Are you considering taking a gap year before heading to college — or even after college and before entering the workforce? There are compelling reasons to do so. And despite what your parents are afraid of, taking some time off to see the world, explore your passions, or even “find yourself” isn’t necessarily going to derail the rest of your life. In fact, some 90% of people who take a gap year before heading to college follow through on their plan to pursue higher education within 12 months of the gap year’s end. Taking a gap year to live and work abroad is exciting, but to really maximize the experience, you need to participate as fully as possible.

Not only that but 66% of students who had taken a gap year before matriculating reported taking their studies more seriously because of their decision. (We assume the other 34% already took their education as seriously as possible.)

That said, it pays to be smart about where you go and what you do — and don’t do — during this formative period in your young adulthood. Simply throwing some clothes into a backpack and buying a Eurorail pass might sound like fun, but your gap year should be better organized and planned — at least to a point.

Read on to learn 5 tips for making the most of this adventure!

1. Keep Your Resume in Mind

Gap years are supposed to be fun, but they aren’t supposed to be vacations. What’s the difference? On vacation, you’re living for the moment and escaping reality. During a gap year, you need to keep your future in mind and pursue opportunities that will help you make that future a successful one. While you can always get a fake diploma, you can’t fake experiential learning.

Working, interning, or volunteering are all good ways to build up that resume. Consider going to a country where English isn’t the official tongue. Learning a language immersion-style is another great experience that will likely be impressive to future employers. In many cases, just knowing the language will be an asset that sets you apart from other candidates.

2. Actively Seek Out Growth Opportunities

Growth Opportunities

Chances are you’re going to have to work, at least part-time, during this period. Instead of falling back on the same old job you’ve worked every summer, head overseas to try something new that will help you grow and learn.

There are loads of exciting, interesting opportunities to earn yourself some yen or Euros. If you’re good with kids and considering a career in education, become an au pair or sign up to teach English abroad. Take a job in a restaurant to learn everything you can about that particular cuisine. It’s also a smart idea to work in a customer-facing position that puts you into regular contact with the local folks. The more people you meet on your gap year, the more fun you’ll have — and you just never know what opportunities might arise simply from knowing the right people.

3. Don’t Rely Too Heavily on the Expat Community

It’s easy, comfortable, and tempting to spend your time abroad mixing and mingling mostly with fellow Americans or Canadians. Speaking English, being able to reminisce about the foods, pop culture, and customs of home, and sharing the troubles you experience as a foreigner will go a long way toward alleviating your homesickness and making you feel less lonely. But it isn’t particularly enriching.

So get out there and make some local friends too. That will help you master the language, learn about the history, traditions, and culture of your host country, and build lifelong friendships.

4. Document Everything

Document

These days, it’s easier than ever to take photos and video, jot down your impressions or any funny situations you get into, and otherwise chronicle your time abroad. Start a blog, dedicate an Instagram account to your trip, or put videos up on YouTube.

By doing so, you’ll have a great record of everything you experienced, so you can look back on it for the rest of your life. Sending such missives via social media is a super way for friends and family to keep up with your adventures. You may even be able to monetize a blog, sell some photographs down the line, or turn your travelogue into a book.

5. Say Yes to (Almost) Everything

Taking a gap year to live and work abroad is exciting, but to really maximize the experience, you need to participate as fully as possible. That means seeking out adventure, never turning down an invitation, trying all the new foods that are offered, and otherwise saying yes. Of course, use your common sense and exercise caution; don’t do anything that might get you into trouble, like taking drugs or breaking local laws.

Having an open mind and welcoming any chance to learn — about the culture, about yourself, about life in general — is the best way to get the full value of any travel experience, and that goes double for a gap year. Why bother going at all if you’re going to stay in your comfort zone?

Getting Excited About a Gap Year?

One last tip — research everything extensively before your gap year. It’s always good to know what you’re getting into, and booking your return ticket is a prudent measure to take, as well. Naturally, you’ll want to be somewhat flexible and give yourself some wiggle room if plans change or if a fantastic but unforeseen opportunity drops into your lap. But having a plan is essential to safe, successful travel during a gap year.

Now we want to hear from you! Any personal experience with a gap year you’d like to share? Tips, tricks, hacks, hints, cautionary tales? Have questions for your fellow travelers? Comment below and start a conversation!

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