Gap Year

What to Look For in a Good Gap Year Program

Zoe McLeod

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.

The Key Elements to Look For in a Good Gap Year Program
Photo by Kendra, University of Dublin Alum

You’ve decided: you’re going on a gap year program. You’re about to embark on perhaps the greatest adventure of your life! There’s only one issue. How do you choose a ‘good’ gap year program? One that cares as much about your experience as you do?

We get it. It’s hard to even know where to begin! There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of options, many looking to be offering exactly the same thing as the next. How can you ensure your money is well spent?

Thankfully, it’s not as difficult as it looks. Bear with me. I was in your position not too long ago. I read website after website, dreaming of what my gap year could look like, I simply wasn’t sure how I’d know when I found the perfect program for me. Over time, I tuned into a few important elements that every good gap year program will have -- and I learned how to quickly spot whether a program had them or not.

By following these simple tips, I promise you that finding a good, reputable gap year program can be straightforward, and fun too (it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure storybook!).

How to Get Started: Read Reviews

Once you have a program in mind, reading reviews is a great place to start. The company’s website can have every assortment of beautiful photos and amazing program descriptions, but it means nothing if you’re not hearing first-hand from the people who have experienced it. They will be your most honest sources of information.

That said, don’t take everything straight to heart. We’re all human beings. We all exaggerate things sometimes. By reading multiple reviews, you should be able to grasp a general sense of the experience, whether it was mostly positive or negative.

Usually, reviews will be found on the company’s website, but you can also find fair, unbiased reviews right here on Go Overseas. However, if a company’s website doesn’t include reviews at all, it might be best to interpret this as a red flag and turn your sights elsewhere.

As you’re reading reviews, keep an eye out for these key elements. As you look for them, you’ll find great gap year programs; you’ll also find some that aren’t so great and will get better at moving on quickly to find the gap year program that’s perfect for you.

Key Element #1. Strong Company Values & Mission

The Key Elements to Look For in a Good Gap Year Program: Values & Mission
Photo by Daan D., Excellence Center

This is such an important step. The last thing you want on your gap year program is to feel unsafe or cheated. A respectable, passionate gap year company will always have your best interests at heart and will want to make your experience as meaningful and enjoyable as possible.

The ‘About’ page on the company’s website will typically mention how they began and what their values are -- what they want to achieve with the students they work with and in the places they operate. This should be reinforced through the programs themselves, such as how they are run and any partnerships the company has down on the ground in the country, and with testimonies and stories from past participants.

With great gap year companies, you’ll also see these values in the reviews that program alumni leave behind. If a company is doing a great job of communicating and living their values, gappers notice and mention it in their reviews -- and in their impact scores here on Go Overseas.

Think about your own ethos and values. Can you see yourself traveling and working with this company?

Key Element #2. Transparent & Reasonable Cost

Money, money, money. With so many gap year programs out there, many seemingly indistinguishable from the next, it’s easy to think more expensive means better. But this isn’t always the case.

Make sure to check what the price of your program includes. This will depend on the type of program you’re looking for, but inclusions are often things like food, accommodation, and in-country travel, while flights and travel insurance you’ll usually have to cover on your own.

The price also depends on the caliber of the services offered. Will you be staying at a four-star hotel or a backpacker’s hostel? Are you okay with roughing it a little? Are you looking for a small intimate group that provides a more tailored experience, or a bigger group where you can meet more people? Is all your food being prepared for you or will you have to source this on your own?

Thankfully, the vast number of programs means there is something for pretty much everyone’s price ranges and preferences. If you can’t afford a certain program you’ve set your heart on, chances are you can find a similar adventure at a lower price.

Cost isn’t everything, of course; your safety and your gap year experience should always come first. Nevertheless, we all know that cost matters, and it should make sense to you what you’re paying for and what you'll receive in return.

Key Element #3. Professional, Trained Support Teams

The Key Elements to Look For in a Good Gap Year Program: Support Teams
Photo by: Adrian R., Sol Abroad Granada Alum

Does your program provide 24/7 support? If not, think twice about committing to a 24/7 program with them. Whether you lose your passport or break your ankle, you want to be able to rest at ease knowing there will always be someone highly trained and ready to help you.

This can be especially useful if you’re on a less structured program, such as a volunteering trip where you’re expected to find your own accommodation and there isn’t one person who always has to know where you are.

Key Element #4: Aspects that Fit Your Lifestyle & Personality

How much flexibility do you want in your program? Do you prefer a highly structured itinerary or a fair amount of wiggle room?

If you’re committing to a volunteer program, chances are you’ll have a required number of hours each day spent working on projects, and time off on the weekends. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience, but you have to be prepared and committed to putting in time, effort and hard work.

Similarly, other kinds of programs, like group travel experiences, might also be quite intensive with not a whole lot of downtime, but in both cases, it’s easy enough to reach out to your program provider and ask. It’s important to spend some time thinking about what kind of experience you want, then researching and comparing programs that offer most of the things you want -- and as little of the things you don’t as possible.

Making Your Final Decision: Get in Touch Directly

You’ve read their website, the reviews of past students and participants. You know what they stand for and you are interested! Stop reading the program description obsessively and imagining how cool it would be to go -- just get in touch!

Reach out to the company directly and let them know you’re interested and ask any other questions you might have. This is a great way to see if they match up to their sales pitch. Most likely, they’ll be over the moon to hear from you!

If you’re not quite ready to give them a call or send an email, you can always check out their social media. Most businesses nowadays, not just those in the gap year industry, have realized the value in marketing themselves on social media and will fill their Facebook pages and Instagram feeds with stunning photos, blog posts and promotions you might not see on their website. Again, you’ll be able to get a feel for the company. It’s also super easy to ask questions by commenting on a photo or shooting them a direct message. A quick response will show you how seriously they take their potential customers.

In finding a good gap year program, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused. As long as you ensure these key elements are part of whichever gap year program you choose, you’re well on your way to an unforgettable gap year experience.

This article was originally published in October 2013, and was updated in May 2018.