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The Key Elements to Look For in a Good Gap Year Program

Choices, choices, choices. When searching for a good gap year program, you lucky people really are spoilt for choice. There are hundreds of gap year companies out there offering literally thousands of gap year programs. From turtle conservation in the Galapagos to community work in Ghana, you really can do anything, anywhere these days. The problem is that not all gap year programs are great. Choosing a reputable company and a well regarded program is really important if you want your hard earned money to be well spent. With so many companies offering so many programs, choosing can be a lengthy and confusing process.

Never fear - we're here to lend a helping hand. Continue reading to learn about exactly what ingredients are needed to make a good gap year program and how you can make that crucial choice a successful one. Ready to take on the vast ocean of gap year programs? Let's dive in!

Choosing a reputable company and a well regarded program is really important if you want your hard earned money to be well spent. With so many companies offering so many programs, choosing can be a lengthy and confusing process.

Read the reviews

Just like anything else you buy nowadays, you should read reviews and see what other people have to say about a potential gap year program before signing up for it. The program description may sound fantastic but if the program has mostly negative reviews then it's a good indication that the sales pitch does not match reality. Remember, however, that everyone's experience is different and reviewers may exaggerate how good or bad their own experiences were. Take wildly positive and negative reviews with a grain of salt, and try to focus on the reviews that are well constructed, well written, and seem to offer a fair perspective of the program.

Suggested Gap Year Programs

Want to have a year worth bragging about? Don't waste your time abroad (or your potential, for that matter). Travel with purpose, and check out one of these suggested programs for your gap year.

An up and coming organization that might help you with your program search is the American Gap Association (AGA), which seeks to standardize the quality of programs offered in the USA gap year scene. It's member organizations adhere to a set of guidelines, as AGA represents "a commitment to the highest standards in safety, quality, and integrity" for gap year programs. You may opt to pursue one of these organizations, as they've been vetted as top notch. Find out more about AGA .

Consider their ethos

The ethos of a gap year company is very important, especially if you are volunteering. Many gap year companies will go into great detail on their websites about the mission behind their programs, how they were started and what they do to promote what they believe in. Pick an ethos that really speaks to you. If you like what a company believes in then investigate further to see if their programs match up to their ethos.

A company's mission can be much more easily written than actually put into practice. A good gap year company will back up their mission statement with examples of their program's success and will use quotes from past participants to sell their idea of themselves to you.

Check out their social media

Every company nowadays, especially those targeting gap year participants, should have at the very least a Facebook page. Many will also attempt to wow you with their Twitter, Google +, Pinterest, or Instagram. Even if a gap year company is operated by a very small team of people and can't afford a social media expert, they should still be looking to communicate with potential customers.

Checking out a company's social media can prove worthwhile as it shows how quickly they respond to their customer's concerns and questions. If a company has a page full of unanswered questions from future participants, you can pretty much tell that they don't pay much attention to their customers. Companies often tweet special offers and competitions, and signing up to mailing lists and newsletters can help you keep in touch with news from the gap year world.

Research their sustainability and legacy

These are two elements of any gap year program that should be at the top of your requirement tick list. Environmentally, how sustainable is the program? If the program concerns conservation then you need to find out how much it is actually helping to the environment. Reading reviews can help, but you may also need to question the company directly.

Every gap year program participant wants to think that they have made a difference, no matter how small, to the community in which they work. Gap year companies want you to think this as well, but many do not ensure that your hard work is matched by a legacy plan. There's no point to building that school if there are no teachers to educate the local children. Don't be afraid to ask a company about the legacy of their specific programs and how they ensure that the good you do is not temporary.

See what other people have to say about a potential gap year program before signing up for it. Take wildly positive and negative reviews with a grain of salt, and try to focus on the reviews that are well constructed, well written, and seem to offer a fair perspective of the program.

Ensure 24/7 support

Hopefully you never have to make use of a company's emergency support service but if the worst happens then it is always good to know that you can contact someone who can help. Lost passports, injuries, natural disasters - it is always reassuring to know that there's someone at the other end of the telephone line with the answers you need. This is the advantage of traveling with a large gap year company, as they should all offer comprehensive support.

Consider work/life balance

That age old tussle between working hard and playing even harder is really something that makes or breaks a gap year program. You want to work, but you also want free time to explore, right? That's perfectly fine, but you should be made aware by the program provider how much work time you will be expected to complete. If you are on a working abroad or volunteer abroad program, then don't expect to be tanning on the beach all day - unless, of course, you find a lifeguard job somewhere!

The work will often be harder than you think and the days will often be longer than the normal 9 to 5, but remember that what you are doing is pretty awesome. You're away from home, living in a foreign country, surrounded by new friends, learning about a new culture; it's certainly worth the effort. When you do get time off, make sure to make the most of it.

Look into group sizes

This is a common complaint that many people have about gap year programs and travel tours in general. Having too many people packed into that minivan or not enough people to work on a project can present real concerns for participants and it can be an important factor that determines whether you enjoy a gap year program.

This really comes down to personal preference: how many people do you want to travel and volunteer with? You might enjoy to be on a large scale project, where there will be lots of people to meet and share your experiences with. However, a smaller group offers the opportunity to get to know each person better. Tour groups and volunteer programs will usually advertise groups sizes on their websites - just make sure that they stick to their word!

Prioritize food and accommodations

This is an independence issue. Do you want the freedom and the extra cost of arranging your own meals? Or would you prefer to go all in and have your meals prepared for you by your program. Accommodation is often prearranged by most volunteer gap year programs; however, if you are on a working holiday visa program many companies will only offer assistance for arranging accommodation. Either way, make sure that your first few nights are sorted out before you arrive.

If the worst happens then it is always good to know that you can contact someone who can help. Lost passports, injuries, natural disasters - it is always reassuring to know that there's someone at the other end of the telephone line with the answers you need.

Picking a great gap year program isn't as easy as just a simple Google search, but that doesn't mean you can't find the perfect program! There are many different types of gap year programs, but the key elements remain relatively the same: customer support and contact, a healthy ethos, genuine help for the communities they operate in and, finally, a high standard of help and support. These components will ensure that your gap year is the best year of your life!

Photo of Greg Lewry

Greg is a recent Literature graduate and freelance travel writer. Hailing from the UK, Greg used all of his university study breaks to escape the terrible British weather and find work abroad. From swim instruction in America to teaching English in Venice, Greg has a real passion for making the most out of traveling abroad and loves to hear and read about other people's overseas adventures. You can find his latest work on his blog at Google+.