Best Gap Year Programs for Students After High School

After many consecutive years of formal education, it is unsurprising why so many American students opt to take a gap year before committing to a career, undergraduate degree, or higher degree. 

A gap year is exactly what it sounds like: a year, or extended period of time, where someone presses “pause” on a trajectory that can, at times, feel automatic and predictable, but might not be the best one for a person, depending on their circumstances. 

There are many reasons why people decide to take a gap year. It’s an excellent opportunity to gain work experience and make money to save up for future academic or career plans. 

Let’s say you didn’t find your passion until late in high school or college – a gap year can create time and space to experiment with that new passion and decide your next course of action.

Most gap year programs include a travel or cultural component. Sometimes getting out of one’s own country – especially if they’ve never traveled outside of it – can provide illuminating perspective. 

Many gap year programs also include an element of philanthropic service, and many more contain an adventurous aspect. For example, some gap year attendees may complete their program with several certifications or trainings to prepare them to be outdoor guides.

Whether you want to learn a language, transition to a new country, or simply live your life to the fullest, a gap year will connect you with like-minded people and valuable resources. 

We have compiled a list of 10 of the best gap year programs in the United States. Generally, these programs are open to participants ages 17-22, meaning those considering a gap year after high school or college can apply. 

Students taking a gap year
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EF Gap Year (Multiple International Locations)

EF Gap Years are built on different program modules and launch recent graduates worldwide. 

The organization’s 25-week gap year is undoubtedly one of the lengthiest on this list, bringing participants through three global destinations where they’ll immerse themselves in language learning, acts of service, and internship work.

The EF Gap Year runs from September 25 to May 3. Following orientation in Boston, gap year participants travel to iconic cities like Barcelona, Paris, Seoul, or Tokyo to participate in language learning. 

A four-week service and sustainability element prompts participants to make a positive impact at the community level – usually somewhere in Peru, Thailand, or the Dominican Republic.

After spending winter break back home, gap year participants jet off to Australia and New Zealand for guided exploration before engaging in an eight-week business initiative in Stockholm, Sweden. 

The experience culminates in a seven-day London leadership academy, where participants consider where they will take their newfound skills and aptitudes.

Where There Be Dragons (Colorado River Basin, USA)

Where There Be Dragons offers a variety of study abroad and gap year programs for people ages 17-22. One of their most exciting offerings takes place back home in the United States via the Colorado River Basin Semester: Sustainability & Resilience in the Western US.

The Colorado River Basin Semester is a gap year program that lasts just over ten weeks. Recent graduates can apply for the fall or spring, with both cohorts including 12 students and three guides. 

Courses are for college credit and include topics like colonization and western influences, principles of economics, and leadership across borders.

Activities revolve around permaculture and sustainability on local farms. Participants will hike, travel by train, and float down the Colorado River to experience diverse ecosystems in the western part of the country. 

After the end of the program, gap year attendees will emerge with a passion for engaging with food justice movements and a deeper understanding of how climate change will compel major US industries to evolve.

Irish Gap Adventure & Leadership Program (Ireland)

A gap year is not only an excellent time to learn new skills – it can also provide a great opportunity to experience a new country. 

While many of the gap year programs on this list take participants through multiple international locations, the Irish Gap Adventure & Leadership Program is ideal for someone who prefers to immerse themselves deeper into a community while learning valuable life skills.

Designed for graduates seeking to forge outdoor careers, the Irish Gap Year lasts 75 days and is open for spring or fall dates. 

In addition to touring some of Ireland’s neatest cities, gap year participants will complete a three-day wilderness expedition and 80 hours of volunteer service.

What does a typical day look like? After getting ready, participants might take a surf lesson at Tullan Strand in Bundoran before engaging in a post-lunch leadership workshop with team challenges. 

At some point during the session, students are charged with what is considered the “capstone” of the experience: organizing a five-day road trip from any point in Ireland. 

CityGAP at The Living City Project (New York City, USA)

Arguably the most exciting gap year program in New York City, CityGAP turns the Big Apple into a studio/classroom. 

Participants in The Living City Project seek a social, intimate, and outdoor experience with similar thinkers and adventure-seekers ages 17-22. 

Each semester lasts 14 weeks, starting with an orientation of NYC’s social landscape, neighborhoods, and institutions. 

There are five Living City lenses that scholars take on throughout the program duration. In The Form of the City, participants investigate how cities are designed and how compatible urban architecture is with our fast-evolving technology. 

The City of Memory lens is equally interesting, challenging participants to consider how cities build and rebuild their identities throughout time. 

During a 10-12 week project cycle, individuals and small teams start with a question or challenge, move into the research and inquiry phase supplemented by exploration and expeditions, and then analyze their findings. 

From there, they will design and exhibit a podcast, documentary, public art project, policy proposal, or other artifact representing a solution to their original question or challenge. Prior questions have included, “How will Broadway reopen in response to the COVID-19 shutdown?” and “How does zoning drive development in NYC and what are the alternatives?”

Gapforce Trekforce Expedition Leader Training (Multiple International Locations)

The Trekforce Expedition Leader Training is like the “Inception” of gap year programs. Definitely not a relaxing holiday option, Gapforce engages participants in a rigorous adventure travel and outdoor training curriculum to essentially prepare them to lead gap year programs themselves. 

The GapForce journey starts in the Welsh mountains before progressing to Costa Rican and Panamanian jungles. In Wales, participants will complete introductory navigation coursework and obtain their First Aid certificate while working as a team. 

In Central America, expect to learn how to build fires, wield machetes, and navigate through the rainforest – alone! The three-day solo survival trek is a threshold for all Gapforce expedition guides.

Completers of the gap year program will leave with proficiency in kayaking, snorkeling, and cycling, as well as managing medical incidents in the wilderness. 

Ongoing feedback will help participants understand their strengths and areas of needed improvement. Many who finish the course become employed with Gapforce leading other groups around the world!

Sea|Mester Study Abroad at Sea (Multiple International Locations)

Take part in one of the few gap year programs set aboard a working sailboat! Gap-year programs with Sea|Mester run from 20- to 90-day voyages all over the world, especially in the Caribbean islands. 

The immersion provides the chance to earn certifications in SCUBA, sailing, and other navigational skills. Most participants have just graduated high school or are in their sophomore or junior years of college, with an average age range of 17-22.

Days at sea change like the tides! The program structure can generally be categorized into “passage days” and “shore days.” On passage days, student crew members operate the ship as it moves to new ports or locales. Participants may attend classes, complete jobs, or watch for navigational challenges.

During shore days, gap year participants are docked, engaging in thrilling activities like diving, spelunking, sightseeing, or trekking. 

Suppose you want to pursue a one-of-a-kind career on the water. In that case, you can obtain your rescue diver, divemaster, emergency first response, and other certifications during the Sea|Mester gap year.

Raleigh International (Costa Rica, Tanzania, Nepal)

Raleigh International stands out from other gap year programs on this list in that it is most heavily steeped in volunteer service. 

Catering to 17-24-year-olds, a Raleigh International experience merges sustainable travel and philanthropy in Tanzania, Nepal, and Costa Rica. 

Participants reside in more remote communities not frequently visited by tourists and work on meaningful projects that can enhance the well-being of locals.

What kind of specific projects might gap year attendees collaborate on? 

In Costa Rica, they facilitate bringing clean water to rural villages, while in Tanzania, they might build sanitary toilets for school building use. Philanthropic work is juxtaposed with cultural immersion, outdoor adventure, and language learning.

The most popular gap year program runs for ten weeks, engaging participants in topics like natural resource management, water sanitation, and community development. Since the program’s inception, nearly 50,000 participants from over 90 countries have served with Raleigh International.

High Mountain Institute Adventure (North American West; South American Patagonia Region)

Unsurprisingly, outdoor skill-building is at the center of a High Mountain Institute Adventure! Gap-year participants will advance in rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and other activities frequently found in outdoor adventure curricula. 

Students will learn to travel comfortably for extended periods, navigate challenging domestic and international terrain, and assess hazards native to their current landscape.

An environmental studies and service component challenges participants to consider certain essential questions, like “Can we restore the landscape to its natural condition?” and “How do we reconcile competing values within natural resource management?” 

Leadership focus drives personal growth as attendees participate in “evening circles,” where they discuss their insights and findings. 

The flagship program is the HMI Gap semester, wherein participants travel for 80 days alongside a small group of peers and guides, all while learning outdoor adventure skills, conservation principles, and leadership attributes. Several gap year program options occur in the American West and Patagonia (South America).

Gap Year at The School of The New York Times (New York City, USA)

Another excellent option in one of the greatest cities in the world – the Gap Year at The School of the NY Times is open to participants ages 18-21 who are either deferring college or taking time away from school to consider their next steps. 

Programs run for six or 12 weeks and prompt attendees to strengthen transferable skills in critical thinking, collaboration, and cultural humility.

The 12-week option runs from September 10 to December 8, and two six-week terms are housed within that same time frame. 

Each week, the curriculum focuses on a specific section of the NY Times to compel further inquiry into an important global or social topic. 

A service learning component is typically paired with each investigation, such as volunteering to coach youth athletes in different skill areas or volunteering at an art museum.

The modules in the gap year program include lectures, readings, guest speakers, round-table discussions, and a culminating project. Completers walk away from their gap year program with a more inclusive worldview and advanced management skills in coordinating complex projects.

Carpe Diem Education Innovative Gap Year Programs (Multiple International Locations)

Don’t just seize the day at Carpe Diem Education – seize the year through one of the organization’s Innovative Gap Year Programs across five continents! 

This gap year option is ideal for graduates yearning for cultural immersion. 

At the same time, students can earn college credit, if needed, while participating in a gap semester program.

Available placements differ yearly, and the 2023-2024 list looks exciting! Take on a program in India, Italy/Greece, or Hawai’i, for example. 

The Semester in Spain & Morocco challenges participants to investigate human migration patterns and cultural preservation efforts in one of the world’s most beautiful areas.

Regardless of your chosen location, all gap year attendees receive a focused volunteer placement (FVP). 

Prior examples include promoting health initiatives for preventing HIV in South Africa, rehabilitating manatee populations along the Belize coast, and many more opportunities. 

The group semester runs from September 20 to November 29 before a winter break; afterward, participants complete their independent FVP semester from January through April.

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