What's a Gap Year and How Do I Plan One?

While gap years have been around for decades in other parts of the world, the concept of taking a year off between high school and college is a fairly new one to American students. Most of us who knew we were college bound spent our junior and senior years of high school jumping through the requisite hoops: SAT's, college prep courses, applications, and interviews, all with the goal of graduating in June and heading off to college in September.

But what if you don't know you're college bound? What if you still don't have a clue about what you want to spend your life doing, despite your guidance counselor's best efforts? What if you're burnt out on school and want a break to clear your head? What if you need to earn money so that you can lighten or even eliminate your school loan debt load? What if you want a bit of life experience before heading into the hallowed halls that own your four years of undergrad study?

Then a gap year just may be the best thing you choose to do next year.

We're speaking from personal experience. While we recently launched our second son to college, he spent a year working and praying about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.  Two jobs taught him what he didn't want to spend the rest of his life doing, while one gave him the impetus to embark on a nursing career, finding a college that would be a good fit for his studies. 

That gap year also gave him the opportunity to do some traveling, strengthen relationships with friends who stayed local, and learn what he really valued most. In short, he grew up.

I crowd-sourced about gap years on my Facebook page and received some insightful comments from people all over the country who had done a gap year of some sort or other. Not one of them had a negative take on the time they spent doing something other than schooling. Here are a few:

I spent almost 2 years doing missions work with YWAM between highschool and college. I also worked for a year. I graduated at age 16 and started college at age 19. It was great for me, as I was much more prepared for college after a little work and life under my belt.
— Shawna
[My daughter] took a gap year or two, spending five months at a discipleship program in Switzerland and another year working at a Christian camp and visiting an aunt in England. She is now studying hard to get a degree, but loved her gap year experiences and the personal growth she gained through them.
— Jennifer
I did in the middle of college to do YWAM. Best decision in college that I made.
— Corinne
I told my daughter not to go straight to college. She needed to travel and live on her own if she wanted and save up money, etc. Play a bit. She did that and in that year wound up getting the dream job she was going to go to college to get years later. Now instead of tuition money, she’s getting paid to learn at the place where she was going to apply to work. She’ll work her way up and they will help with tuition I believe if she decides to do that. But there’s so much room for growth and expansion that her options are endless. And having this company on her resume will be more than a replacement for college should she ever leave or it will assure her a better job with or without college!
— Teresa

Does a gap year sound like a good fit for you, too? Here are some fabulous ideas and resources to get you started:

Gap Year Ideas

  On the Island of Capri

On the Island of Capri


Traveling is probably the number one gap year choice, and for good reason. Making travel plans, getting all of the necessary items lined up, shopping for the best travel deals, and navigating your way in a foreign country all lend themselves to great personal growth. 

Earlier this summer our 16-year-old and 15-year-old missed a connecting flight on their way home to California but they did a great job figuring out how to switch flights. By the time I texted them, they had it all resolved. What a great experience for them!

Want to see how one college student plans to see the world? Check out Taylor's Global 365 project.

Travel Resources and Organizations to Consider:

You could simply google "gap year travel" or "student travel" and find hundreds of resources. Because we haven't used any student travel services, we would be reluctant to list any here. We do, however, have experience with the organizations below.

Rick Steves Europe - We love Rick Steves' frugal, realistic approach to travel with a heavy emphasis on history and culture. Download a Rick Steves guide to your tablet or phone and you'll get the best tour guide out there.

Rotary International - Rotary has been around a long time and has an excellent reputation as a service organization that helps people all over the world. They also have an exchange program that would be well worth looking into.

Sister Cities International - Chances are, your city has a "sister city" somewhere in the world, and Sister Cities International organizes exchanges every year, sending students into communities as a sort of goodwill experience.

Our family has personally hosted 3 young women through the Sister Cities program and two of our children have applied to go next year. It's been an amazingly positive experience for us.

  Our son Nate teaching his younger brother some lifeguarding skills

Our son Nate teaching his younger brother some lifeguarding skills


Our son needed to work during his gap year. We encouraged him to travel more than he did, but once he decided to apply to nursing school for the following year, he was bent on saving up as much money as possible. That meant taking on two jobs and then a third that took over his summer months. 

The reality is, most young adults are going to need to produce some sort of an income to support both their living expenses and to fund their gap year. The great thing is, most of them can work while traveling or pursuing other experiences.





Volunteering is the motivating factor for quite a lot of young adults considering gap years. From church internships to inner-city after-school programs to year-long volunteer positions with ministries, there are so many opportunities to gain experience and work with organizations that help those in need. 

You could teach English, help a struggling reader, work with animals, help shut-ins, work on building projects and conservation efforts - really, the sky's the limit because so many organizations lack the people-power they need to keep serving their community.

Volunteer Resources and Organizations to Consider:

Start with your home church. What are the ministries they support? Do a little sleuthing and find out if there is a need for volunteers.

Think through your motives for volunteering. If it's going to be a vehicle for inexpensive international travel, you might want to reconsider. Most organizations really need skilled volunteers: doctors, dentists, nurses, construction experts, etc.

If an organization or ministry is excited to have you and you're ready to jump in and do whatever they need done, then it will likely be a great fit. Go with the mindset of serving rather than being a burden.

  Study anything you desire, at a depth that matters to you

Study anything you desire, at a depth that matters to you

Short-Term Study

How about a year to study something you won't get time for once you hit college? Here's your opportunity to flex your autodidactic muscles. Want to read every Shakespeare play published? Great. Especially fabulous if you top it off with a trip to, say, Stratford-Upon-Avon. 

Really interested in computer coding but don't want to major in computer sciences? Now's your chance. Take community college courses without the pressure of performing for a grade.

Gap years are also often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on your spiritual life. When else in life - once career and family enter the picture - will you have uninterrupted time to study Scripture, to meditate, to pray?



Study Resources and Organizations to Consider:

Again, so many opportunities out there, so we are listing just a few to get you thinking and searching in the right direction for you. This is by no means a definitive list, but these are organizations and ministries we can get behind based on the testimonials of family members and friends.

YWAM - Youth With a Mission welcomes students of all ages and nationalities for short and long-term programs.

Torchbearers - Torchbearers Bible Schools and ministry centers host short-term students all over the world for the growth of the student and the glory of God.

How Do I Start to Plan My Gap Year?

  • Start by simply writing down the options that appeal to you the most. 
  • Pray about what God might have for you, and where your time would be best spent.
  • Research realistic costs, including transportation, lodging, meals, spending money, and emergency funds.
  • Create an itinerary. Don't wing this part; you'll need to be able to give potential employers your arrival and departure dates and you'll be able to capitalize on the best travel rates and discounts.
  • Start saving money if that's how you're going to fund your year.
  • Go!