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Top 10 Gap Year Programs

Ever wonder exactly what people do during a gap year, and whether you might benefit by taking one? Maybe you are unsure about which gap year programs are worth taking a good look at?  If you want answers to these questions, let us assure you, you are in the right place. In the following article, we will answer your questions and take a closer look at a variety of gap year programs.

What is a gap year?

A gap year can look different for every person who takes one. The most basic definition of a gap year program looks like this: A student takes roughly a year or a semester off between high school and college to focus on experiential living. Basically, students take time off after high school graduation to gain real life experience before going to college. Sometimes, college students choose to take a gap year before starting their career or graduate studies. 

While some people consider this a break or time off, it’s more helpful to think of this at “time on.” Students are still learning and growing, just not in a traditional academic environment. A big part of taking a gap year involves gaining a better understanding of yourself and the world around you. 

How to know what gap year program is right for you

By this point in your gap year search, you might be starting to feel overwhelmed by all the options. You’ve read countless articles about why this or that is the best thing you can do with your gap year. The issue isn’t a lack of knowledge about potential programs,rather, it’s because there are so many programs to choose from. 

So, before we go into detail about some gap year programs, take a minute to answer some questions about what you’re looking to get out of your gap year. 

Questions to ask yourself

  • What are your interests? What things do you love, but maybe haven’t gotten the chance to explore?
  • What colleges are you looking into? What kinds of things do you think that college might value seeing prospective students do during a gap year?
  • What is your motivation for taking a gap year? Is there something specific in mind that you would like to do with your time?
  • What is your financial situation? Do you need a fully-funded program?

A gap year program for your needs

The following list is not an endorsement of the gap year programs mentioned. We searched the web for a variety of reputable programs of varying costs. By reputable, we mean programs that are transparent with information on their websites.  Some, such as the AmeriCorps are free, while others, such as the Amigos de las Américas, can cost the same as a full year’s tuition at an elite private college. Whatever your goal and wallet, there is a gap program for you if you take the time to research. Remember to check on what is included for each program, as most do not include airfare and extra fees of any kind. 

Top 10 gap year programs


AmeriCorps may already be an organization you’ve heard a lot about. They are among one of the most popular programs that students engage with during their gap years. They offer programs from 3 – 12 months where people can work with non-profits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based organizations. AmeriCorps members may also respond to natural disasters and work with veterans.

Depending on how long you choose to serve with AmeriCorps, you will receive some perks as well. AmeriCorps participants usually receive a monthly living stipend for rent, food, gas, and sometimes health benefits. AmeriCorps members may also receive money to pay for college, student loan deferment, job training, and future employment opportunities. 

Global Volunteers

Global Volunteers has a vision of creating sustained volunteer programs all over the world. They believe that writing checks can only help so much; people need to go out and make a difference in person. 

As a Global volunteer, you will make a difference by working to eradicate hunger, building schools, and working to improve healthcare in remote parts of the world. You’ll spend anywhere from one to three weeks at your destination engaging with the community and building relationships. Global volunteers can attend several trips and are a great short term option for students looking for programs with shorter time commitments. There are a variety of cost options, usually dependent on whether the program is in the USA or abroad. Plan on paying at least a few thousand dollars for a week. 

Amigos de las Américas 

Amigos de las Américas is a non-profit organization that works to grow and challenge students through education and immersive experiences in Latin America. They offer programs that range from two to thirty weeks in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, and more. Amigos strives to offer students as much support as possible, while also allowing them to be independent and make their gap year experience their own. 

Limited college credit is available during Amigos programs through Western Colorado University. Their number one priority is offering students a space where they can feel safe to explore and learn about the world around them. Health and safety plans are made for each individual student before they depart on their gap year. Their website includes testimonials from instructors, volunteers, and students. Program costs vary roughly $4,000 for a two-week program to $25,000 for a 30 week program, with need-based assistance to those who qualify. 

Where There Be Dragons

Where There Be Dragons is a gap year program that strives to be anything but mainstream. Instructors for their programs are graduate students, Peace Corps veterans, teachers, and U.N. development professionals. Through letting their instructors build on their personal interests and connections, each trip is slightly different. 

The Dragons program strives to fully immerse students in their new surroundings by embracing a fully offline and unplugged policy. Their goal is to give students a meaningful experience that they can be actively involved in and not just passively participate in. Exploring the unknown, developing responsible travelers and cultivating a strong sense of reverence for our planet are all goals of the Where There Be Dragons gap year. This program is on the upper end in regard to cost (think along the lines of a year at a private college), but financial aid is available for those who qualify. 

CET Academic Programs

Originally called China Educational Tours, CET has been providing students with gap year plans since 1982. They offer programs in China, Japan, Jordan, France, and several other countries. Their programs are offered both in person and virtually. If you’re interested in being fully immersed in another place during your gap year, CET is for you!

CET focuses on educating students through non-traditional tourist destinations. There in person programs offer students the chance to live with host families, receive college credit, and be fully immersed in intensive language studies. Virtual programs also highlight giving students an intense introduction to language studies through daily course work. Prices range from $16,000 to $20,000, but financial aid and scholarships are available for those who qualify. 

Related: Countries with free college: how to get a free degree abroad

Global Citizen Year

Global Citizen Year offers students the chance to participate in virtual and in person programs. Their goal is to give students the opportunity to reflect on who they are after high school graduation, to give them a better idea of who they want to be and what they want to pursue. 

They offer two programs for students, a 12 week virtual program, called the Academy,  and an 8 month immersive program in Brazil, Ecuador, or India, called the fellowship. The Academy program is designed to take 4 hours per week and fit seamlessly into a student’s life. For students who may not be able to travel somewhere or dedicate full time to a program, this may be a great option. 

The Fellowship program is for students who want to become completely immersed in another culture. You will live with a host family and apprentice with local efforts to support education, health, and sustainability. Global Citizen Year awards both merit and need-based gap year scholarships to those who qualify. 

High Mountain Institute – HMI Gap

High Mountain Institute gap year programs are dedicated to building students up through exploration of some of the world’s most engaging and beautiful landscapes. They offer both fall and spring semester programs that include rock climbing, backpacking, whitewater rafting, trekking, backcountry skiing and traversing mountains! 

They are aware that these programs can be a challenge for some families to afford, which is why they are committed to helping you fund your gap year. At least twenty-five percent of students receive financial aid, scholarships, or work with their prospective colleges to receive funding. Take some time to review their website to see if their programs feel like the right fit for you! According to the HMI website, 25% of participants receive financial aid in some form.

Also see: Top summer programs for high school students

SEA Semester at Woods Hole

If you have a passion for our oceans, the Sea Education Association may just be the place for you. They offer both semester-long programs for undergraduate students looking to expand their knowledge and get hands-on experience. Every program SEA has offers can be taken for college credit through Boston University, or direct credit through other affiliated colleges. 

Their program gives students the academic instruction they need in order to carry out field work. Your gap year with them will include plenty of hands on work and time spent on the open waters. Their website clearly lays out each program, financial information and even includes blogs from students who have participated in their programs. Costs range from $20,000 to $30,00, depending on whether students receive college credits for participating. 


NOLS stands for National Outdoor Leadership School. They offer expeditions to many remote locations, as well as several wilderness medicine courses. The unique thing about NOLS is their commitment to people of all ages and backgrounds. While they are a great organization to spend your gap year with, they are welcoming to people of all ages who have a desire to grow through the outdoors. 

Their programs range in length from a few days to several months. They are led by instructors who have a passion for sharing the outdoors and how we can safely and respectfully engage with the world around us. NOLS is a great option for anyone who may not want to commit to a full year away. Their programs offer you the chance to dive deeper into topics that may interest you, without having to commit all of your time and resources. NOLS expeditions range from $10,000 to nearly $40,000, depending on participation length and location. Financial aid and scholarships are available for those who qualify. 

Additional resources 

If you still have more questions about taking a gap year, check out more of our other article, Taking a Gap Year: Everything You Need to Know! The Gap Year Association is also there to help answer all your gap year questions. If there’s anything you’re still wondering about, visit their website for more information. 

Related: How to rock the summer before your senior year

Frequently asked questions

Do you have to travel abroad?

No, you do not have to travel abroad if you want to take a gap year. There are plenty of programs which offer travel within the United States. Since COVID-19 the number of virtual gap year programs has also increased. 

How do you pay for everything?

There’s no one answer to this question. Paying for a gap year program can be like paying for college. It may require a combination of your own money, scholarships, financial aid, and raising funds. Different gap year programs will offer different ways for you to pay for things. So, make sure you check with your program about what they require. 

How does a gap year affect applying to college?

There are a few ways you can go about applying to college while taking a gap year. Some students will choose to apply to a school and ask to defer their enrolment to the following year. You may also choose to wait to apply to college until part way through your gap year.

Make sure you avoid thinking that you can just put off thinking about college because you want to take a gap year. You may have a little extra time than your classmates, but use that time wisely. The Gap Year Association has more information on how to apply to college while taking a gap year.  

Do you have to go somewhere for a whole year?

No, a gap year does not mean that for a whole year you must be gone somewhere doing something. Some gap year programs will only last a few months or weeks. In some cases you may even get to participate in a few different programs and still have some downtime at home. Your gap year is yours to design. So, do your research and know what your options are before you make any decisions!

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