• Volunteer and Adventure

What to do in a gap year

Article by Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah

Posted: December 7, 2022

6 min read

Gap years are a break from conventional work and study, but they are far from a year “off”. There are many possible paths to follow during a gap year, from learning a new skill to gaining work experience and travelling the world. 

Having so many options at your disposal can be both liberating and overwhelming. Figuring out what to do in a gap year can be tough, especially when thinking ahead to what you’ll do next. 

Here are some suggestions for what to do in a gap year, if you want to make the most of it. 

What are the benefits of a gap year?

Gap years are a rare time in your life – this is a chance to expand your horizons and reflect on your direction in life, outside of the forward march of traditional schooling. Taking time out from study is a chance to enjoy experiential learning, picking up lessons you could never gain in a classroom. 

During a gap year, you might be able to clarify what matters to you the most. This focus might help you choose a career direction so you can better funnel your energy into getting where you want to go. 

If you choose to travel abroad, and maybe join a volunteer program, you’ll have the opportunity to gain new perspectives. Spending time in another culture can help to improve your cross-cultural awareness and communication, and give you new insights into different social issues. 

When considering what to do in a gap year, you can weigh up how it will support your personal growth, career path, and global perspectives. 

What do students usually do during their gap year?

A gap year is a time to have fun, but it’s not a year for doing nothing at all. Having goals and purpose during your gap year can make it more productive and give you more focus. 

A gap year can be the first opportunity for many people to go overseas, so many students choose to travel abroad. Organised tours or volunteering programs can provide a safe and structured way for students to travel abroad solo for the first time. 

Ultimately, deciding what to do in a gap year comes down to your personal aspirations and interests – are you more interested in learning about the environment or people? Are you drawn to the ocean or mountains? Would you like to gain work experience on an internship or spend time learning a new skill like diving? 

This personal exploration and reflection – even as part of deciding what to do in a gap year – is what makes this time so valuable.

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Internships are another popular option during gap years, as they give you practical skills you can add to your resume.

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Join an internship

How long should a gap year be?

If you’re wondering how long a gap year should be, most people take the full year off between finishing high school and starting university. Or, they take a complete year after finishing work. This allows plenty of time to explore different options.

However, there are no hard and fast rules that a gap year needs to last a full 12 months. GVI’s programs last from two weeks to six months, for example. So your “year” might include one month volunteering abroad, another month travelling through your host country, and some time at home to rest and reflect. 

The best things to do in a gap year

Travel abroad

Travelling overseas is one of the most popular ways to spend a gap year, and for good reason. 

Travelling internationally for the first time will challenge you and thrust you outside of your comfort zone. It will also give you a chance to experience immersion in a culture different to your own. You might be able to practise learning in a different language, experience the awe of seeing world wonders, and meet people from diverse backgrounds. 

Follow your passions

When studying or working full-time, it’s easy to let routine settle in and lose space and time for the things that bring you joy. A gap year is a time when you can explore your passions more deeply, whether that’s delving into creative skills like writing and photography, or spending time learning a new language or musical instrument.  

Start building your CV

Finding a job after graduating can be challenging. During a gap year, you can start adding skills and qualifications to your CV to stand out when you start applying for jobs. 

The great thing about gap years is you can add to your CV while also travelling overseas or exploring different passions. A volunteer program can look great on a CV for example. And courses like a PADI diving course, or first aid training certificate, make excellent additions as well. 

You can also use your gap year to show how you have developed soft skills, like communication skills and self-motivation. 

When considering what to do in a gap year, consider how you might frame your choices on your CV, and how the various options will help you when you return to study or start looking for a job. 

Try out potential career paths

Committing to a course of study without knowing what it’s like to work in that field can be daunting. An internship abroad is a low-stakes way to try out a career for size. For example, you could give teaching a go, work alongside marine biologists, or even get experience working in a dive shop. 

With GVI’s internships, you’ll contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) during your internship, so even if you give something a go and decide it’s not for you, you can feel satisfied that you used your gap year to have an impact. And if you discover that your chosen internship suits you down to the ground – even better. 

Learn more about the critical issues facing the world

You know the world is facing environmental and social challenges, but maybe you feel helpless to do anything about them. 

Travelling abroad and engaging directly with communities via volunteer programs can help to give you more education about critical issues. Through GVI you can learn about the UN SDGs and get involved in different solutions to challenges facing people and the planet. 

A hands-on and positive approach to critical issues might help you discover how you can use your skills to have more impact. 


What should you not do in a gap year?

Unless you spend the whole time at home watching TV, it’s hard to waste a gap year. Most of the experiences you have, whether positive or negative, will contribute to your growth in some way. 

As long as you have some goals in place and a rough idea of how you can talk about your gap year experiences with potential employers, your gap year will be worthwhile. 

If you’re thinking about what to do in a gap year, take a look at GVI’s international volunteer and internship programs for a mix of adventure, personal growth, and travel to some of the world’s most exciting destinations. 

By Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure and sustainable travel. She has been writing about travel for more than five years and her work has appeared in print and digital publications including National Geographic Travel, Conde Nast Travel, Business Insider, Atlas Obscura and more. You can see more of her work at petrinadarrah.com.
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