footsteps of your friends, family or even role models. But breaking away from the group-mentality of high school can be exhilarating, and absolutely terrifying. A gap year is a chance to determine your personal and professional growth according to what you want.
So, what are those secret passions you’ve been putting off to make the honour roll or impress scouts in the audience? Maybe you’re a straight-A maths whiz who can’t shake the idea of learning to salsa in Costa Rica? Maybe you want to use all the free time you can get to find out how big you could grow your brand using YouTube, Instagram or another platform?
Or, maybe you don’t know what you want to do next, but you know that you want to go abroad and figure out your next move.
Whatever your reason, a gap year gives you the time to explore an interest that doesn’t necessarily need to match your current social identity or the career path you have in mind.
Remember that you don’t need to choose only one option. Most people actually do many things during their time off.
And don’t be discouraged if you can’t take a full year to explore all possibilities. You can use the months between high school and college as a kind of “gap summer”, if there are constraints on your time.
If you’re having trouble convincing your parents that travelling is a great idea, remind them that a gap year will help you develop skills like confidence, resilience and cross-cultural communication, as well as university credits and certificates on some of our internship programs. These skills will impress both colleges and future employers.
Below you’ll find a list of some of the most popular things students choose to do during their gap years, along with the most exciting destinations to do them in.
1) Travel: Join a gap year program abroad in Peru
The Maras salt ponds are just one of the many incredible sites to see in Peru.
Getting first-hand experience of scenes you’ve only ever seen online, making new friends and trying foods you might not have heard of before — it’s a wonder that anyone even comes back home after their gap year travelling abroad.
The real question is: where do you go? Why not follow Malia Obama’s footsteps and choose Peru?
Peru has something for everyone: adventure sports for the adrenaline junkie, historical sites for the culture lover, unique habitats for the nature lover and bold flavours for the foodie. So we won’t be surprised if you end up spending your entire gap year backpacking through the land of the Inca people.
2) Make an impact: Join a volunteer program in Ghana
If you’re looking for a meaningful way to spend your gap year, our gender equality program in Ghana might be a great fit.
Ghana is one of a handful of countries vying for the title of “closest to the equator”. You aren’t likely to find many climates as tropical as this one.
One of the programs you can take part in in Ghana is a women’s empowerment program working directly with the community. Some of the things you can do on this program include conducting workshops that create discussion around gender stereotypes and domestic violence, helping women increase their knowledge of children’s development and preventative health, and teaching women valuable professional skills like how to work with technology and budgets.
While exploring new ways of life and discovering what is meaningful to you, you’ll be learning how to communicate with people who don’t share your language or customs. You’ll also get to meet young people from all around the world who are also outside of their comfort zones and social cliques.
We also offer a women’s empowerment program in Cape Town, South Africa. You’ll be based in Gordon’s Bay – a small seaside town about an hour’s drive from Cape Town – and work with girls and women in the local township to learn how education initiatives can help them gain more financial and social freedom.
3) Teach: Join a gap year teaching program in Cambodia
Teaching abroad isn’t just for aspiring educators. It’s a way to get used to a work environment and develop professional skills before going into your chosen field.
Teaching is a particularly good choice for developing your leadership skills. What better way to learn how to be a kind and assertive leader than by keeping a group of young students engaged when they can’t wait for the break-time bell to ring?
You’ll also master a number of other highly sought after skills while teaching abroad, like communication, punctuality, prioritisation, conflict resolution, problem-solving, self-sufficiency and the ability to turn negative feedback into positive outcomes.
If you think teaching overseas during your gap year might be for you, why not join our teaching program in Cambodia? You’ll work with novice Buddhist monks and children from the local community and add to their English literacy skills.
This program is a great way to explore Cambodia’s many unique sights, like the Royal Palace or the National Museum of Cambodia. As you’ll be staying in Siem Reap, you can easily visit the grand Angkor Wat temple complex in your free time.
4) Prepare for medical school: Join a public health program in South Africa
Have you always thought you’d make a great doctor, nurse, paramedic or therapist? Do you have a genuine desire to help people feel better?
Then you probably already know that getting certified as any kind of healthcare professional can be a challenge. It’s a good idea to be sure you enjoy the work before you decide that this will be the path to pursue.
Our public health internships are beneficial for students interested in health administration, occupational therapy and nutrition. Those interested in other fields like dentistry and emergency response can also benefit.
No prior medical experience is necessary before signing up to our health programs, since public health volunteers do not perform any medical procedures or diagnostic work, as per our policy on medical volunteering.
To ensure the safety of all participants involved in the program, volunteer participants will be required to complete a DPS check, Police Clearance or a National Background Check where necessary, and to comply with the policy at all times.
This means our programs are ideal for students looking to take a meaningful break before medical school or even right after graduating high school.
On our public health internship in South Africa, you’ll work with women and children. You’ll support healthy lifestyles through women’s empowerment classes that assist women and girls to engage in women’s health topics and general well-being.
You’ll also guide children in sports during physical education lessons, and help them understand the health benefits of physical exercise.
If sports isn’t your passion, why not learn more about preventative health by helping our teams in Fiji organise preventative health, hygiene, nutrition and first aid workshops in underserved communities?
5) Join a gap year study abroad program in Thailand
Spend your days with Asian elephants and earn credits at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to join?
Okay, we know what you’re thinking, “Study during my gap year? That’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from!” But these aren’t your average classroom courses.
One of our best project destinations to study abroad in is Huay Pakoot village in northern Thailand. Here students get to learn about the unique relationship local Karen people share with the elephants native to this forested region.
6) Explore artistic pursuits: Join a gap year program in Costa Rica
Perhaps you’d like to develop your creative side? You can use your gap year to do this. Explore your artistic side, and even if you don’t consider this a career option, it’ll provide short-term satisfaction as well as long-term productivity benefits.
Often, young creatives focus so much on their goals of being successful, landing jobs or being accepted into prestigious universities . This can cause you to lose sight of your one-of-a-kind personality.
A great way to reclaim this part of yourself is by taking a break, reflecting and doing something a little different. You’ll return with a new perspective and this fresh new spirit will show in your work.
Volunteer with children in Costa Rica and explore your creative side. Assist with sports lessons to increase gross motor skills, and work on art, crafts and music to develop fine motor skills. Assist children in expressing themselves creatively in these activities and learn how artistic expression can inspire development.
7) Go on an adventure: Join a gap year diving program in Fiji
All gap years are adventures in one way or another. But if none of the options we’ve listed so far cut it for you, keep reading.
We run several professional diving programs around the world, including ones in Fiji, Seychelles and Mexico. With over 300 tropical islands to explore, water the colour of clear topaz and magnificent cave structures, Fiji lives up to nearly everyone’s idea of bliss.
As a marine conservation volunteer in Fiji, you’ll learn how to dive, and you’ll have the opportunity to earn a PADI certificate in the process. You’ll also assist in collecting data to help in the protection of Indian Ocean fish and coral populations.
You’ll spend the weekdays hiking through lush rainforests, wide stretches of untouched beaches, African savannahs as far as the eye can see, or rugged island mountain trails. These activities will depend on your chosen destination.
You could carry out wildlife surveys, beach cleans, camera-trap setups and reforestation projects.
On the weekends you can choose from a variety of sports like white-water rafting if you’re in Costa Rica, hot-air balloon safaris if you’ve chosen to travel to South Africa, water skiing along Thailand’s coast or climbing rock faces in Seychelles.
8) Volunteer with animals: Join a turtle conservation gap year program in Greece
These little hatchlings are waddling down to the safety of the ocean via a mini highway dug by GVI volunteers in Greece. Too cute!
Learning about animals in a lecture hall just isn’t the same as being around them every day. If you’re passionate about volunteering with animals, then you might want to do a conservation program.
Taking time during your gap year to work with animals can also help you work on your “bedside manner” if you’re interested in pursuing veterinary science as a career.
If you’d like to tour Europe during your gap year, why not join our turtle conservation project in Greece? You’ll get to sleep and wake up on a Mediterranean beach with other volunteers during the warm summer months, conducting sunset and night-time surveys to find, measure and tag mother sea turtles.
In the mornings, you’ll walk the beach again to record the number of nests that appeared overnight and put barriers in place to protect the eggs from predators. The highlight of this project is, of course, seeing little turtle hatchlings making it to the sea.
While in Greece, you’ll also get the chance to explore some of the ancient sites nearby like the legendary temple of Apollo. Once your time with GVI is over, why not extend your trip and take some time to backpack through neighbouring countries like Turkey, Italy, France or Spain?
It’s important to remember that turtle nesting behaviour is seasonal, which means these programs are only available at specific times of the year.
Browse GVI’s gap year ideas for the upcoming year, and join one of the best gap year programs abroad today.
Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.
Meet Matthew – a wildlife conservation volunteer in South Africa
"My experience was nothing but the best! It lived up to my expectations and then some". Matthew Greenhalgh, aspiring conservationist and wildlife photographer, shares his experience of joining a wildlife volunteer expedition in Limpopo, South Africa.