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The UnCollege Blog

The Best Gap Year Options for Teens

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It’s not easy being a high school student these days. Juggling classes, after school activities, a social life and planning your future is tough. The most demanding part of it all is that you are forced, at a very young age, to spend a lot of time thinking about the future – where should you go to school, what do you want to do, how will you support yourself, etc. But shouldn’t you take a moment to step back?


Shouldn’t teens explore their interests, develop skills and take the time to live a real world experience before they jump into the vicious cycle of school, then college, then a job, then marriage, then raise kids, and finally, retire?

The answer is yes – and a gap year program is one way to ensure that you dedicate an appropriate amount of to this important task.

Here are the best gap year options for any teen:

1) Language Immersion Gap Year

The world is smaller than it used to be. Think about how easy it is to jump on a plane and be in a new country or connect with people from all over the world via Skype in a matter of seconds. It’s incredible! Language and the art of communication are becoming more and more important professionally and, as simple as it sounds, to be a good member of your local community. It’s true – I went to college in San Jose, California where 24% of all households spoke Spanish. That’s almost 250,000 people. It would have been useful to be fluent in Spanish when I arrived as a freshman. Seriously. Not a lot has changed since then. After all, I still live in California.

In San Francisco, 11% of the population speaks Mandarin. What am I trying to say? Becoming fluent in a second or third language isn’t just useful for traveling and seeking adventures. It’s a skill you really should develop as a citizen. But why do that in your hometown when you can travel and see the world?

Check out immersive language programs. These programs give you the opportunity to learn a language, travel, experience a new culture and leave free time during the day to pursue other passions you might have.

No matter what program you pick, make sure it has great relationships with the communities where it hosts its programs. Also, try not to pick an international metropolis as your destination. (Ex: everyone wants to study Spanish in Barcelona, but Barcelona is a big city where English is spoken by many, making it hard for you to focus on Spanish. Also, they don’t even speak Spanish in Barcelona. They speak Catalan). Instead, choose a smaller town with a rich history or go off the beaten path to a cultural village.

Lastly, look for results. Try and find a program that can prove that they help people become proficient speakers. One of the more popular options out there is Middlebury Monterey. Why? Because they can boast results like this one: “91% of beginning students gained a full language level on the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Language’s proficiency scale.” That’s a great statistic to have.

2) Personal and Professional Growth Programs

A second language is an essential skill in our modern world, but learning one isn’t necessarily going to help you figure out what you want to do with your life or turn a pre-existing business idea you might have into a reality. Personal and professional accelerators are about focusing on finding out more about yourself and building the skills you need to succeed on a professional level, while still encouraging you to explore the world and experience new things. They are about grabbing the wheel or taking the reigns of your own development.

There are plenty of options out there to choose from (one of which is our UnCollege Gap Year Program), but here is what you should look for in a program:

Real world professional experience.

If you aren’t going to take a year to travel the world with your trusty backpack, you should spend at least a few months gaining real world experience. We’re not talking about serving up cones at your local ice cream shop or babysitting for the neighbors – we’re talk about internships for companies that can expand your potential as a professional. Don’t settle for any less.
What to do: Seek out a program that can help you find one that is both aimed to develop a skill you’re interested in and will be a gold star on your resume.

A supportive, residential or immersive experience.

You can learn a lot about yourself when you live in something – whatever it is – 24/7. Similar to an immersive language experience, look for a program that will force you to think about improving every second of every day.

What to do: Find out which programs value peer-to-peer learning and residential experiences. If you find these qualities in a program, they will most likely offer a great immersive program.

Quality mentoring and networking.

If you’re going to take the time to develop professionally, make sure you have the opportunity to learn from some experienced and remarkable people.
What to do: Find a program that can not only coach you, but set you up with people that will help you develop skills and forever bolster your professional network.

Freedom to explore.

Some professional accelerators are entirely too rigid, but you are young and you should have the freedom to explore.

What to do: Find a program that both pushes you to explore your innate curiosities and give you the space to do so. As a teenager, it’s okay to not know what you want to do. On the other hand, it is not okay to sit back and not explore what the world has to offer – and that goes for careers as well.

21st Century skills.

This one is simple – make sure the program you choose teaches skills that will be useful in the modern world. (To see a few examples of 21st century, check out our program guide).
What to do: Also simple – research programs that teach 21st century skills.

3) Skill Bootcamps

Do you know what you want to do? Is it tech-based? If so, there’s no reason to rush into college. Spend a year developing your skills and your network before you make the leap into university. Skill bootcamps range from marketing to design to coding. Hundreds of these options have popped up all over the world in the past few years. What you should look for is one that has an employment or internship guarantee or promises career support after completing the program.

Most hard skill programs are incredibly niche. That said, companies like General Assembly offer a wide variety of opportunities in a number of US cities.

Did you like this post on gap year options for teens? For more gap year information, visit our resources page.

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