By Douglas Fehlen
1. Find the right opportunity (or opportunities) for you.
A great thing about taking a gap year: there isn't one 'right thing' to do. You can choose from a wide variety of options. Would you like to travel in Asia? Is there a cool internship you'd like to do in another U.S. city? Want to serve as a volunteer in your community? Whatever your objective, identify gap year opportunities that inspire you. Remember that you can do more than one thing. You might, for example, follow up a fall internship with some winter travel.
2. Make sure the circumstances are right.
Taking a gap year is a big decision you no doubt made after much consideration. Give that same level of attention to any activities you're considering for the year. For instance, if you'd like to travel abroad, do you have the money you'll need? Are there any home circumstances (like a parent's illness) that you should consider? Is now the right time for the activity you're targeting? You don't want an adventure to be cut short because you weren't thoughtful about getting into it.
3. Make a plan.
Once you're sure of the activity (or activities) you'd like to slot in for the year, make a plan that outlines how you'll make them happen. Are you planning to apply to any specific gap year programs? Is it necessary for you to make travel arrangements? Are there any specific documents (such as a passport or visa) that you'll need? Being prepared is an important step toward enjoying a gap year.
4. Have goals for the experience.
For many students, part of the allure of taking a gap year is not having a forced 'next thing to do.' Maybe the only goal you have for the year is to get in some adventure before moving on to the next phase of your education. That's quite all right. You might, though, also have very specific hopes for your gap year - maybe to support a particular nonprofit or get professional experience in some area. Whatever the situation, let these goals drive your experience.
5. Be open to new possibilities.
While it's great to have pre-formed notions about what you hope to gain from a gap year experience, it's important to also be open minded. Perhaps you set out on an adventure with the intention of developing your skills in a given area but a new experience reveals a different interest you'd like to pursue. Don't fastidiously hold on to the expectations you had at the expense of exploring other potential passions.
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6. Scrutinize gap year programs.
Many individuals choose to go on gap year adventures that are organized by student travel agencies, volunteer groups or other organizations. Many of these programs are well-respected and provide students with a lot of value for their money. Other groups regarded to be less scrupulous have drawn criticism. If you choose to go on an organized gap year adventure, do your homework on an organization to ensure it's reputable.
7. Do everything you can to ensure your safety.
This advice primarily applies to individuals who choose to travel during a gap year, whether that's to volunteer, work or explore in a place away from home. Whether you're traveling to another American community or going on a long overseas trip, demonstrate caution in your new environment. In addition to observing basic tenets of personal safety, check in with program authorities and the U.S. State Department (for international travel) to get tips for staying safe.
8. Connect with others.
What makes gap year adventures so great? No doubt traveling, interning, volunteering and engaging in other activities fulfill students. What may be most inspiring, though, is the connection that you can make with other people. Whether you're traveling through Africa or completing a service project in your own community, opportunities to befriend and learn from others will show themselves all around you.
9. Challenge yourself.
Taking a gap year can require courage. Some people - maybe even parents - won't recognize the value of delaying college for a year. By deciding to take a gap year, you've already taken on a challenge - that challenge being to prove to yourself and others that you've made the right choice. Use that as motivation to continue pushing yourself during your gap year. You'll learn a lot about who you are.
10. Let yourself relax - and have fun.
A lot of the suggestions here relate to what could be called 'productive' aspects of taking a gap year. Don't let that make you think that a gap year should be all about work and self-actualizing. Whatever experiences you get involved in, try hard to relax and just feel comfortable doing what you're doing. This is your year, after all. Enjoy it!
Unsure whether a gap year is for you? Learn more about some student options for gap year activities.