How to Choose Your Perfect Gap Year Program

Zoe McLeod
Topic Expert

Zoe is from sunny Queensland, Australia, but has recently moved interstate to study a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. She spent her gap year in India.

How to Pick the Perfect Gap Year Program

Your gap year is the perfect time for you to visit somewhere you’ve always dreamed of going. Try something you’ve always wanted to do. Step outside your normal comfort zone and have some fun. A gap year program can offer you all of this and more -- if you know what to look for.

I found my dream gap year program when I was fifteen and trying to avoid my homework. At the time, I couldn’t possibly be aware of how my gap year would go on to change my life in the most wonderful ways.

My program in India was probably the best three months of my life. I spent each day traveling to new, exciting places, meeting the most friendly and warm people, and learning things that changed the way I saw the world, as well as making friends for life. I hope this article can help you choose a program that will do the same for you.

If you’re on the fence about how to choose a gap year program, here are some simple steps you can follow. It’s easier said than done when choosing which gap year program you’ll invest your time and money in, but these steps are fail-proof if you take the time to do each one. Good luck choosing the perfect gap year program for you!

Step 1. Decide Where You Want to Go on Your Gap Year

This is one of the most exciting parts of planning your gap year. Think: where have you always dreamed of going? Research, make lists, browse Instagram, ask friends.

The one destination I could never move past was India. I had wanted to go for as long as I could remember, and everything about it fascinated me.

There was only one issue: it worried my parents, which made me nervous, especially as a young woman who had no experience with solo travel. Hence, an organized gap year program became an obvious choice to help everyone feel better about my going to India.

Despite what the news will tell you, you’re not actually crazy for wanting to travel. Wait, what just happened in Europe? Gee, Asia doesn’t look safe at all, does it? Maybe I’d just be better off staying at home.

Obviously don’t march off with your backpack on a solo trip to somewhere that is truly unsafe or a territory in conflict, but don’t let fear stop you from going somewhere you really want to go. You’re young and free. Bucket lists are meant to be completed, not left to gather dust in your retirement home.

If there aren’t any destinations jumping out at you, or you’re unsure of where to go, perhaps consider how you want to spend your gap year, which brings me to…

Step 2. Determine What You'd Like to Do on Your Gap Year

How to Choose Your Perfect Gap Year Program: What You'd Like to Do
Photo by Iker A, Plan My Gap Year Volunteer in India

What kind of gap year experience are you looking for? What are your goals and intentions for your gap year, and how can you align these with your program?

Are you looking to immerse yourself in a foreign culture that makes your head hurt as you try to wrap it around new languages, new foods, and new customs? Why not try a language immersion course in China, Brazil, or France?

Are you adventurous and love spending time outdoors? How about ski season in the Canadian winter or hiking in the Himalayas?

Does your heart break learning about injustice in the world, and you’d like to join a volunteer program somewhere you’ll be needed?

Or are you burnt out and just looking for some fun?

All these options and more are available to you. Think about what you want your gap year to be, whether it’s a time to learn a new skill, explore the world, get a head-start on your desired career, or just take a step back, breathe, and reflect on next steps. Maybe you want something completely different.

Many programs offer a combination of these things. One of the best ways to start is simply to type ideas into Google. Go Overseas (where you are right now) exists to compare an extensive number of programs and help you find what you’re looking for, and is actually where I found my program, so it’s definitely a great place to begin.

Step 3. Consider Cost & Your Gap Year Budget

Money. Uh oh… right?

Don’t stress. Yes, the cost will have an impact on the program you choose, but it doesn’t have to be the deciding factor. Gap year programs can range from notoriously expensive to extremely affordable.

First things first, consider: how are you paying for your gap year? Is your family helping to cover costs, or do you need to fund it yourself? A few of my friends paid for their entire gap year program (more than $9,000) from working. Do you have the time and means to earn enough money to cover your dream program and other costs, such as flights and travel insurance?

If not, consider ways to limit cost. Does your gap year destination/country have a high cost of living? If so, is there somewhere else you’d like to go instead? Can you earn money while you travel? This can range from your general working holiday overseas, to a six-month position teaching English to working at a summer camp. There are plenty of programs that cover training, orientation, and even accommodation, depending on what you’re looking for.

Organisations such as WWOOF and Workaway exchange work for accommodation and food if you’re aiming for a little more freedom or specialization in your gap year program.

However, you may already have your heart set on your gap year plan. Some programs have scholarships/financial aid that can assist you with this, but if not don’t be afraid to turn to your old favorite money saving tips and tricks. Create savings goals, try working a few side-jobs, change to a high-interest savings account, and collect your spare change for a piggy bank. Ask for travel money instead of birthday presents. Individually these are small steps, but together they really can make a difference.

Step 4. Compare Programs & Read Reviews

How to Choose Your Perfect Gap Year Program: Compare and Read
Photo by Claudia D., Operation Groundswell Kenya

As gap years, and therefore gap year programs, continue to grow in popularity the industry has inevitably become more competitive. This means that there are more and more companies offering similar experiences, so you don’t need to settle for the first thing you see.

Same goes for programs within your price range -- and those outside of it. Similar programs don’t always mean similar prices. Be sure to look into the details of your program and note what the price includes. Things like flights and travel usually aren’t included, but food, accommodation, domestic transport, attractions, typically are.

The most important thing when comparing programs is to identify what factors are essential to you:

  • What stands out, what “makes” a program for you?
  • What “vibe” are you looking for in your program provider?
  • Do their values align with your own?
  • How much do they value your experience?

One of the most effective ways to determine this, is to reach out directly to the company directly. Send them an email or ask a question here on Go Overseas, let them know you’re considering their program, and ask any questions you might have.

Make sure also to pay attention to reviews, and not just those on the program’s website. Unbiased reviews (like those here on Go Overseas) are probably the easiest way to get an honest insight into your prospective program from people who’ve been there already. These reviews will likely mention other factors that may influence your decision, such as program flexibility, duration and group size.

Whatever you end up choosing if you keep these things in mind and remember to follow your heart, your gap year program might very well end up being the best decision you’ve ever made.