What Makes a Good Gap Year Program?

What Do the Best Gap Year Programs Have in Common?

Updated January 2023 – As more and more students recognize the many benefits of taking a gap year, demand for programs that offer students a chance to go abroad during their gap years has grown rapidly. And that demand has been met with dozens of options for international travel for students cropping up all around the world.

Yet more options for students also means a more challenging decision-making process: how can you tell the difference between gap year programs that offer a truly outstanding experience and those that are just trying to make easy money off of students?

At Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), our deep knowledge of the gap year program industry and our years of experience working with students have led us to develop some clear criteria for a high-quality gap year program. To help make your decision-making process clearer and easier, we’d like to share those with you. Here are the six key factors that the very best gap year programs have in common.

Photo by Samuel Knight, Montevideo, Uruguay Gap Volunteer, 2019
Photo by Samuel Knight, Montevideo, Uruguay Gap Volunteer, 2019

1. The Best Gap Year Programs Offer...a Variety of Program Types

Gap year organizations typically offer three different key types of programs:

1) Service: service programs offer unique opportunities to volunteer your time, collaborating with local communities and organizations on key projects.
2) Immersion: immersion programs help you build language skills and cultural competency through homestays, language practice and courses, and other experiences that let you fully experience the society you are visiting.
3) Academic: academic programs focus on learning about a culture or a subject, and can feature either classroom learning and coursework or experiential learning.

For most students who are curious about other cultures and looking to make the most of their gap year experience, all of the above probably sound appealing. This is why the best gap year programs offer opportunities to combine all three key program types into holistic, intentionally designed experiences rather than making you choose just one at the expense of others.

For example, at AMIGOS, our programs are built around ethical service and cultural humility, but also offer workshops and language immersion as well as opportunities for both classroom and experiential learning all throughout.

A trip to Cajas National Park in Ecuador
A trip to Cajas National Park in Ecuador

2. The Best Gap Year Programs Offer...Organizational Support

While some gap year programs leave students without many resources to deal with all of the many life challenges that arise from navigating a long-term stay in a new place, truly worthwhile gap year programs offer students support to ensure that stress or uncertainty will have minimal impact on your experience.

At AMIGOS, we’ve committed to supporting our students by putting their safety first and making sure they always have the assistance they need from trained staff: we have local staff teams available to students (with a ratio of just 7 students to each staff member), a 24/7 emergency team on call while students are abroad, and a network of local, highly-vetted healthcare facilities and specialists available to students.

Staff teams also provide mentorship to gap volunteers by facilitating goal-setting and brainstorming collaborative projects or solutions. Students check-in with staff one-on-one every week to ensure we are providing the best-possible support to our students.

If you’re evaluating gap year programs, be sure to find one that offers trained staff, 24/7 availability, and proven success in offering both the day-to-day help and the worst-case-scenario support you’ll need while visiting a new place.

3. The Best Gap Year Programs Offer...Travel Help

Taking part in an international gap year program involves both travel to and from the region you’re visiting and also plenty of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for trips while you’re there. In many ways, the opportunity to travel is one of the most valuable parts of a gap year program, but it can also be one of the most daunting: what happens if I lose my luggage? How will I navigate airports and train stations? Is there anyone who can help me plan additional trips I want to take?

Too many gap year or study abroad programs leave students to face these questions alone, but the top tier of gap year programs offer students help with travel, from airport pickups to expert advice to 24/7 safety and health support in case your travel doesn’t go exactly as planned.

You can read more about our commitments to health, safety and travel support at AMIGOS if you’re interested, and you should be sure to ask any gap year program you’re considering what they provide to help you with your travel.

AMIGOS Gap student Audrey paints a mural as part of her internship.
AMIGOS Gap student Audrey paints a mural as part of her internship.

4. The Best Gap Year Programs Offer...Ethical Practices

Like any organization that operates across cultures globally, gap year programs must be diligent about offering experiences for students without exploiting local communities, damaging the environment, or making other ethical missteps. The best programs should seek to go beyond minimizing harm and instead seek a positive overall impact on any person and community involved with the program.

Within this context, it’s important to choose an organization that is both intentional and transparent about the steps they take to ensure their trips and programs meet the highest possible ethical standards and provide lasting, welcome support to the communities they visit and serve. For AMIGOS, this means that all our programs must be based on true partnership with local organizations and that we prioritize sustainability, transparency, respect, and measurable benefits to local communities in everything we do.

Whatever program you choose, the provider should be able to present you thoughtful and detailed materials on their ethical commitments. If they can’t, be prepared to ask tough questions about their interactions with local communities, the values their organization holds, and the practical steps they take to ensure their programs are ethical before committing to any of their programs.

5. The Best Gap Year Programs Offer...Maximum Impact

Whether you’re hoping for an academic boost before heading to college, or any one of the many other benefits of a gap year program, you’re looking for more than just a fun opportunity to kill time. We’ve found over the years that the type of students who are interested in gap year programs want something that will have a large and lasting impact, both on themselves and on the world.

With this in mind, we’ve designed programs that maximize both of those kinds of impact. And the best gap year programs around the world maintain the same commitment. When you are evaluating gap year programs, think critically about whether or not the work you will be doing will have an authentic, sustainable impact on the communities you’ll be living in, and also about whether you’ll have the opportunity to be immersed in those local communities while doing so. Programs that offer both types of experiences usually are your best bet to maximize the lasting impact of your gap year.

An outdoor market in Ecuador
An outdoor market in Ecuador

6. The Best Gap Year Programs Offer...High-Quality Accommodations

Over our years of experience working with students abroad, we’ve found that the true measure of the quality of your accommodations is found in the level of personal, unique, immersive details that come with your living arrangement. Whether it comes in the form of home-cooked food, the chance to develop lifelong bonds with your host family, or the opportunity to fully dive into the daily life and culture of the place where you’re staying, your accommodations should allow for a rich, memorable experience, not merely a stay in a generic hotel or dorm.

In a typical year, AMIGOS provides high-quality accommodations for students through developing a program of fully immersive homestays. These homestays provide a comfortable, yet invigorating travel experience that offers the chance to learn, grow and bond as you experience every meaningful detail of daily life in the culture you’re visiting. We believe that the best gap year programs offer similar high-quality, unique homestay-style accommodations and that any program you’re seriously considering should also offer in-depth testimonials from past students that speak to accommodations and other day-to-day factors of the program.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have adapted our programs to focus on communal living in a pod, or group of gap students living together.

Interested in a Gap Year? Here are Your Next Steps

If reading this guide has sparked your interest in finding a gap year program that truly sets itself apart in terms of program types, organizational support, help with travel, ethical practices, maximum impact, and high-quality accommodations, we’d love to provide you more information on our programs at AMIGOS.

Learning more about our programs will help you better understand how top-tier gap year programs operate, so even if you end up choosing a different option, you’ll still be able to educate yourself on what to look for as you evaluate other programs. Check out this planning guide from the Gap Year Association!

By choosing a gap year program, you’re choosing to pursue your own personal growth and education rather than just following the crowd: we hope our advice can help you make the best possible choices as you embrace that journey.

Ready to get out of your element?