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10 Impactful Activities To Elevate Your Gap Year Experience

Written by

EF Gap Year

  • Publish Date:April 16th, 2024

As the number of students that decide to participate in a gap year experience rises across the United States, it has become clear that this decision can be a life, career, and personality-defining moment. The period between 18-22 is a crucial phase for learning and development and no matter what you decide to do, it’s important that you make the best of this time. 

Whether you’re new to the idea of a gap year or have been dreaming of the possibility since a child, it can be hard to imagine the activities that would merit taking time off from school. Afterall, all roads point to attending and completing college as quickly as possible. But is this pressure warranted and is taking a gap year a good idea?  

We’re happy to report that taking a gap year is a legitimate option; we even debunked the many misconceptions. The fact is that the experience of a gap often leads to self-discovery, allows you to uncover life-long interests, and boosts educational success upon your return to college. Once you decide to take a gap year before or during college, the question remains, “how should I spend this time, and where can I begin?” 

Don’t worry, the following list will help you to understand the highest-impact activities you can participate in and provide stories from students that have been there before so that you can walk away with tangible ideas for how you can spend your most important year yet. 

1. Travel

Travel is a surefire idea for how to enhance your gap year experience, expand your horizons, and make meaningful connections to new people and cultures. The reality is, life unfolds quickly, and you might not have another window of time–like the one you have right now–to travel until much later in life. 

Luckily, travel gap year opportunities are virtually endless. You can travel internationally or domestically, solo or with a friend, to work or to play, and so on. No matter the type of travel you choose, the impact you feel will be clear and immediate, and is a reason why a gap year is a great idea for many students.

Benefits of traveling during your gap year include: 

Get outside your comfort zone

For many, personal growth comes by way of taking measured risks and having a willingness to push outside of your comfort zone. Whether it be learning to navigate a new city, trying new foods, or experiencing an entirely new culture, traveling during your gap will push you outside of your comfort zone towards experiences that you’ll never regret. Time away from home is a real concern, but know that many gap providers offer full-year programs, semester programs, and even short-term travel opportunities to fit all preferences. 

Experience cultural immersion

If you grew up in a single part of the United States, it’s natural to wonder what else is out there in the country and greater world. Traveling inside or outside the United States on your gap year will allow you to become fully immersed in new cultures that have their own ideals and ways of living. Who knows, you might even want to live in a new country permanently some day! 

Making new friends and connections

As study after study has shown, including Harvard's world’s longest longitudinal study on human happiness, life is made rich by the friends we make and the experiences we have with those around us. Traveling for an extended period will expose you to new relationships that come with valuable perspectives, inspiration, and connections that are only possible when you pack up the car or book that flight. Gap year student Allison L. learned firsthand the power of cross-cultural communication skills during her time acclimating to her host family in Malaga, Spain. 

2. Volunteer

Perhaps the most important and eye-opening gap year experience is volunteering and supporting others through service projects. Service learning is a philosophy you can implement on your gap that combines educational objectives with hands-on experience as a vehicle to help you become a better global citizen.

Ways you can volunteer on your gap year include: 

Join a local NGO

There are numerous NGOs (non-governmental organizations) locally in your community, across the country, and the wider world that are set up to address various social and environmental issues. The WANGO Worldwide NGO Directory is a place to start your search for an organization that is addressing an important cause you might like to support.  

Consider a service trip

There are numerous organizations that connect eager volunteers to worthy service-projects around the world. Your gap could be spent addressing educational needs, community-health concerns, or environmental conservation with organizations like the Peace Corps, Americorps, or service-minded gap year providers. Gap year student Lilly P. experienced the power of service first-hand during her time working with Lifting Hands, a community organization in Costa Rica.  

Fundraise for a local cause

The world needs more energetic philanthropists with their sights set on organizing and invigorating people around a new or existing cause. If this sounds like you, chat with your parents, a mentor, or a local community leader and state your intentions to support a local cause. Not only will you do good for the world, but you will also build invaluable skills and gain resume-boosting credentials to carry with you as you move forward towards your post-gap career.  

3. Study a foreign language

We are living in an era of increased globalization. Cross-cultural communication is more important than ever, especially in the workplace, which makes honing this skill a worthy idea for your gap year. In fact, some career opportunities favor individuals who can speak at least two languages. Plus, learning a new language can be fun and make you more confident and culturally literate. 

If you’re interested in using your gap year to continue your current language studies or picking up a new language entirely, there is no better way than immersing yourself in that given culture. 

Here is how to continue language learning on your gap year: 

Practice at home or online

The best thing you can do after high school is to continue to practice your language skills. If your family is bi-lingual or if you have a friend who is at a similar language level, continue your conversational practice with them. If that’s not an option for you, there are many online learning platforms like Duolingo, Babbel, or EF Hello. These online platforms will continue to work the language-learning muscle while you chart a potential immersion trip abroad.  

Learn via travel

The secret to language learning is full cultural immersion into the foreign-speaking land of your dreams. The only way to do that is to pack your bags and make your way to the continent, country, and city where your desired language is spoken. Self-funded travel, or a language-focused gap program, done with friends or family can give you the opportunity to practice your language skills amongst the people who speak it best. 

Enroll in a language school

Perhaps the best option for continuing your language learning during your gap year is to enroll in a language school overseas. Many international language schools provide full room-and-board and can be attended as a portion of an organized gap program or via direct enrollment to your desired school. You will spend a portion of your day amongst similar-aged students taking language courses and the rest putting those skills to use living in and navigating an international city. If you want to combine guided travel and language immersion, check out The EF Gap Year program.

4. Get internship experience

An internship can be a pivotal steppingstone toward a successful education and career after your gap year. It provides practical, hands-on experience in a professional setting, allowing you to apply the knowledge gained in school to real-world scenarios.

Here's why pursuing an internship during your gap year can be immensely beneficial: 

Gain valuable work experience

Internships offer you the opportunity to gain insight into many career fields, develop future-ready skills, and build a network of professional contacts. Whether it's in business, technology, healthcare, or any other sector, the experience you gain during a gap year internship can set you apart from your peers when you enter college, or eventually the job market. This experience can also be used in application when applying to college after your gap year.

Expand your international exposure

Seeking internship opportunities abroad during your gap can broaden your cultural understanding and global perspective. Working in a different country exposes you to diverse work environments, cultural norms, and business practices, which can enhance your adaptability and cross-cultural communication skills.

Discover interests and passions

A gap year internship allows you to explore different career paths and industries, helping you discover what truly interests and motivates you. Whether you're interning at a startup, a multinational corporation, or a nonprofit organization, each experience provides valuable insights that can shape your future career decisions.

5. Work abroad

Working abroad during your gap year can provide a unique platform to gain valuable work experience, broaden your international exposure, and discover new interests and passions.

Let’s dig into why working abroad during your gap year can be an enriching experience:

Valuable work experience

While on gap, working abroad allows you to immerse yourself in diverse work environments where practical skills and knowledge are gained. Whether you're interning at a multinational corporation, teaching English in a foreign school, or volunteering with a local NGO, the hands-on experience you acquire can pad your resume and set you apart from other students upon your return.

International exposure

One of the most rewarding aspects of working abroad during your gap year is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture. This firsthand exposure can broaden your worldview and help you develop invaluable intercultural skills that are highly sought after in today's interconnected world.

Discover interests and passions

A gap year spent working abroad provides ample opportunities to explore and pursue your interests in an international context. Whether you're passionate about environmental conservation, community development, or social entrepreneurship, working abroad allows you to engage with issues that resonate with you on a deeper level.

6. Teaching Abroad

Like an internship abroad, the opportunity to teach abroad is a surefire way to make your gap year memorable while gaining valuable experiences.

Here's why teaching abroad is an excellent choice:

Valuable growth experience

Teaching abroad presents unique challenges that foster personal and professional growth. This experience boosts confidence, leadership abilities, and global awareness, preparing you for future academic and career endeavors.

Inexpensive way to travel

Teaching programs often offer housing, meals, and a stipend, making it an affordable way to explore new destinations. By teaching English or volunteering in schools abroad, you can immerse yourself in local communities and experience cultural exchange without a hefty price tag.

Community immersion

Teaching abroad will give you the opportunity to engage with local communities and positively impact student lives along the way. There are few experiences as rewarding as entering a new community and learning cultural norms, all while having a crucial role to play for the community. Overcoming these challenges will increase your cross-cultural communication, adaptability, and understanding of the people and world around you.

Navigate a city and day-to-day life

Living and working in a foreign country inevitably challenges you to adapt to new environments and daily routines. From lesson planning to navigating public transportation, teaching abroad fosters independence, communication skills, and problem-solving abilities.

7. Work for a community organization

Although your sites may be set on a global experience, don’t overlook the opportunities to gain meaningful work experience right in your backyard. For example, working for a community organization during your gap year can be just as enriching as spending the time abroad.

A few reasons to consider this path include:

Start your career early

Beginning your post high school journey by working for a local community organization is a way to begin your career before your peers. While your friends are stuck in a classroom learning theory, you will be on the front lines organizing events, managing projects, and learning how to be an effective leader in the real world.

Give back to your community

Contributing to a community organization allows you to give back to the community that shaped you. These efforts will strengthen the fabric and heritage of your community and set an example for generations to come. This could be the time to “do something different” that you need, or the beginning of a career centered around public service.

Valuable skills and connections

Engaging with a community organization offers more than just practical experience—it's a chance to forge meaningful connections and develop essential skills. From leadership and communication to problem-solving and collaboration, the lessons learned working for a community org will serve you well in any future endeavor.

8. Learn a trade or specialized skills

In a rapidly changing job market, acquiring a trade or specialized skill can be a career-enriching way to spend your gap year that could pay dividends well into the future. This is a legitimate way to start your career, or a way to gain more hands-on skills that you can continue as a hobby, side business, or for your own around-the-home benefits.

A few reasons to consider this route include: 

Evolving workforce needs

There is a growing opportunity in the trades due to a shortage of skilled laborers entering the field. If college isn’t an easy decision for you, taking a gap year to explore the trades could be for you. Whether it's coding, graphic design, plumbing, or culinary arts, acquiring a trade can open doors to lucrative career opportunities in high-demand fields.

College is not always the right fit

While higher education is often touted as the only path to success, it's not always the right fit for everyone. For some, pursuing a trade or specialized skill offers a more direct route to a fulfilling career. By investing your gap year in skill development, you can gain valuable experience and credentials without the price tag of a traditional college education.

Rising cost of college

An alternative route into the trades during your gap year can provide a cost-effective alternative to traditional higher education. This option can allow you to enter the workforce sooner while earning a competitive salary or if you decide to return to a vocational school the cost is typically much less than a four-year university.

9. Journalism and content creation

Investing time in your craft as a content creator is an interesting and less talked about gap year pursuit for those with an interest in the creative arts. Journalism, graphic design, video production, and more are in-demand needs that have a low-barrier to entry, and that can quickly become a paying career.

Here’s why taking a year to sharpen these skills could be for you: 

Content is king

The need for content creators has never been higher. Better yet, there is a low barrier to entering the industry, meaning all you need to get started is the desire to start and an internet connection. You can build your own audience around a niche that interests you or develop general content making skills to leverage via your own business or eventually in the workplace.

Learn storytelling

Storytelling lies at the heart of all content creation. It’s also a valuable skill that will impact you in all facets of life. Outside of the practical uses of storytelling–blogs, social media, video productions–the practice can sharpen communication, elevate your confidence, and increase likelihood of success in your career. Afterall, success requires strong communication–and storytelling is the most effective form of communication. Former gap travelers share their perspective on content creation here.

Stimulate creativity and connectivity

Understanding your creativity and how you connect to the world around you is crucial to your future education and career. Content creation and other creative pursuits force you to think creatively and to connect with people, places, and stories in a new way. Not only can delving into this field create a career on its own, but it can build the foundation of skills necessary to succeed in a future pursuit.

10. Sales and entrepreneurship

Another idea for self-motivated students is to spend your gap exploring sales and entrepreneurship. Learning to sell is crucial to educational and career success; while building a business is a crash course in the skills necessary to excel in your personal and professional life.

Here’s a few more reasons why this could be for you:

Learn to sell

Selling is as valuable and universally applicable a skill as there is. Sales forces you to learn effective communication, be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and gain empathy for people while understanding the problems they face. Sales jobs often require no experience and are a great way to spend a gap year before college.

Gain comfort with risk taking

To sell a product or start a business you must put yourself out there–you must take a risk. While not everyone needs to be the next top salesperson or entrepreneur, there is no better time to develop a level of comfort with risk than immediately following high school. This will make it easier to make hard life decisions, adapt in times of uncertainty, and participate in activities that are outside of your comfort zone.

Expand your network

Diving into sales or entrepreneurship at a young age should expand the size of your network, which leads to new friendships and career opportunities. Ultimately, selling requires tenacity and the ability to forge new connections. If done well, it will lead you to learn about the world around you and find opportunities that are reserved for the doers.

That concludes our 10 most impactful activities you can engage in during your year away from school. Note that this is not an extensive list–there are theoretically endless possibilities for your gap year–that’s exactly what makes deciding to take a gap year so difficult and equally invigorating when you find the right path. Remember that this is an ephemeral moment in time, so be introspective, challenge yourself to think outside the box, and find the confidence to step into the unknown. As they say, the greatest things in life sit on the other side of fear.

EF Gap Year

Hi there! We're EF Gap Year. We believe that travel helps you become your best self. We love long trips abroad, living vicariously through our students' adventures, and writing punny Instagram captions.

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