Navigating College & Your Gap Year

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The college admissions process is challenging enough, but should be seen as a necessary step in the evolution of your Gap Year. On average, 90% of AGA Accredited Gap Year graduates make their way back to university within a year. The good news is that once you hit college, Gap Year graduates also perform better in school and engage more in local campus activities. So, that being said, know that you’ll be bringing good value to whatever university you should choose to enroll in.

In almost all cases, your best bet is to:

Apply to college

Get accepted and pay your deposit.

Ask for a “deferral” from admissions. More and more universities are adopting a formal policy around deferrals as they’re seeing more students ask for these. In some cases, deferrals are specifically to take a Gap Year – and we always encourage announcing your plans clearly and honestly – but in other cases students are simply looking to take time to work and earn a bit of money for college.

Finding the ‘right’ college is a bit of a misnomer in terms of how the process works. The ‘right’ college is sort of like the ‘right’ Gap Year . . . regardless of where you go it’ll be a transformative experience, and they’ll be lucky to have you. But, bear in mind that this should be seen more as a plan rather than a commitment. In short, you certainly will change as a result of your Gap Year, so don’t feel overly obliged to stay with the ‘plan’ simply because it’s The Plan. Every good plan can be changed, especially if you no longer fit that school’s profile or you decide that you want something different at another university.


The admissions process is thankfully fairly simple. In most cases you’ll find that universities are excited to have you do a Gap Year. In some cases you’ll find that you have to do a bit of explaining for what one is and what you hope to get out of your Gap Year. Sometimes, as a result of your Gap Year, you may feel compelled to re-evaluate the college you initially sought deferral from. This is not unusual, and if the changes you’ve made in yourself throughout your Gap Year compel you to re-examine your university goals, then please do so. But remember, universities and colleges are making assumptions only based on what you tell them, so be up front and honest with your admissions representative if you’re considering making a change.

In either case, your experiences on your Gap Year most certainly will be a phenomenal foundation to write any future admissions essays. In most cases, regardless of where you are in your Gap Year, you can apply to different universities online and with a little help from your family and friends. So, while applying and deferring is the best practice for taking your Gap Year, it’s also very important to understand that you can indeed change universities and select another one even once you’ve begun your Gap Year.

Financial Aid

When taking a deferral for your Gap Year, remember that there are many different rules from university financial aid departments. In some cases they’ll grant a deferral, but only contingent upon the fact that you don’t enroll at another university during your Gap Year. In other cases it’s granted contingent on earning no college credit.

Regardless, in almost every college decision, the financial aid award plays at least a role in the college decision. Understanding as much, you should certainly weigh your options thoroughly – it’s not to say that there’s only one financial aid offer on the table from one university, but they do have their preferred way of doing things.

In most cases, universities prefer to have you enter as a freshman rather than come in as a “transfer” student. Each university has a different threshold for the number of credits in order to enter as a transfer. Sometimes it’s 30 credits, sometimes it’s 36, but you should check with your particular university to see what their rules are. For more information on funding your Gap Year, please see our Gap Year Financial Aid section

Photo Credit: Dave Meier

Tips for Choosing Where to Go & What to do on Your Gap Year

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Alright, you’ve decided to jump a leap of gap year faith and take a break between high school and college whatever comes next in life. But now that you’re feeling uber-confident in your decision and have gotten Mom and Dad (and maybe even Grandma, if you’re lucky) to support it, two important questions remain:

Where are you going to go?


What are you going to do once you get there?

With some 200 countries to choose from and infinite possibilities of changemaking on the menu, it’s no wonder the typical student gets overwhelmed when just thinking about their gap year itinerary (let alone biting the bullet and booking!).

Here’s everything you need to know to enjoy the decision-making process as you plan the most epic, challenging, educational, powerful, and beautiful year of your life.

Two Highways, One Destination

Students are usually drawn to define their gap year based on two major factors: activities/causes or locations. Neither is better than the other when it comes to establishing your route. If you’re passionate about water issues, you might decide that location is secondary and you’ll go anywhere to get your hands wet. On the flipside, if you’re passionate about learning Asian cultures, you may opt to head there and choose a volunteer project that sounds cool and interesting, as long as it exposes you to the nitty gritty of the local culture.

Again: both strategies are perfectly fine and fruitful; it all depends on what your priorities are during your gap year.

Variety Versus Specialization

Another thing to consider when crafting your ultimate bucket-list is how many places or how many projects you want to participate in. Some students might be drawn to get to know a country intimately, planning to stay put for the majority of the year. These types of experiences often lend themselves to true immersion, meaningful relationships with locals, and a solid grasp of what life is like in a foreign country.

Similarly, if you find yourself with a growing passion for working with street children, you might opt to focus all of your volunteer work around opportunities to work with kids. In this way, you will create continuity across projects and build on skills over the year, even if you do various projects with various organizations in various countries.

Both of the above examples fall under a specialization approach to a gap year.

Alternatively, if you want a little taste of the world, you might start collecting more and more passport stamps ASAP. Maybe you want exposure to a variety of advocacy projects – so one month you volunteer in rhino conservation, the next you teach English to orphan children, and the next you sign up for immersion language classes in the local tongue. The varietyof experiences affords you tremendous opportunities for self-reflection, discerning your interests, and comparing/contrasting experiences.

On the same note, many gap year students choose to spend their trip exploring a particular region, but not any one specific country. For instance, a student with a growing love affair for Latin America may move from Ecuador to Peru to Bolivia to Argentina, all on one gap year. An experience in multiple countries may not afford students a truly deep interpretation of the places visited, but it does allow for interesting discussion and dialogue on subcultures and subtle nuances across geographically similar destinations.

Ultimately, it is up to YOU to determine the goals you wish to accomplish on your gap year, and relay them into an itinerary that will set you up for success in achieving those goals.

Connectivity Versus Supa-Remote

As a first time traveler, the idea of living in a remote village with limited amenities might sound either exhilarating or awful. While some may be up for the adventure, others may prefer to stay in the comforts of their flushing-toilets-and-running-water lifestyles.

When choosing particular destinations, factor in how extreme you want your experience to be. Rural areas offer a very different type of experience than urban ones; for instance, they’re typically more traditional, and limit your temptations for only hanging out with other foreigners or only eating familiar foods. Many educators will argue that experiences that draw you out of your comfort zone is where all the juicy, lifelong change happens. Being cut off from your reality has its merits, we promise.

If you are keen to travel extensively to neighboring countries or cities during your gap year, keep in mind the ease of travel from your destination. You might consider researching convenient routes to other places via overland travel (bus, trains, etc.) or air travel.

How to Choose a Place

It can be tempting to visit every. single. country. while on your gap year. You’ve got 12 months to spare, that would equal opportunity to visit roughly 50 countries, right?! WRONG. Avoid the quantity-over-quality trap! Don’t use your gap year as a race to fill up your passport. This type of travel lends itself to extreme tourism or flashpacking, and that’s NOT what your gap year is about.

Instead, make a short list of must-visit destinations. Next, make a secondary list of places you’d lurve to visit, but would only shed a few tears over if you had to wait for your next grand adventure. You can even make a tertiary list if it makes you feel better, but let’s focus first on lists

From these lists, pull out a map (a physical one if possible!) and start charting possible courses. Do your research: what times of year are particularly expensive/inexpensive to fly to or visit this destination? What season will be suitable for my volunteer project? Should I backtrack back to X before heading to Y, or vice versa?

Seeing it drawn out on an actual paper map 1) will make you giddy with excitement 2) makes your adventure seem all the more real.

How to Choose a Focus

Let’s be real. There’s a lot of S&#* happening in the world right now. At times, it can feel daunting (at best) to find a cause to hone in on and learn more about. Social services, lack of resources, HIV/AIDS, conservation for land and marine life, construction projects that support community development, working with children, working with the elderly, alleviating the stress of refugees, empowering women to fight for equality, learning to speak a foreign language fluently. You really have the gamut when choosing a project to focus on while abroad.

Think back on some volunteer projects you particularly enjoyed in high school or some class subjects that didn’t make you want to punch your brains out. These are key! Your attitudes towards these projects/subjects can easily be translated into fulfilling international volunteer work.

Putting It All Together

Now that you have a better idea of some exciting projects you want to tackle, places you MUST go, and your underlying goals, it’s time to jump start finding gap year programs that will enhance your overall experience abroad. Read reviews of programs online – no opinion is more valid than a past participant’s. Check organizations’ different accreditations (are they American Gap Association certified?). Browse through photos and stories and vignettes and social media accounts until you find a program that feels just right.

Remember: there are a lot of program options out there, and you can afford to be picky. Involve your parents in your decision making process if you want to fast-track your way to the top of their favorite child list.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter where you end going or what you end up doing. There’s no magic formula for a meaningful gap year. As long as your heart and mind are open to the lessons of the road, your gap year will be a worthwhile, life-altering, and captivating experience!


Photo Credit: John-Mark Kuznietsov

Article contributed by Megan Lee

5 Universities That Support Gap Years

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There is a common misconception that taking a Gap Year can put a student behind his peers in academic standing and pursuits. There is a fear among parents and educators that a student will be less likely to return and will lose her focus on completing her formal education if she takes a year off to travel and pursue other interests. The data refutes those concerns, nonetheless, they linger.

If you’re a student considering a Gap Year, or a parent seeking reassurance that taking this time off isn’t going to affect your child’s university track, we have compiled a long list of universities with specific attention to their Gap Year (deferral) policies.

Here are five schools that support the idea and go out of their way to make it easy on the student. One even offers scholarship money specifically for students who’ve taken a Gap Year! How cool is that?

Prescott College

“Students that are interested in taking a gap year simply need to notify us verbally or in writing. Students can defer for up to one year without having to reapply. We like to see gap year experience information included in students’ admissions essays.

Harding University

“We have a pretty relaxed policy. Typically, a student can apply for a semester and simply tell us they want to change to the following year and we can make that switch. In short, a student taking a gap year would change their enrollment date and would keep their scholarships if they don’t accumulate 14 or more hours at another school.”

University of Denver

“Our staff approves all gap-year requests in advance, and one restriction is that students are not allowed to enroll in a degree program at another institution. The students who enroll at DU following a gap experience generally perform very well on our campus, bringing a year of maturity and personal growth to our campus.”

Yale University

“A student’s take on Yale’s admission opportunities: ‘When prospective Yalies choose to matriculate, each is presented with the opportunity to take a Gap Year. Basically, all Yale students have the option of taking a full year off to take advantage of whatever their heart desires. There are plenty of programs and opportunities both in the United States and abroad.”

Florida State University

“FSU is proud to be one of the few universities in the country (and the second public university) to offer financial assistance to students taking a gap year. Students applying for a gap year deferment will automatically be considered for a scholarship of up to $5,000 to support their gap year. FSU is committed to helping make the transformative opportunities afforded by a gap year accessible to students regardless of their family’s income.

Photo Credit: Leeroy

Health & Safety on Your Gap Year

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safetyAmidst all your day dreamings for the amazing adventures you are going to have on your gap year (picture it: breakfast picnicking in front of Angkor Wat at sunrise, making a tangible difference in a small Tanzanian community, tracking wombats and other wild animals in the Outback…) it is easy to skim over preparing your mind and heart for potential disaster, or serious safety issue.

But let’s be real. Being proactive in ensuring your safety is downright SEXY. Here are a few tips to ensure your gap year is as safe as can be:

Medical Preparations & Response

Few people like to deal with health issues in their own country, let alone when in a foreign country, completely isolated from your support network, or without a Chipotle burrito to ease the pain. Nonetheless, gap year students should be mentally prepared to handle medical emergencies as smoothly as possible while abroad.


The Delhi belly, dehydration, hard-to-pronounce viruses, the common cold, strep, the flu. You’ll be exposed to a lot of new germs while traveling on your gap year, and if you can make it the whole year without getting a little bit sick, you’re basically superman. Here are some general health-related safety tips to ensure gap year success.

Before you go:

  • Find out if your travel destinations require any specific medication or immunizations prior to entering the country.
  • Get travel insurance! It does add to your overall program cost, but it can save you when you’re in a bind. Have digital and physical access to your policy.
  • Create digital copies of your medical records and share them with your immediate family. Print a copy for your pack.
  • If you have specific allergies or diet restrictions, memorize how to communicate those in the language(s) of your destination(s).
  • Save the emergency response number into your phone or commit it to memory.
  • Ask your mom and dad to help you create a credit line specifically for medical emergencies that happen as you travel.

If something happens:

Depending on the level of your illness, you may opt to visit a doctor or clinic in-country. The good news is that medical care is typically (much) more affordable in foreign countries. The bad news is you usually have to pay for your medical expenses up front (and get reimbursed later from your insurance). If you have the credit card handy, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue!

Let your program director, or coordinator, know of your illness, and ask them what the best means for letting your family know is. (Parents understandably tend to freak out when they know their precious baby is sick and they can’t do much to help them. It’s important you tell parents tactfully, otherwise they might presume you got bitten by a shark).

Medicines might look different than you’re used to – new brands, new methods of administering, weird colors, etc. Be open to using local methods of healing (it can be a really neat cultural learning experience!) but don’t rely on it if you’re not comfortable. Most places have a foreign hospital ($$$) where you can get more familiar health care.
Stay positive! This too, shall pass.

Dealing With Injury or Accidents

No matter how prepared you are, sometimes things just… happen. Much like back home, it’s important to stay alert (and try not to make dumb choices that increase your likelihood of danger) as much as possible.

Before you go:

Again, insurance is key here. Unnecessary medical expenses = the worst.
Ensure you have a chain of emergency communication in place and that it is understood. For instance, you might have to deal with the incident directly with your program provider before alerting your parents. Understand the steps.
Save the emergency response number into your phone or commit it to memory.

If something happens:

Get yourself to a doctor! Your #1 priority is your health and safety. Seek medical attention immediately. Call the emergency dial number or hop in a taxi to the Emergency Room.
Alert your program leaders or on-the-ground site staff of your situation as soon as possible.

General Safety Tips

Not all dangers are confined to what’s going on in your body.

Be Cautious When Solo Exploring.

It is perfectly fine for you to strike out on your own while doing your gap year (duh!). But keep your wits about you. Whenever possible, be sure to let someone else know when you are off to do some independent exploring. You don’t need to give them your entire itinerary or a projected play-by-play, but giving the individual a general time frame to expect your return is helpful (and can keep you safe).

For our intrepid female travelers, additional precautions are unfortunately necessary. You will want to be extra vigilant whenever you are going solo, including actively avoiding sketchy areas, dark walkways, or individuals who give you a bad vibe. Don’t tell strangers the specifics of where you are staying. You might even consider enrolling in a self-defense course prior to your gap year. Even if you don’t travel, it’s empowering!

Regardless of your gender, it is generally advisable to avoid wandering alone in unfamiliar areas at night (especially in the wee hours of morn’). Be aware of your surroundings at all times and always remain alert. Try to dress modestly to draw less attention to yourself – now’s not the time to be flashy with smart phones, fancy jewelry, or fat wallets.

A quick recipe for not losing your valuables:

Take one backpack full of valuables
Add one part padlock
Mix in two parts physical copies of your important documents (insurance, passport, address)
Sprinkle in one part digital copies of your important documents
Add 4 parts organization
Separate cash, credit cards, and ATM cards into multiple places

And voila! Your belongings are much more likely to start AND end the trip with you.

Booze Responsibly

You might end up imbibing in a little international drinky-drink while on your gap year abroad. As with any time you indulge in booze, you should be smart about it.

If you do decide to drink alcohol while on your gap year, do it only legally and with people you and trust. If possible, have one member of your group stay sober (or to drink significantly less than the others). Just don’t get too drunk. Once you’re wasted-face, you become an easy target for crimes of all kinds. You might get robbed, raped, sexually assaulted. Kidnapped. It’s not a joke, and gap year students should opt to not drink heavily while abroad.

Besides, it’s usually counter-productive to accomplishing your goals, expensive, and can leave you with a headache (and sometimes regret).

Write Your Address Down!

It’s always handy to keep the address of your hostel, project placement, or accommodations in your wallet – written in both English and the native tongue. While relying on a photo from your phone or a Maps app sounds like a good idea in theory, it can quickly become moot if your phone can’t keep its charge.

Oftentimes, it is easier to hand over a written-version of your address versus stumbling and mispronouncing it to your transit folks, anyway.

So there you have it…
Safe as safe can be.

Photo Credit: Jayakumar Ananthan

Article contributed by Megan Lee

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