Planning and Preparing for a Gap Year

Planning a Gap Year

Setting Goals

Before you begin researching programs and putting together a plan for your Gap Year, it is important to think about your goals for the year. Doing some self-reflection and answering questions about your interests, passions and motivation will help guide you in your research.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself are:

  • Is there something you have always wanted to do? What are your dreams?
  • How do you want to spend your time?
  • The gap year is actually 15 months of time, meaning that you can possibly do a variety of activities.
  • What do you care about?
  • When this year is over, what do you hope to have achieved?
  • What type of activities are you excited about: travel, adventure, cultural or language immersion, academic, community service, leadership skills?

Talking with Your Family

Taking a Gap Year and figuring out the right plan takes time and support. Students and families should discuss their expectations before getting too far in the planning process.

For example,

  • How much structure and adult supervision is appropriate?
  • What is your budget for the year? Are you expected to work?
  • What are the expectations for how you spend your time?
  • Where might you go?
  • Will part of your year be spent at home?

Researching Your Options

There is no exact formula for the Gap Year. Each plan is unique and based on certain criteria laid out by students and their families.

Students should consider what will be their anchor(s) for their year, and start the research there. Once one or two significant experiences have been identified and the options have been researched, students can fill in the gaps with experiences that fulfill other interests. Some anchors for a gap year to consider:

  • Immersion in a country or culture through language study, homestays, academic programs or service
  • Civic engagement through community service either in the U.S. or abroad
  • A long duration internship or job
  • A major adventure or academic program

We invite you to search the Gap Year Opportunities Online Library for inspiration. Here are directions for searching the library.

Many of the opportunities are through organizations that offer structured gap year programs. Students and families will need to determine if the program, job, internship or class meets their criteria for content and organization, and the following questions can help organize this research process.

  • What type of organization is it and what is their history or reputation?
  • What kind of application is required and what are the criteria for acceptance?
  • What is the itinerary and what will your daily experiences be like?
  • In what country and what type of region (city/rural) will you be?
  • What forms of communication are available: cell phone, email, etc.?
  • What kind of health care is available?
  • What are the living arrangements: Youth hostels, family homes, dormitories, hotels, tents?
  • What forms of transportation will be used? Are you expected to take public transport, ride a bike, in the back of a pick-up truck or on the back of a motorcycle?

In addition to these questions, the questions on the Planning for the Gap Year page might be helpful. Also ask the organizations you are researching for references from people who have recently participated in the same opportunity. By asking these references open-ended questions (“Why did you chose this organization?” “What were some of the highlights?” “What were some of the challenges?”) as opposed to specific questions (“Was it worth it?” “Would you recommend this program to someone?”) you are likely to hear the answers to your questions in their responses.

Preparing for the Gap Year

Whether you are setting off on an independent adventure or working with an organization, it is important to know where you’re going - and why - and understand the risks of the location and work you will be doing. Students and their families should work together to research the itinerary in order to have a clear plan and strong support throughout the Gap Year.

Logistics and Itinerary:
One of the basic principles of risk-management is to have a well-thought out itinerary. Knowing the reasons for going someplace or engaging in an activity can help a traveler decide on the costs and benefits of each aspect of the itinerary. This process of risk/benefit analysis can not only shape the plan for a gap year, but also identify support services (such as suitable clinics and hospitals, or transportation, or banks), and formulate plans for accessing them.

Cultural and Personal Preparation:
In addition to these practical considerations it is just as important to prepare yourself for the experiences you have identified to help you reach your goals. Whether you intend to do meaningful service or commit to learning about a culture or language, it is critical to reflect on your motivation, identity, and opinions. Consider the impact you may have on the people and place and what you will leave behind. What do you gain from these experiences and how are you benefitting others, if at all?

In addition, identify what skills will help you have a successful experience, and what can be done to build those skills before leaving home; for many people the first part of a gap year can be taking classes, or reading and learning about destinations while working to earn money for travel.

During planning, think hard about the baggage - both physical and emotional - you take with you. Make sure you are packing the right items and are well-equipped for the anticipated experiences. Below is a short checklist to get you started on your preparations.


  • Register with your country’s embassy or consulate.
  • Research country-specific information including local laws, crime, health, transportation options, geography, etc.
  • Research the country’s culture, including style of dress, behavior, language, religion and traditions.
  • Determine your plan for transportation.
  • Read and understand the laws and risks of using drugs and alcohol abroad.
  • Consider a plan for relationships and physical intimacy.
  • Develop and write down a plan for emergencies – distribute a list of contacts, including your consulate and in-country emergency services numbers.


  • Research disease and infection issues in the location/s to which you are traveling.
  • If you are traveling abroad, make an appointment with a travel medicine specialist several months in advance of your departure.
  • Understand entry requirements for medications and pack adequate amounts of prescription medications.
  • Secure health insurance for the Gap Year and if you are traveling abroad, research traveler’s health insurance.
  • Identify health care providers in location...specific hospitals, doctors, dentists, etc.
  • Visit your dentist prior to leaving.
  • Put together a first aid kit to take with you.


  • Carry proof of identity. If you are traveling abroad, make sure your passport is valid for six months past your return date and that there are enough blank pages for your intended travel.
  • Research and apply for required visas several months in advance.
  • Write out an itinerary and distribute to your family and contacts.
  • Identify strategies and discuss frequency of communication – cell phone (with international calling), email access, Skype, mailing address, etc.
  • Reserve accommodations – at a minimum, your first and last days.
  • Pack thoughtfully – appropriate clothing for culture and climate, toiletries, gifts for others, etc.
  • Set a budget – discuss finances, research access to money, contact home banks to alert them of travel, develop a back-up plan for emergencies.
  • Plan for voting if you will be away from home during an election year.

Skills Preparation

  • Even if you have studied the language of the country you are traveling to, consider taking a language study course in country at the beginning of your experience.
  • Many service opportunities include teaching. Before arriving in a classroom, prepare for the experience by enrolling in a teaching prep course or working with a teacher prior to departing. Gather lesson plans, identify resources and bring supplies with you.
  • Identify and enroll in a first aid certification course.


  • Plan for journaling throughout the Gap Year – writing, blogging, photo documenting, filming, painting, etc.
  • Begin journaling before departure about goals, expectations, identity, etc., and continue throughout the year’s experiences.
  • Consider a culminating project or presentation at the end of the year so you can continue to focus or collect supporting materials throughout your experience.