You’ve strayed from the beaten path, done hours of deep thinking (or not—helloooo impulsivity), fought off skeptical family members/friends and settled on taking a gap year abroad. Whatever it took for you to get to this point, welcome, it takes tremendous courage to make it this far *high five*. With seemingly endless gap year activities to fill up your time, you’re bound to have a difficult time deciding. Wherever you go, whatever you do, have fun while also setting yourself up for success in the years to come. Let’s get picking!
How to ensure these gap year activities add to your credentials
The excitement surrounding a gap year abroad can lead to a false sense of justification to push off life’s many responsibilities. You may tell yourself that learning is just for school—letting your brain off the hook. You may convince yourself that you’re too young to worry about building your resume—there’s time for that later. After all, gap years should just be about having fun and finally not being in school for a year, right? Not so much.
The temptation to let real life disappear in the rearview mirror behind you as you take off on your new adventure is an obstacle you’ll have to tackle to make the most out of your year (and appease those aforementioned skeptical family members/friends). Don’t panic or run for the hills quite yet, you can still have the gap year you’ve always dreamed of while ensuring you’re learning skills that will help you for years to come.
The trick to ensuring your gap year activities are both productive and fun is to remain intentional with your travels. Whether that’s sitting and observing a culture different than your own, participating in a local ritual, trying new foods, or stepping outside of your comfort zone, take on each activity with an open mind and heart. Approach your gap year abroad as an opportunity to learn something new and grow as an individual. You (and your resume) will thank yourself later.
The skills gained from these gap year activities will keep on giving
1. Adventure Travel
Do you define travel as something that should push your comfort zone, throw you into a totally new environment, and keep you on your toes? If it feels like this is taking the words right out of your mouth, then gap year adventure programs are the choice for you!
- Pros: Say goodbye to boring old city travels and hello to nature, excitement and the adrenaline rush of a lifetime. These gap year travel programs tend to offer a more structured and hands on experience leaving little to no work for you to do ahead of time. Simply pick your poison and let the adventure begin!
- Cons: Though certainly thrilling and packed with fun, gap year adventure programs are not always as strong of a resume booster as other things to do on a gap year. Although we may wish “adrenaline junkie” could be a professional strength, potential employers and universities likely want to see you balance adventure with life skills you learn along the way.
Recommended gap year adventure programs:
2. Au Pair
Working with children is a fun and active way to fully immerse yourself in a new culture all while being kind to your wallet. Being a nanny abroad allows you to live and work with your host family, help the kids learn English and entertain them all while making lifelong memories and getting a healthy dose of their native language and traditions.
- Pros: Au pair jobs are a win win if you love being with children because they provide accommodation, food, and compensation, making them an obvious choice for what to do in a gap year with no money. You don’t have the added stress of making rent payments, finding a place to live, or losing money for a year.
- Cons: Unfortunately one roadblock for au pair jobs is that most programs only accept individuals between the ages of 18-30. That being said, if you fall within the magic age range, something else to be aware of is that personal and professional boundaries are blurry in an au pair job. When you live where you work it can be hard to have your own life and personal space.
Recommended gap year Au Pair programs:
3. Camp Jobs
Hey remember that one time at band camp…Take one of many international summer camp jobs and create a camp story of your own! Work alongside like-minded individuals to create a fun time for the children as well as yourself. If you’re outgoing, love making new friends, and have a spark of creativity, you’re sure to love a summer camp job for your gap year abroad.
- Pros: Summer camp is awesome—you get outdoor gap year activities, make new friends, and connect with nature. What could be better? How about making some pocket change along the way. Yep, many summer camp jobs in Europe as well as American summer camp jobs will pay you to be a camp counselor, group leader, or language coach.
- Cons: International summer camp jobs tend to be very structured and require you to spend a decent amount of time leading groups/activities. This certainly helps sparkle up your resume, however, you may find yourself limited by these demands. See if you can’t take a few days before or after your trip to have some freedom to do what you want to do.
Recommended gap year camp jobs:
4. Experiential / Hands-On Learning
Do you learn better by doing rather than sitting in a classroom? Experiential learning gap year programs are the perfect way to find out. Learn skills you never could in a classroom by experiencing and diving into them first hand. Don’t settle for traditional academics, take your learning to the next level with a hands on volunteer position.
- Pros: The practical life skills you will learn through experiential learning will be useful throughout your entire life (not to mention help you survive a zombie apocalypse). Taking the time to learn a variety of skills and reflecting upon your passions will set you up for success both personally and professionally.
- Cons: In order to get the most out of your experiential learning gap year program, you have to be self aware and reflect upon your experience. Many programs tailor your placement based upon your passions and work with you to help you grow throughout your journey. If you’re not quite ready to be introspective on your gap year, you may struggle with this process.
Recommended gap year experiential/hands-on learning programs:
- Carpe Diem Education
- Winterline Global Education
- See all gap year experiential/hands-on learning programs
Internships are the quintessential resume booster and tend to open doors down the line thanks to the skills learned and relationships built—the perfect combination of business and pleasure when it comes to gap year activities. Take this one step further by doing a gap year internship abroad and you’re sure to stand out in a pile of resumes. Gap year internships allow you access to helping and learning about local communities while giving you tangible work related skills.
- Pros: No matter what you’re interested in, there is an internship out there for you. Companies need interns to support them with their missions and are happy to have you on board. Find your perfect fit to set you up for success in your field when you return home.
- Cons: The word internship often conjures up images similar to that of a job. Unfortunately not all internships for gap year students are paid and they can end up being a lot of work. If your priority is making money, try to find a paid internship or a job abroad.
Recommended gap year internships:
6. Jobs / Work Abroad
To quote Rihanna, there’s something about that work, work, work, work… If you’re broke and wondering what to do in a gap year with no money, you can always take a gap year job abroad. There are tons of cool gap year jobs that will make you feel like you’re not even working.
- Pros: Wyclef Jean said it best: dollar dollar bills y’all (last rap reference, promise). The financial freedom that comes from taking a gap year job abroad is only part of what makes it such a great option. The best gap year jobs not only provide a salary, but also give you positive experiences and professional skills for your future.
- Cons: Working abroad may seem like the magical answer to how to spend your gap year (who doesn’t love making money), however, taking a job limits the activities you will be able to do while abroad. Additionally, due to different labor restrictions across the world, the fields you’ll be able to work in will also be fairly limited and often require a visa.
Recommended gap year jobs:
7. Journalism Experience
Let’s be real, we all want to be Tina Fey from Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The perfect answer via gap year activities? Journalism is a classic way to combine tangible work experience with learning the ins and outs of a new culture. After all, what other job requires you to do research on your new home in order to succeed?
- Pros: A journalism internship abroad is a sure way to set you up for success in your journalism career. Channel your creativity into productivity and build your writing/photography portfolio with exciting pieces from around the world. Beat out the competition by gaining exotic journalism experience.
- Cons: Though certainly romanticized, journalism abroad can be a lot of work with no compensation. Constant deadlines looming over your head and specific content to produce can make it feel like you’re not in control of your own travels. Try to balance work with play and make sure you’re looking into the aspects of culture that interest you outside of your pieces.
Recommended gap year journalism programs:
8. Language Immersion
We live in the era of globalization, jobs are more and more often looking for employees who speak two or more languages. Communication with those around us is increasingly important across disciplines as we try to serve diverse populations. Gap year courses will teach you a new language which is one of the best ways to understand the local community and their culture.
- Pros: Okay, we all know that learning a language is hard, like really hard. Often times a classroom setting is not conducive for learning a new language. Diving into using the language daily is the best way to learn and it doesn’t even feel like you’re learning. Gap year language programs allow you to learn more in less time than a traditional classroom experience.
- Cons: Picture this: you’re sick, tired and overwhelmed with a new culture. You have to figure out how to communicate your needs to your host family all while at the end of your rope. Language immersion programs are not for the faint of heart. Build yourself a support system, make a plan for when the going gets tough and you’ll succeed in a wonderful gap year language program.
Recommended gap year language immersion programs:
If you’ve watched every episode of Grey’s Anatomy and determined that you absolutely have to be the next Meredith Grey or McDreamy, a medical gap year program is the perfect way to get you going. Learn more about medicine and healthcare while serving underserved populations and setting yourself up for med school down the line.
- Pros: There is no better way to get to know yourself and your interest areas than to just jump into your field with both feet. Being a medical volunteer abroad will expose you to multiple fields of medicine as well as alternate practices you may not see in your home country.
- Cons: Medical care in impoverished countries is not always the same as what we are used to. You may be exposed to an extreme lack of resources, complicated medical needs, and loss of life. Programs recommend you try not to get too emotionally invested in each patient or you may suffer emotional trauma.
Recommended gap year medical programs:
Music often starts off as something that we do for fun as children and later are forced into through mandatory music classes in primary school. If you reach your teenage years and are still involved in music, chances are you’re in for life—and why shouldn’t you be? Music is an incredible art. Gap year music programs are a great opportunity to learn about music in another culture while expanding your own repertoire. Consider filling your gap year activities with music-oriented projects, like teaching kids how to play instruments or studying ethno-musicology in Mali.
- Pros: Cultures around the world have been playing music since the beginning of time. What you’ve been exposed to is just a small slice of the music out there. Open your eyes (and ears) to something different than what you’re familiar with and walk away a better musician for life.
- Cons: If you get to your gap year music program and suddenly realize you don’t click with the local music style, you may feel stuck. As a musician it can be hard to play a genre outside of your comfort zone, especially if you’re learning a new instrument too. Keep in mind, your musical abilities will be improved even if you never play that instrument or genre again.
Recommended gap year music programs:
Get ready to have your breath taken away, literally. Whether you’re in it for marine conservation or just love the feeling of being 60 feet under the surface, scuba diving programs have it all. Learn how to dive safely while contributing to research and conservation programs working to save the inherent beauty of underwater life.
- Pros: Scuba diving courses allow you to see a part of the world that few have access to. Defeat human limitations by breathing underwater and collecting research on the mysteries that lie under the water. Rest easy knowing that your work isn’t just fun, but also helps ensure that the wonders you are seeing will still be around for future generations.
- Cons: Most scuba diving jobs abroad are unpaid internships assisting researchers with their projects. Despite not receiving monetary compensation, you’ll still get professional research experience that will help boost your resume. As with any adventure, there are some safety risks involved with scuba diving. Mitigate these risks through using a well renowned company and following all safety recommendations.
Recommended gap year scuba programs:
12. Ski Instructor
Nothing quite beats the rush of speeding down some fresh powder on freshly waxed skis. Turn your hobby into a way to make money or potentially into the career of your dreams with this little thought of gap year activity. If you’re a serious pro why not take some gap year ski instructor courses in Europe or Canada in order to help others learn to love skiing the same way you do?
- Pros: Work that doesn’t feel like work, yes please! Gap year skiing is a fun and active way to learn a desirable skill and improve your own skiing. Not to mention the fact that you get to learn from the best of the best in some of the most desirable skiing locations. What could be better?
- Cons: Transitioning from skiing for fun and enjoyment to skiing for work can be tough mentally. You have to learn how to differentiate the times you’re skiing for yourself and for work. Patience is key to learning how to teach newbies and ski at a level far below what you’re used to.
Recommended gap year ski instructor programs:
Spanish is a highly desirable language in many countries given the number of countries that speak Spanish. Becoming bilingual is no simple task, but luckily Spanish is not the most difficult second language to learn. Immerse yourself in Spanish culture and language by taking a Spanish gap year and you’re sure to be grateful you did. Language learning fun like shopping in the market or taking art classes double as meaningful gap year activities, no?
- Pros: Given the variety of countries that speak Spanish, you have a great deal of flexibility in selecting your new temporary home. Take advantage of a homestay and experience the local cuisines, make friends for life, and feel completely at home.
- Cons: Unlike other languages, there is no single form of Spanish that is the same no matter where you go. Depending on which country you choose, you’ll learn a different form of Spanish than elsewhere. Be aware that accents and vocabulary you learn in one place may not necessarily translate other places.
Recommended gap year Spanish programs:
- Cross-Cultural Solutions
- Andeo International Homestays
- Spanish Studies Abroad
- See all gap year Spanish programs
14. Sports Coaching
Sports cross cultures, countries, and languages to unite people from every end of the earth. You don’t need to be able to speak the local language or know someone’s life story to connect with them on a deep level. Gap year sports coaching allows you a special glimpse into the heart of the locals and will leave a lasting impression on all involved.
- Pros: Sports coaching jobs abroad are a great way to use your skills to help those in need. Inspire passion and drive in those you coach and help them gain your same love of sports. Use sports coaching as an opportunity to mentor youth in the community and feel fulfilled by your addition to community development.
- Cons: Though sports can unite people across cultures, that doesn’t always mean they are the same sports or rules you’re used to. Expect to find some differences in the way they play the same sport or to have your favorite sport not even be on their radar.
Recommended gap year adventure programs:
15. Study Abroad
Who said study abroad programs are just for college students? Gap year study abroad programs are a brilliant way to earn some college credits before starting your college journey. Out of the many gap year activities to choose from, this may be the easiest one to sell to friends and family.
- Pros: A study abroad gap year is the perfect way to get your feet wet with school while still having the travel and adventure you expect from a gap year. With seemingly limitless countries to go to and courses to take, the toughest part will simply be choosing.
- Cons: Taking a gap year study abroad instead of a typical study abroad through your college runs the risk of credits not transferring. Colleges can be strict about what credits they accept and if you aren’t sure what school you’re going to yet, it’s hard to know ahead of time if the classes you take will count down the line.
Recommended gap year study abroad programs:
16. Teach Abroad
Access to education is a major concern in many countries around the world. Lack of teachers is one of the contributing factors and as a result many children lack basic education. If you’re passionate about education and enjoy spending time with children, you will be fulfilling a major need by doing a gap year teaching program.
- Pros: Children love to learn and will be incredibly grateful for your presence and time. You will have a lasting impact on the children you teach and can anticipate having a hard time parting ways with them. There is no better way to start off a career in teaching than teaching those who are happy to be at school.
- Cons: Teaching in parts of the world where access to education is limited, school buildings are decrepit or non-existent, and children are forced to work rather than go to school can be very difficult. Gap year teaching abroad is difficult work and will challenge your world perspective.
Recommended gap year teach abroad programs:
Given that it is perhaps one of the most commonly thought of things to do on a gap year, there are tons of gap year volunteer programs to choose from. No matter what your calling is or what population you want to work with, you’ll be able to find the perfect program to fit your needs.
- Pros: Volunteering is an important part of humanity and what better time to do it than on your gap year. You will be helping one of many communities in need and can sleep easy at night knowing you are making the world a better place.
- Cons: Although volunteering warms your heart and spiffs up your resume, it will do so at the cost of emptying your wallet. Paying money to go help those in need for free can be a difficult pill to swallow, but once you get past that, the connections you’ll make will make it all worth it.
Recommended gap year volunteer programs:
Of all the things to do on a gap year, a wilderness semester, also termed an outdoor semester, is one of the coolest. Turn back the clocks to be one with your ancestors and experience a more primitive side of life. Build important life and survival skills in some of the most beautiful places on earth.
- Pros: Experience limitless freedom both in the wilderness and in selecting either one country or a region to explore. The world is full of natural treasures from crystal clear waters to dizzyingly high mountains. Whether you simply want to explore the outdoors, or if you’d prefer to have a conservation element, there is a program for you.
- Cons: Programs like outward bound challenge you both mentally and physically. Your courage will be tested daily so plan on bringing your A game. If you’re more of a netflix binging couch sitter (hey, no judgement here) this may be a little too extreme for you. Comfort will be thrown out the window and you’ll be living life in a way you haven’t before.
Recommended gap year wilderness programs:
19. Work Exchanges
Although you won’t receive direct financial compensation, work exchange programs should still find their way onto your list of what to do in a gap year with no money. Gap year work programs often involve exchanging one service for another, such as your help on a project for language classes, while giving you work experience.
- Pros: If you want to work away for a year yet find yourself not quite wanting to volunteer or go through the process of getting an official work visa, a work exchange program is a happy medium. Receive tangible benefits for your hard work and boast professional work experience on your resume.
- Cons: Although you will be receiving some sort of compensation for your time and efforts, you’re still paying money to work and aren’t getting any money back. If you can frame your gap year as a time to build your resume, gain important skills, and make professional connections, then gap year work programs will fulfill your expectations.
Recommended gap year work exchange programs:
- Travellers Worldwide
- Aldeas De Paz - Peace Villages Foundation
- See all gap year work exchange programs
20. Working Holiday
So, you’ve decided on a gap year but don’t quite want to commit to a full year abroad, try taking a gap year working holiday. A great way to make some money while getting the international experience you’ve always wanted. If you were still unsure of what to do in a gap year with no money, you’ve found your perfect work overseas gap year.
- Pros: Finally, a gap year job abroad that is paid! Due to the limited timeframe of a working holiday, the visa process is typically shorter and easier to obtain. With salaries varied upon position you can actually travel and save money. Not to mention you get the rest of your gap year to do whatever your heart desires.
- Cons: Gap year holidays will get your feet wet with what it feels like to live and work abroad. It can feel like an easier time frame to commit to than a year, however, you may be surprised to find that it’s not long enough. At the end of your stay you may feel the pull to stay and wish you had picked a longer program.
Recommended gap year adventure programs:
What gap year activities did we miss?
Whew! There sure are a lot of things to do as you weigh your gap year activities. You can’t go wrong! Now comes the tough decision (hey—I thought the tough decision was deciding to take a gap year…), where do you go and what do you do? Rest assured that with an open heart and intentional mind, you’re sure to pick the best program for you that will teach you important life skills along the way.