30 unique ways to spend a gap year before college

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January 26, 2019
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30 unique ways to spend a gap year before college

After flipping their graduation tassels and listening to a few rounds of “Pomp and Circumstance,” lots of high school graduates find themselves asking, “What’s next?” Although a lot of them will head straight to college, others opt to take a “gap year” instead, using the time to travel, learn, and explore.

Depending on each person’s individual interests and goals, these experiences can play out in many different ways. Students who already know what they want to study in college, for example, may use the opportunity to intern in their field or get a head start building applicable skills. Others may simply take the time to travel and clear their head, allowing new ideas to spring forward as they whittle down their options. Common elements of gap years include volunteer opportunities, educational or learning components, and cultural exchanges.

If you’re considering taking a gap year but don’t know where to start, think about your personal goals, as well as your current skill set. Research each program’s requirements in terms of prerequisites, as well as the general qualities that they are seeking in applicants. Also, think about your own personality and what types of scenarios you’d thrive in the most. Are you someone who likes freedom and flexibility, for instance, or do you prefer structure? Are you adventurous enough for the living conditions of a developing country, or are you someone who enjoys creature comforts?

With endless options out there, Stacker has put together a list of unique and interesting ways to spend a gap year to assist in the quest for the right fit. The list is complete with specific programs, requirements, and other pertinent information on each potential experience.

Take a look at some of the best options and prepare for your great adventure to unfold.

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Thinking Beyond Borders

Global gap year agency Thinking Beyond Borders offers participants a world tour as they travel from country to country, learning about local issues and volunteering within communities. Its most popular program is called Global Gap Year, which takes students to Guatemala, Thailand, Cambodia, Ghana, Morocco, and the United States. According to the agency, it is looking for students who show a “passion for learning” and a “commitment to making change in their communities.”

Volunteering Solutions

With Volunteering Solutions, organizers connect students with various volunteer opportunities throughout the world at destinations including Thailand, Bali, India, Uganda, Philippines, China, Tanzania, Nepal, and others. The group offers tons of different types of volunteerism including teaching, community development, medical volunteering, disabled care, women empowerment, and even journalism and media internships.

Engineering World Health Summer STEM Programs

Aimed at medical students or those in other science-related fields, the Engineering World Health Summer STEM Programs allow participants to use their emerging skills to further various global health initiatives. The summer programs, which take place in the Dominican Republic, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda, place undergraduates in low-income hospitals and clinics where they serve two-month stints helping the local community.  

AuPair World

For people who've always wanted to try being an au pair, this organization is a great way to get connected with host families. The idea of the arrangement is that a local family provides lodging and meals (and sometimes a small stipend) in exchange for work around the house or tending to the children. The main objective is that both the au pair and the host family build cultural understanding and work on their language skills.


AmeriCorps is a classic gap year choice that gives young people various opportunities to work on environmental and community outreach initiatives throughout the United States. Often referred to as the “domestic Peace Corps,” the organization focuses on anti-poverty programs, youth mentoring, sustainability campaigns, national disaster preparedness, and other domestic initiatives. Participants can serve a standard one-year term or join part-time or summer programs.



Art History Abroad

For art history majors and other lovers of fine arts, this Art History Abroad program provides the chance to study and appreciate art in Europe and other foreign locations. Each program offers a different sampling of art and culture. Its course in Italy, for example, offers a six-week study of architecture and sculpture on a tour that includes Rome, Naples, Siena, Florence, Verona, and Venice.


Loop Abroad's Veterinary Semester

Targeting aspiring veterinarians, zoologists, and other animal-focused careers, Loop Abroad's Veterinary Semester Abroad lets students work in veterinary hospitals, clinics, or other environments where they learn about and interact with various animals. Each opportunity is unique, ranging from studying elephants and sea turtles in Thailand to volunteering with monkeys and tapirs in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Ironhack Web Development Programs

Designed with tech students in mind, Ironhack's Web Development Programs offer nine-week boot camps—as well as longer, 24-week programs for part-timers—that provide a space for students to practice their web skills in beautiful and intriguing locations. Some of the countries on the list include Spain, Germany, France, Colombia, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil. Coursework includes UX/UI design, full-stack web development, HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, React, TypeScript, Express, MongoDB, and more.

Stoke Travel Adventure Programs

If you're someone with a taste for adrenaline, not to mention a wild party, the Stoke Travel Adventure Programs will allow you to indulge in your crazy, adventurous side. Dubbed “party travel for the open-minded individual,” the programs include ski trips in Andorra, surfing safaris in San Sebastian, cruise rides in Croatia, and netball tournaments in San Vino. The organization also offers experiences like attending festivals, going to carnivals, and taking “glamping” trips.


Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an organization that's been around so long people have turned it into a verb. ”WWOOFing,” as it's sometimes called, allows you to volunteer on organic farms throughout the world where you help out in exchange for food and lodging. Unlike many programs which have an age limit, WWOOF encourages people of all ages to participate, noting that some hosts even prefer “more mature WWOOFers who have specific skills.”


Institute For American Universities French Honors Program

French majors or other advanced-level French speakers can hone their language skills by participating in the Institute For American Universities' French Honors Program in Aix-en-Provence, France. The semester-long program, which offers academic course credits, includes a weekly French Honors course, as well as integrated activities and field studies. All student applicants must be able to demonstrate advanced French language and comprehension skills.

Sustainable Summer Semester Program

Meant for young people interested in conservation and the environment, Sustainable Summer offers “bridge years” where recent high school graduates can gain leadership skills while learning about ecological and sustainability issues. The program includes a four-week orientation period in Ecuador, a two-week leadership expedition to destinations like Cotopaxi or the Galapagos, and a 10-week fellowship with an environmental non-governmental organization.



Adelante is an organization that places Spanish majors and other students interested in the Spanish language in internships and study abroad programs. The idea is to strengthen their language skills while also broadening cultural awareness and giving back to the community. The organization, which says its mission is to encourage candidates to “move beyond their comfort zone,” has programs in Spain, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, and other countries.



NOLS Semester in the Rockies

Rooted in outdoor leadership and appreciation, NOLS has been spearheading wilderness excursions for young people for decades. Its Semester in the Rockies is aimed at outdoor-loving students who want to use their gap year to gain wilderness survival skills while also participating in adrenaline sports that get their hearts pumping. Expedition activities include whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountaineering, canyoneering, backpacking, backcountry skiing, and others.


Los Angeles Performing Arts Conservatory Gap Year

Aspiring actors will feel at home in this performing arts-based gap year program aimed at budding actors, entertainers, and thespians. Located in Los Angeles and taught by Hollywood Acting Professionals, the Los Angeles Performing Arts Conservatory Gap Year has produced actors like Ken Jeong and Dario Soler.

Sporting Opportunities

For young people who love sports, this versatile organization is a great way to find a gap year opportunity that's focused on athletics. Participants can coach, train, or play a variety of sports in Ghana, Kenya, China, India, Thailand, Argentina, Australia, Fiji, and other locations. The program offers a great way to gain resume experience for those seeking future coaching opportunities.

Global Citizen Year

With the objective of giving students a broader world perspective, Global Citizen Year fully immerses participants in the language and culture of their host country. The program runs for a full school year during which time students live with a family in India, Brazil, Ecuador, or Senegal, working as an apprentice or fellow on various educational, environmental, anti-poverty, and health-related initiatives.

The Leap Medical Internship

Designed for prospective medical students, as well as young people with an interest in global health care, The Leap's Medical Internship is a fantastic way for future doctors, nurses, and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders to gain real-world experience and learn more about their field, while also impacting people's lives. Based in either Sri Lanka or Nepal, students work in a fast-paced hospital setting where they treat patients and assist with medical care.

Seamester Study Abroad at Sea

Whether you want to be a marine biologist or simply have the urge to sail around the world, the Seamester Study Abroad at Sea program offers a vessel in which students can see new countries and learn more about life at sea. Participants spend three months in a traveling classroom where they get college credit for courses in marine biology and oceanography—complete with lectures, research projects, midterms, and finals. They also learn about local culture and history during day excursions to land and receive certifications in various sailing techniques, PADI Open Water, First Aid, and CPR.

Oxford Royale Academy Politics and International Relations

Oxford Royale Academy's Politics and International Relations program is designed for students interested in a career in politics, diplomacy, or global affairs. The 10-week academic gap year program, located in Oxford, England, includes rigorous debating sessions, independent research projects, field trips, and lectures. Students develop a personal thesis during the course, which includes lessons political science, international institutions, global perspectives, nationalism, and democracy. Samples theses have included “Brexit: the Consequences of Britain Leaving the EU,” “The New, Not-So-Cold, War With Russia,” and “The Politics of Climate Change.”


National Security Language Initiative for Youth

The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) is a scholarship program funded in part by the U.S. Department of State with the goal of boosting American citizens' foreign language skills and cultural understanding. It sends students to various countries for 8-to-10-week immersive experiences where they can learn languages including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Turkish, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, or Russian. “The summer I spent in Jordan was the singularly most defining experience in my life,” wrote one participant. “I've never been so challenged, transformed, and inspired as I was when I navigated the challenges and wonders of living abroad.” Applicants must be currently enrolled in high school with a GPA of 2.5 or higher.


API Abroad Costa Rica Sustainability And Environmental Studies Program

Another gap year program aimed at environmental conservation, API Abroad's Costa Rica Sustainability And Environmental Studies Program takes place in the Costa Rican suburb of San Joaquin De Flores, just outside the capital of San Jose. In addition to learning Spanish, participants attend classes at local universities where they study biology, ecology, earth sciences, and cultural studies—much of which is focused on the region's rich biodiversity.


Cross Cultural Solutions

Cross Cultural Solutions offers a wide range of international volunteering opportunities including its “Around The World Gap Year,” a 32-week tour with stops in Peru, Thailand, Ghana, Greece, and Morocco. Most of the program's initiatives work in line with the United Nations Sustainable Developments goals, which are to end poverty and hunger, achieve gender equality, ensure healthy lives, and promote inclusive and equitable education.

Cultural Vistas Paid Technical Internships

What sets Cultural Vistas apart from other gap year programs is that all of the opportunities it offers are paid internships. The group's focus is mainly on technical and professional development programs, placing students in paid fellowships in the fields of architecture, agriculture, business consulting, finance, accounting, media and communications, design, real estate, economics, and the nonprofit sector. The organization operates in more than 25 countries.


Projects Abroad's Journalism Internship in China

Future journalism students or others interested in media and communications careers will gain extensive real-life knowledge and skills from Projects Abroad’s Journalism Internship in China. The program places aspiring media professionals at a magazine in Shanghai where they write stories about entertainment, lifestyle, and business topics. It’s a great portfolio builder, as well as an excellent opportunity to learn more about Chinese language, food, and culture.

Carpe Diem Education

What makes Carpe Diem Education stand out from other Spanish immersion programs is its special focus on getting students outside their comfort zones. It offers practical, real-life skills that prepare students for future international solo travel. With programs in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica,Peru, Bolivia, and other countries, participants learn Spanish amid a “no cell-phone, no Wifi” setting that also prohibits drug and alcohol in an effort to keep participants “present, safe, and involved.” The programs, which are also offered in non-Spanish speaking countries, give students the option of earning up to 18 quarter college credits.

Where There Be Dragons Madagascar Semester

Nestled on the so-called “8th continent” of Madagascar, this unique gap year program gives participants insight into the ecosystems of the region, as well as its many challenges. Students travel around the country by bush taxi, trekking through national parks and visiting wildlife sanctuaries to learn about lemurs and other local animals. There are also opportunities to speak the local Malagasy language and study the area's limestone pinnacles. The organization, which says that global citizenship, self-awareness, and leadership are its core values, stresses the “rugged travel” element, noting that “Dragons students are travelers, not tourists.”

Performing Arts Abroad Music Internship In Barcelona

Located in the vibrant, historic Spanish city of Barcelona, Performing Arts Abroad's Music Internship is an exceptional way for music majors to learn more about the music industry and practice their skills in a beautiful setting. Participants intern at a Spanish music school about 20 hours a week, assisting with marketing initiatives, public relations, teaching, online promotion, social media, and even working as a production assistant in some cases. “I had the opportunity to work with a great mentor who went out of her way to guide me and make sure I gained a lot of hands-on experience,” one student wrote. “It was also a pleasure to work with the students and improve my Spanish along the way.”

Gapforce's Trekforce Expedition Leader Training

Intended for supremely adventurous, thrill-seeking lovers of the outdoors, Gapforce's Trekforce Expedition Leader Training is a quintessential survival course that teaches students a staggering amount of practical backcountry skills in four short months. Beginning in Wales and ending in Costa Rica, participants receive Mountain Leadership and Advanced Expedition Medicine training while practicing things like cave rescues, jungle survival scenarios, drowning prevention, and kayak skill building. Previous expedition leaders have gone on to star in TV survival shows (Bruce Parry in "BBC The Tribe" and Ed Stafford in “Naked and Marooned”) and work on the sets of series like Ben Fogle's “Extreme Dreams.”


Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences Summer Courses (BIOS)

These rigorous academic summer programs offer advanced level marine studies in Bermuda, where students can engage in oceanic field studies to complement their coursework. Aimed at upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and even professionals in the field, the institute holds different classes each summer which may include topics like Marine Plankton or Coral Reef Ecology. According to BIOS, the classes provide students with the “opportunity to study topics in marine science that might not be offered within the curricula of their home institutions.”


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