Contrary to other countries, the UK has a longstanding tradition of taking a gap year.

It originated with wealthy parents bundling their progeny off to Europe to take in great works of art and experience the continental culture. Upon returning home, they would be considered well-rounded and ready to join the workforce and/or take their place in society.

These days, people take gap years for a variety of reasons: to gain a bit of life experience, to polish up the language skills they studied in school, to have a taste of adventure or do something good for the environment and/or others.

Gap years can be quite beneficial; one reason is that they give students a well-needed break from their studies: research shows that continuous, intense pressure to succeed academically often leads to student burnout.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to turn a bunch of youngsters loose upon the world; even in ‘Ye Olde Days’, students usually had some sort of chaperone or guide.

We’ve really not strayed too far from those roots; today, all sorts of programs exist to ensure participants’ safety while providing a life-changing experience.

Are gap year programs really necessary, though? Or do they amount to volunteer tourism aimed at a specific market?

Superprof investigated gap year programs and renders this report.

Gap Year Particulars

To get things started on the right foot, let’s get clear on what the designation ‘gap year’ really means.

Often, people take a semester away from their studies or sometimes up to eight months; seldom does a gap year last an entire year.

Often, students plead for a gap year after secondary school, before they apply to college. Others who have already started their university studies may take a break before moving on to graduate school.

You might try backpaking around the world with a gap year program
If you want to experience the life of a backpacker, you can do it on your own or through a gap year program Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

If you are just now preparing to sit your A-Levels, you may reasonably take a gap year but if you are still at GCSE level, you’ll have to wait a bit longer before actively planning one.

Taking a gap year does not give you license to do as you wish. You must do something productive during that time; working or volunteering, travelling or going on an adventure tour.

You may go on your own – a self-planned gap year or with an established program.

If you’d rather not go abroad, no need to worry, you can still find out what a gap year is all about right here at home. We have plenty of volunteer opportunities; you may also intern with a company that fits your career goals or find a job.

You may even decide to travel around the country; its historical structures and varied terrain make it well worth your while.

There are decided drawbacks to going it alone, however. Safety is one good reason to sign up with a gap year program; anything from injury and illness to running out of money become minimal risks when you’re in company.

Let’s take a closer look at the good and bad sides of the gap year program industry.

The Pros of Gap Year Programs

Just like having to choose your school leaving exam subjects, choosing what to do and where to go on a gap year can be a bit overwhelming.

Our world is now more connected than ever before; even the most inhospitable terrain is now fairly easily accessible. If indeed you thirst for adventure and discovery, how can you choose where to go? And what will you do once you get there?

Let’s take that thought further by presuming you know where you want to go. How much do you know about the culture, about the laws and how safe your destination(and what you want to do) is?

The companies that run gap year programs have people on the ground at the destinations they promote. They have established relationships with the local community and officials.

They are experienced in shepherding young, eager participants, keeping them safe and educating them about their host culture’s social norms while providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience designed to enrich their lives.

Another benefit of ‘gapping’ through a program is the sheer diversity of programs available.

Volunteering abroad can forge lifelong friendships
You might volunteer abroad, for instance in Australia, helping save koalas rescued from the devastating fires Image by Annick Vanblaere from Pixabay

Do you care about marine conservation or are you more about environmental conservation? What about education in developing countries? Or would you rather develop survival skills, taught and honed in the wilderness?

How could you participate in such activities if not through a gap year program?

Of course, if you are studying marine biology and are ‘gapping’ before graduate school, you may sign up for an internship through school but, overwhelmingly, such opportunities can be had only through a gap year program.

Are you interested? Do you want to know more? In this table, we've collected contact information from the most popular providers of gap year programs.

Gap Year Programs

Name of CompanyWhat They OfferWeb Address
GVIconservation programs, educational programs, animal care, multi-country volunteeringwww.gvi.co.uk
GapforceCommunity volunteering abroad, conservation programs, adventure travel, outdoor training courseshttps://gapforce.org/gb
Projects Abroadconservation, youth development, sports coaching, archaeology, building, teachingwww.projects-abroad.co.uk
Year Out GroupConservation in Africa, ski internships in Canada, marine conservation in Thailand and morehttps://yearoutgroup.org/gap-year-programs/

Would you like other gap year ideas to consider before settling on a program?

The Cons of Gap Year Programs

Perhaps the biggest strike against such programs is their cost – some run in the thousands of pounds!

Of course, if you factor in the cost of airfare (if you’re planning to go abroad), the connections and support the program provides and your housing, maybe food and possibly health insurance, it’s really not so bad.

On the other hand, those who don’t have thousands of pounds to throw around are forced to miss out on a valuable development experienceor are they?

You don’t have to go overseas to enjoy a gap year; you can engage in volunteer work right here at home.

If working with the underprivileged is your passion, there are no shortage of such people here. Helping young children learn how to read or doing your part to promote adult literacy?

Are you interested in early child development and want to volunteer as an au pair? Planning to become a civil engineer and want to try your hand at community development?

You could launch yourself into a myriad of sabbatical activities without paying a company to arrange it for you.

You might, for example, do a homestay on an organic farm to learn about animal husbandry ahead of studying veterinary medicine or volunteer at your local hospital before you enrol in medical school.

And what about trekking all over the Scottish Highlands or across the Pennines?

The long and the short of not engaging with a gap year program is that you are much more in control of your experiences even if you do decide to take your gap year abroad.

You can learn more about them in our complete gap year guide…

Besides, there are plenty of organisations that offer anything from backpacking to volunteer programs, often at minimal or no cost to you.

And if you wanted to work abroad, you’re in luck! The demand for native English speakers to teach in Asia is huge and, often, schools will pay for English teachers’ airfare as well as accommodations, and they may even provide an in-country guide!

In this table, we list how you too might take advantage of such opportunities.

You stand to learn much from different cultures
Imagine landing a gig teaching English in a remote part of Asia! Image by Olga Ozik from Pixabay

Local and International Gap Year Opportunities

Organisation NameWhat you can doWeb Address
Help ExchangeHomestays, teaching, construction work, childcare and more
www.helpx.net
Do ItFundraising, dog walking, working with children and much morehttps://do-it.org
Volunteering EnglandThis page will direct you to other volunteer organisationswww.ncvo.org.uk
The Association of Guernsey Charitieswork with therapy dogs, in an organic garden, coordinating community events and morewww.charity.org.gg
Volunteering Matterswork with children or needy adults, help distressed familieshttps://volunteeringmatters.org.uk
Join InA sports-oriented charitywww.sportandrecreation.org.uk/pages/volunteering/
Dave's ESL CafeTeaching English all over the worldwww.eslcafe.com

Should You Sign On With a Gap Year Program?

The choice, of course, is up to you. That’s not much help, is it? Let’s try to do a bit better.

If you are on the younger side of the gap year crowd – say, one going on sabbatical between A-Levels and enrolling in university, you might not have enough life experience to ensure your safety and well-being as you travel around on your own.

For people in that category, a gap year program makes sense.

However, if you already have three or four years of university study under your belt – if you’ve already experienced a measure of personal growth, why not try to go on your own or with some friends?

It’s not hard to find turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica or, if turtles aren’t your thing, you can search for other, more suitable projects abroad.

Or at home. Our country has adventure travel, internships and volunteer opportunities aplenty.

The benefits of seeking out your own adventure – besides it likely costing you far less money is that you are taking it upon yourself to make the most of your skills and abilities, finding what you want and taking it on your terms.

Still, there is a lot to be said for gapping through a program, safety being the most obvious. But another benefit of working abroad through a gap year program is that they present volunteering opportunities that you might not otherwise find on your own.

And, if you are an adventuresome sort, you could hardly do better than with such a program.

In a sense, you might say that gap year programs have created their market; before they came along, one could go volunteer overseas at their own risk.

So, if you have ready cash to lay out, by all means: go for it.

Just remember that you can also create your own opportunities and save that wad of cash for other things.

Your turn to talk: what would you say to a friend who asks: “Should I take a gap year?”

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.