What Your Gap Year Can Look Like and Tools to Help You Plan It

By Ashley Lulling

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart centers on the deep friendship between Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who’ve dedicated the past four years to their studies at the expense of enjoying the thrills and fun of being a teen in high school. The story transpires on the eve of graduation when Molly has an epiphany that their monastic focus on academics was unwarranted. Luckily, a night of partying is still theirs to embrace.

Through hysterical and whimsical moments, we witness two young women stepping outside of their comfort zones, challenging what they think is expected of them, and experiencing the fulfillment that brings. Amy takes it a step further—spoiler alert—by revealing she is not taking the typical path by heading straight to college after high school. Instead, she is deferring Columbia University to embark on a gap year in Botswana for a humanitarian project.

Are you thinking about taking a gap year—some time off between school or before settling into a career—to volunteer, travel, and/or gain experience in a particular field?

Despite the name, your gap experience doesn’t have to be for an entire year like Amy’s in Booksmart; it could be a semester or a few months between school and full-time work. You don’t have to spend it all in one location either and the options are endless.

Here are two very different gap year experiences to show you what’s possible:

Linde, 18


Linde combined three programs in three different countries for her gap year program:

  • Volunteering at a school in Cape Town, South Africa through Shine Literacy for four months
  • Working as a camp counselor in Minong, Wisconsin at Camp Birch Trail for 10 weeks
  • Living with a host family and caring for their children for three month’s on InterExchange's Au Pair Spain program for 12 weeks
What were the challenges in deciding on a gap year? Did you have people in your life who were resistant to the idea?

Everyone was very supportive of me taking a gap year and I had a great career advisor at my high school to help me think about how I would like to spend my year. My parents were also super supportive and are so happy that I am taking this year to do what I want.

What made you decide to do a gap year?

I wanted to see more of the world and push myself out of my comfort zone more since I went to a small, sheltered school. My school did allow me to become a stronger and more opinionated person, but it kept me too comfortable. I also worked extremely hard in high school to achieve my goals and wanted to take a break for myself before I immersed myself in my university work. I wanted to do these programs to expose me to the possibility of going into the field of education and I also wanted to do more work with children.

Linde with other counselors

Linde with fellow counselors at Camp Birch Trail

What are you doing next year? Did you already know what you're going to do after, or have you had to plan that while you're on your gap year?

Next year I will be attending the University of Cape Town [Linde has U.S. and South African citizenship] and will be majoring in gender studies, history, and sociology. I applied to university last year and deferred my acceptance to 2020. At the beginning of this year, I contacted the admissions office and asked them to resubmit my application, which went through and I got re-admitted for the 2020 academic year.

How did you raise money to participate in your gap year programs?

My first gap year program [volunteering in Cape Town] did not cost anything and I was able to make money through au pairing and babysitting to help support some of my initial costs in the U.S. when I started working at the summer camp. Additionally, the main cost of my second gap year program was the flight to the U.S., which my parents graciously paid for. For my travel to Madrid later this year, I will put some of the money that I’ve earned at my summer camp towards that.

Will, 24


Will spent one year volunteering with Partners in Health at a hospital in Mexico.

What were the challenges in deciding on a gap year? Did you have people in your life who were resistant to the idea?

Going into medicine, I believe there is a bit of pressure on students to move through the process as quickly as possible. As you tally up the number of years you will spend in school and residency, the idea of taking an extra year off can be daunting. However, the average age of matriculating students continues to rise as people recognize the value of gaining experience before returning to school with new energy and fresh ideas. Luckily, I had tons of support from family and friends and was able to fund my year through the Christianson Fellowship.

What made you decide to do a gap year?

Partners in Health was one of my original inspirations to go into medicine and global health, so when I was offered the opportunity to work with them in Mexico, I felt I had to take it. I knew I would cherish the opportunity to live in a new country and culture and thought that my experience would only make me a better medical student moving forward.

Will and co-worker at hospital

Will in the operating room with his co-worker Erick

What are you doing next year? Did you already know what you're going to do after, or have you had to plan that while you're on your gap year?

In fact, I was all set to begin medical school in the summer of 2018 when I was offered the position with Compañeros en Salud [the Mexican partner organization of Partners in Health]. I worked with my university to defer my acceptance for a year in order to accept the position. It was great being able to fully immerse myself in my experience in Mexico without stressing about applications or what comes next. That being said, several of my co-workers at Compañeros en Salud were in the process of applying to schools while working with me in Mexico. While it took some good planning and organization of interview days, they were proof that it is definitely doable to apply while abroad!

How did you raise money to participate in your gap year programs?

I was lucky enough to have the Christianson Fellowship fully fund my year with Compañeros en Salud!

Check out Will’s blogs about his gap year experience in Mexico!

What can your gap year look like?

Are you interested in learning Spanish? Join a Spanish Immersion program in which you live with locals in a Spanish-speaking country and take daily lessons.

Want to experience another country for up to a year and take on jobs to fund your travels? Consider a Work & Travel program! You’ll travel on a Working Holiday Visa, which will let you stay in the host country for an extended period of time and legally work.

Eva Marie A on a farm

Eva Marie A. worked on a farm during her Work & Travel New Zealand gap year experience.

Have a specific skill you want to share with others? You might think about volunteering to teach that skill to youth or senior citizens or use it to help a community in need, like Will did with the support from the InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship. The experience can help you solidify your existing knowledge, gain interpersonal skills, and even help you discover new passions.

The possibilities are endless and yours to tailor!

Tools to help you plan your gap year

American Gap Association

Resources for students, parents, and educators interested in a gap year

AMP Global Youth

Resources for young people planning or returning from international experiences

USA Gap Year Fairs

Lists domestic and international opportunities


Our friendly and professional staff are quick to respond and happy to offer support as you plan your gap experience. Contact us.

Riley in Australia

Riley B. during her gap year in Australia

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation