Which gap year option is right for my child?


Gap years have become an essential rite of passage for many young people. Benedict Cumberbatch and J.K. Rowling did it, William and Harry have done it more than once and next year Malia Obama is set to take her gap before starting at Harvard.

A meaningful gap year can give young people a chance to discover their true interests and talents, and make them more focused once they get back. According to this former Harvard admissions officer, students who took a gap year before studying often do better than their classmates. It doesn't even have to be a full year: your child can have a fantastic experience in just a couple of months.

Read more: Should my child take a GAP year?

But before you drop off your teen at the airport with nothing but a backpack, you can help them choose a gap year that suits their age, goals and budget. Our checklist will get them started.

Click on the image to download a copy:

Gap year options


√ Have an adventure and see the world.
√ Flexibility and independence.
√ Go overseas or travel locally.
√ Suitable for any age.

If adventure, independence and spontaneity are what you’re after, your child won't need much more than a good backpack, a passport and possibly a visa or two. But be warned: if they run out of money on their travels, they won’t be able to work unless they have the correct work permit. If they plan to take casual jobs while backpacking, rather look at a student working holiday (see below).

Cultural exchange 

√ Gain skills and experience.
√ Learn about other cultures.
√ Enjoy structure and security. 
√ Go overseas.
√ Suitable for high school students, matriculants or students.
! Can be very expensive.

If you don't mind the hefty price tag and the idea of hosting a foreign student in your home, then a student exchange programme might be a great option. Your child will get to share in their host family's daily lives, go to a local school and have a fantastic chance to learn a foreign language.

Skilled work in a foreign country 

√ Have an adventure and see the world.
√ Gain skills and experience.
√ Go overseas.
√ Learn about other cultures.
√ Save money.
√ Enjoy structure and security OR flexibility and independence, depending on the job.
! You'll need relevant work experience or qualifications.
! There may be a minimum age requirement.

If your child already has a degree or some work experience, their options for making money overseas are pretty good. They can teach English in the Far East, sail the seas on a cruise ship, work at a hotel or get an agricultural internship. 

Work and living conditions might be hard, but they’ll get rewarded with good pay, solid work experience and a great adventure. (In some countries, they may be able to teach English without qualifications and experience – but they won't make nearly as much money.)

Student working holiday

√ Have an adventure and see the world.
√ Gain skills and experience.
√ Go overseas.
√ Learn about other cultures.
√ Make money – how much depends on how hard you work!
√ Enjoy flexibility and independence OR structure and security if you choose a travel package.
! Only full-time students qualify for student work visas.

With a student working visa, your teen can combine backpacking with casual work. They can work on farms or in bars, hotels and ski resorts. They could find their own work, or pay a youth travel company to get them a visa and a job in countries such as America, New Zealand and Mauritius. Note that for some of these programmes, they’ll need to be a full-time student at a registered tertiary institution. (For ski resort work experience closer to home, try Afriski and Tiffindell.)

Summer camps and au pairing

√ Have an adventure and see the world.
√ Gain skills and experience.
√ Go overseas or travel locally.
√ Learn about other cultures.
√ Make enough to cover your costs.
√ Enjoy structure and security OR flexibility and independence, depending on the job.
√ Suitable for recent high school graduates.
! To become an au pair, you may need some experience working with kids.

Working as an au pair or summer camp counsellor are popular gap year options for South Africans.

As an au pair they’ll live with a host family, giving your child great insight into how other cultures live and the chance to become fluent in a foreign language. There are opportunities all over the world, from America and Europe to China. All they need is a love for kids and some babysitting experience.

Working on summer camps won't be very lucrative, but they’ll get to spend the American summer outdoors, making new friends and trying their hand at new skills. They can even get the summer camp experience while staying on home soil: try Sugar Bay or Camp Yogo (a Christian camp). 

Volunteering at a charity

√ Gain skills and experience.
√ Contribute to society.
√ Enjoy flexibility and independence.
√ Travel locally or stay at home.
√ Suitable for any age and any level of qualification or work experience.
! For more specialised work, you may need relevant work experience. 
! You'll need to cover your living costs and you won't make any money.

There are dozens of charities in South Africa who welcome free help: your child can play with the dogs at the SPCA, build a house with Habitat for Humanity, help SANCCOB save seabirds, tutor high school students, get involved with Green Peace or work behind the till at your local charity shop. By offering their skills, they can gain work experience or build a portfolio of their writing, photography or design work while making a huge difference to the community. Click here to find a charity or charity shop near you.


√ Have an adventure and see the world. 
√ Gain skills and experience.
√ Contribute to society.
√ Learn about other cultures.
√ Enjoy structure and security. 
√ Go overseas or travel locally. 
√ Suitable for any age and any level of qualification or work experience.
! These programmes are very expensive and you won't make any money.

With structured volunteering programmes you can experience places and things you would otherwise only dream of: working with endangered animals in the Amazon, teaching English to Buddhist monks in Laos or rebuilding communities destroyed by natural disasters. This is a very expensive option, but the fee covers all travel costs. And parents can rest assured that their kids will be well looked after while they do good, gain experience, meet interesting people and have the adventure of a lifetime.

For more information on these gap year options, contact a youth or student work and travel agency:

Has your kid taken a gap year? Share your experience with us by emailing and we may publish your story. Should you wish to remain anonymous, please let us know.

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