Graduating college is a huge achievement and often a point of radical transition and change. You've likely been in school continuously for close to two decades, and suddenly you are spat out into the "real world" with less structure than you're used to. Rather than jumping straight into a 9-to-5, the idea of taking a year off to rest, find excitement or explore a hobby is a tempting one. You might be ready for a gap year.
Choosing the best way to spend that year "off" can be an overwhelming decision to make. With more and more people taking gap years after obtaining their degrees, the options have become almost endless. Here are our favorites.
Popular postgraduate routes
Whether you have a clear idea of what you want to do career-wise after graduating college, or you've realized what you majored in isn’t for you, a gap year is a good way to take a step back and reassess what your more permanent next moves should be. Usually (albeit not always) a gap year is interpreted as going abroad, but this doesn't have to be the case. A gap year can also mean taking an internship or fellowship, volunteering somewhere closer to home, or simply doing something you've been wanting to do but haven't had the time for. Some people volunteer with a local nonprofit, some others do overseas internships and some simply travel and let their plans be shaped by the places they visit.
From the volunteer/work standpoint, one of the most popular gap year opportunities to go abroad is to teach English. This is a relatively easy and common route because virtually anyone who is fluent in the language is qualified to teach it to those who are just getting started, so the geographical possibilities are seemingly endless.
Although teaching English might be the best option for some people to start racking up professional experience while not technically committing to a job, teaching isn’t for everyone. This is why some other popular options that combine travel with professional experience range from hospitality jobs to agricultural experiences, such as working in exchange for free lodging.
Whatever you decide to do during your gap year, you will learn or grow in some way, and this exploration and dedication will not go unnoticed by future employers. It might even make you stand out in your job search later.
15 fun and productive gap year ideas
Having any kind of work experience right out of college on your resume is bound to make you stand out to employers, but living abroad or deviating slightly from your career focus can make you more unique than your peers. Here are 15 fun and enriching ideas to help you make the most out of your gap year.
1. Volunteer at a farm or other outdoor venue.
From WWOOF to Workaway, there are plenty of organizations where you can work for free in exchange for lodging and food virtually anywhere around the world. Some of them even pay you a small stipend for your work in addition to housing you. These are very tempting opportunities that allow for affordable overseas travel as well as the learning of new skills and different ways of life. The flexibility of options in these sites is a great plus too — you can find a host that is looking for year-long volunteers, or you could split your time between several farms and locations since time frames vary from host to host.
2. Teach abroad.
Going overseas to teach English to non-English speaking communities is a great way to travel, build your resume and save money. However, this option might not be as appealing to you if your eventual career path falls too far from the teaching genre or if you're opposed in some way or another to the prospect of teaching a class on your own. It is definitely a more structured route than other volunteer trips or simply traveling abroad for fun.
3. Volunteer with an organization you believe in.
Several organizations have paired up with nonprofits to sponsor volunteer and humanitarian trips for people who are looking to do some community service overseas. These opportunities range from helping rebuild communities affected by natural disasters to donating your time to communities impacted by violence or poverty.
Community service always makes you stand out as a candidate for any job, and the experience of visiting places and communities vastly different from yours can provide a level of self-growth that would be hard to achieve through other experiences. Moreover, the certainty that you're lending your time and skills to communities in need is great reassurance that your time is being well spent.
4. Go on a faith-based mission trip.
Volunteering overseas is a very popular gap-year route, but perhaps a more common one, historically, is going on a mission trip. If you are religious, and especially if you are a member of a church, chances are you know of people who have been on mission trips or have been a part of one yourself. Faith-based trips are as old as time and have an added value to regular philanthropic travel; it is nice to not only help a community in need but do so as a part of something you deeply believe in, with people you know or at least with whom you share core values.
These trips are accessible through established churches, no matter your religion, so if you are a part of one, chances are they have been arranging mission trips for decades or have reliable connections to organizations that do. If you’re not part of a church but are religious and want to ensure that any humanitarian trip you take has a religious factor, you can look online for organizations of this nature.
5. Go on a wild road trip.
It’s become more trendy than ever to renovate a van, hop in, and drive across the country living like a nomad. The U.S. is a vast, largely-accessible land that we sometimes neglect by looking overseas for adventure and discovery. However, this country has many sights to see and some of the best, most beautiful driving routes in the world. Certain websites have revamped American road-trip culture and provided a market and guide for those who want to travel on a much tighter budget than any overseas trip could allow. If you need help figuring out where to go, how long to take, or what routes to take, these sites provide all the data you need. Find maps, unique routes and testimonies that are bound to excite you about a part of our culture that is sometimes overshadowed and forgotten.
6. Boost your artistic skills.
If you have any artistic inclinations but have a degree in a non-artistic major, a gap year will perhaps be one of the last chances you get in a while to solely focus on art. Whether it is performance, music, painting or something else, letting yourself fully be immersed in your craft for a year can be incredibly rewarding, as well as the perfect confidence boost you need to join the workforce afterward. Like working on a farm, many of these opportunities can be found on Workaway. For example, you could join Antagon's theatre commune for acting and performing in Frankfurt, Germany.
7. Study a language.
There is no question that the best way to learn a language is to fully commit to speaking it, listening to it and studying it. The best way to do this is to put yourself in an environment where your main points of communication are in this language. One of the most common reasons to study abroad or take a gap year is to learn a new language, often from scratch. From going to Paris to learn French or improving your high school Spanish by visiting Latin America or Spain, there are numerous language school opportunities around the globe that are the perfect way to take some time off from your life, learn a new skill and travel.
8. Build your portfolio.
If you are pursuing a career in media, film, theater, or other artistic fields, odds are the places that hire or sign new talent require lengthy portfolios from applicants. Often times, for various reasons, four years of an undergraduate degree aren’t quite enough to build the kind of portfolio that will land your dream job. In this case, or in order to get better results and overall deepen the quantity of your original work, devoting an entire year to truly working on your portfolio and creating original work is a fantastic option with long-lasting results. To sustain a year of working on your own thing, you will need to budget accordingly. If you have savings, make sure they can sustain you for the length of time you want to devote to adding to your portfolio.
However, chances are you’ll need to get a job in the service industry or the retail industry (read: 'day job') to ensure you have income and financial security to support yourself and your art. In lots of cases, these jobs can also provide you with other benefits, like networking with other creatives and boosting your resume.
9. Become a certified yoga teacher.
The rise in popularity of yoga in western culture has skyrocketed in the last decade. If you are one of the many people that have become passionate about yoga and rely on it for exercise, wellness and other benefits, you have probably considered becoming a certified teacher. If that’s the case, and if you also happen to be looking for a reason to travel overseas, choosing to do this certification abroad is ideal.
Although every country has the resources to produce certified yoga teachers, you can make the most of the experience and maximize the authenticity by getting certified in yoga’s birthplace: India. There are several sites and organizations that partner aspiring yoga teachers with academies and facilities in India qualified to train yoga teachers.
10. Join a political campaign.
If you are interested and invested in politics and the timing works out, devoting your time to the campaign of a political candidate you believe in is a productive and incredibly educational way to spend your gap year. There are political campaigns happening almost every year, whether candidates are gearing up for a primary or staffing in advance for a general election, and they're always looking for more hands — especially for grassroots campaigns.
This is a particularly exciting year to devote to a campaign in the lead-up to one of the most contentious and likely historic elections in U.S. history. Take your pick from the 26-plus candidates running for president in 2020, and sign up to canvass, volunteer or get a more permanent staff position on their teams. The experience will be fulfilling and eye-opening, and you'll have had a hand in shaping history.
11. Become EMT-certified (or something similar).
It is perfectly normal to have more than one passion. Inevitably, most of us have to compromise and narrow down our career focus in order to succeed professionally. For this reason, a gap year is the perfect opportunity to delve into some of your other passions before fully diving into your chosen profession.
If, for example, you are passionate about medicine or helping others, becoming EMT-certified is a great way to boost your skills and immerse yourself in the medical world without spending seven years in med school. These courses take between three and five months and are a stepping stone to becoming a paramedic, a more in-depth certification that can take up to two years but isn’t a mandatory next step for EMT-certified individuals.
12. Be an au pair.
Like going overseas to teach English, the demand for foreign nannies is pretty well-known. Childcare sometimes will go hand-in-hand with teaching your native language to those who don’t speak it, but regardless, foreign nannies are a pretty common way to visit other countries while enhancing your skills and boosting your resume. So common, in fact, that the U.S. has a specific visa that promotes these exchanges.
13. Get a hospitality job.
Like teaching English, another very common overseas option that many countries offer is getting a 'holiday job' or working in hospitality. Essentially, this means working the front desk at hostels or hotels in exchange for lodging. Several countries offer visas for this specific kind of work in order to boost the engagement between foreigners and the local hospitality economy. The pros of taking this route in your gap year are the universal value of hospitality skills on your resume, as well as the ability to earn money and travel all in one.
14. Go backpacking.
This is perhaps the most well-known postgraduate activity, and for a reason. Backpacking is an incredibly affordable way to travel, as well as one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture you’re visiting. When choosing the destinations you want to explore during your trip, the best place to start is where you’re passionate about visiting and go from there. Europe is a very backpacking-friendly continent due to its cheap airfare, short distances between countries and familiarity with all kinds of tourism.
Whatever kind of backpacking trip you want to take, it’s always useful to talk to people who have previously done trips of this sort or research websites with useful tips and testimonies. This will ensure that you not only make the most out of your money and time but also that you will be safe while doing so.
15. Year-long fellowships or internships,
Recent graduates are in specific demand in certain fields or programs. For this reason, one-year fellowships and/or internships catered exclusively to gap-year seekers are pretty common. This is an ideal option since it checks several items on gap-year checklists: travel overseas, gain work experience and have a set end date. Depending on what college you attended, your school might offer specific gap-year-type fellowships that cater to different majors. Otherwise, you can research options based on your career path and specific geographical preferences.
How to prepare for your gap year
As mentioned, budgeting is important during your gap year. Use tools to ensure you can travel or take whatever opportunity you choose well within your budget, and do your research about how you will find housing, food and the cheapest way to get around. Stick with whatever level of planning makes you most comfortable. It's okay to have a less structured idea of where you want to go and what you want to do, but make sure you have your bases covered in terms of costs and financial and safety risks.
If you're nervous about putting off employment or you know you want to go to grad school right away after your gap year, plan accordingly. Apply to grad school for the upcoming year, or defer any offers you have if you can. Again, most employers will not hold your year off against you and will even view it favorably, so don't stress too hard about having a job lined up right away. Give yourself a little permission to go by your own schedule.
What comes next?
It is impossible to know what kind of person you’ll be once your gap year is up. Maybe your five-year plan can continue undisturbed, and you reach its next stage with nothing but valuable lessons learned, new friends and a refreshed mind. The possibilities, however, are endless, and by the time your gap year ends, you might have changed your mind about your career or might want to extend your gap year indefinitely. However, if your choice is to enter the workforce in your field by the time that year is up, the one thing you can count on is that you will have many more skills and a greater understanding of the world.
Let your experiences inform what you do next. If you choose to move toward more conventional employment at the end of your gap year, make sure you use the skills and lessons you learned during your experience as assets. Highlight any relevant aspects of your year off on your resume, and use your new energy to enter the workforce enthusiastically.
A year can feel like a long time, and new experiences can mean realizations you wouldn’t otherwise have made. In any case, the best way to approach a gap year is to be fully prepared for the things that happen during it to change everything or almost nothing. The key, like for anything else in life, is to have an open mind and a willingness to learn and grow.