Stay Sharp: How to Have a Productive Gap Year

Gap years are often viewed as taking a year off from the real world to spend all your time partying and sunbathing. Here’s how to have a more worthwhile experience.

So you’ve chosen to take a gap year. You’ve worked out where you want to go, and when you will start your adventure. You’re over the moon with excitement… until the worry creeps in. Is taking a year off really a wise thing to do?

Will you lose all your professional skills by taking so much time away from work and study? Will it be hard to find a job when you return?

And perhaps the question that sounds the most ridiculous, will you get bored of doing nothing but exploring and enjoying yourself?

A gap year doesn’t have to be all about rest, relaxation, and checking out the museums and bars of every place you find yourself in. Wherever you go in the world, there are lots of options to continue learning, working, and volunteering as you travel.

Not only will it be better for your future employment prospects, but it should be great fun and very interesting too.


Volunteering is the ultimate gap year cliché. When you combine a trip abroad with some community work, it becomes known as ‘voluntourism’.

However, you don’t need to pay lots of money to a large travel company in order to lend a hand while you’re travelling. By talking to the people you meet, both other travellers and the locals, you can hopefully find out where there are organisations and projects that might need your help.

If there is a language school nearby, see if they need any classroom assistants.

If you are a native English speaker you could offer your services as a conversation partner, allowing people the opportunity to chat to you in English to improve their skills and become more comfortable speaking in English.

(If you are interested in learning the native language of the country you’re in, you could set up a language exchange club.)

If you’re interested in working with children and young people, look out for a summer camp where you might be able to help out. There are likely to be many of these, especially in the summer months, and you might be able to assist with planning and implementing activities.


waitress is carrying two plates with meat dish

Even with unemployment rates rising in many countries, you can often find temporary jobs to keep you occupied while travelling. These will often be jobs in the service industry, or involving manual labour.

Though you are unlikely to find a secure job with good career prospects, you might find something to occupy your time, to earn you some money, and to cite as work experience when you get back to the world of work.

Getting a job in a bar, café or restaurant is a great way to socialise, meet new people, and practice your new language skills.

Many skills gained through work in the service industry are highly transferable to other industries, and could be used in your first job when you return from your gap year. The fact that you managed to find work in an unfamiliar country might be impressive in itself to your prospective employer.

You might even be able to find work as a nanny in some countries, which will be a worthwhile experience if you plan to go into a career in childcare.

It might be low-paid, but working as a nanny will usually include free accommodation, which means you will not have to worry about booking into a hostel or renting an apartment for a few months. It also usually leaves your nights free, so that you can still head out on an evening to socialise and meet new people.


Although you might be taking a gap year to celebrate the end of your education, or to take a break before starting a new course, there is no reason that you shouldn’t keep learning or studying while you are on your trip.

If you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, it is a great idea to attend a few language classes. Not only will this make it easier for you to navigate and socialise, it will be another string to add to your bow, especially as language skills are in high demand in many industries.

If you are comfortable with your language skills as they are, there are still many courses you could take. You could try learning a new skill or craft, or you could find out if the local college or university has any classes or lectures available to you.

What if you find yourself in a part of the world where classes and courses are few and far between? If you have a laptop and an internet connection, there are many opportunities to take courses for free online. Look for something suited to your interests on,, or

If you are starting a new degree course when you return from your gap year, you could use this opportunity to gain a good foundation of knowledge in order to make the transition smoother. If you’re going to start looking for jobs when you return, take a course that will be relevant to the industry you are hoping to go into.

Alternatively, if you don’t know what job you want, browse through some courses and learning materials to see what interests you.



Whatever your passion is, be it writing, photography, design, or something else entirely, try channelling it into a project while you travel. Starting a blog while you are away is a great way to keep in touch with people back home – or to stop your parents from worrying about you – but it can also be a wonderful way to showcase your creativity.

If your dream is to be a travel writer, then write a few pieces about each place that you visit. A good combination of topics would be to write one article about a tourist attraction, one about a hidden gem, and one about current affairs or something in the local community.

As well as publishing these on your own blog, you could try pitching them to your favourite websites, magazines and newspapers.

If you are a novice photographer, use your blog to show off your pictures of the beautiful places you are visiting. Remember, everyone will be snapping a few hasty shots of their street food and of the temple they just visited, but you could do so much more than that.

Pick a theme and plan your pictures carefully. Try to tell a story through your pictures, rather than telling the story alongside your pictures.

If you’re a writer of a more creative sort, you can use this time to build up your writing portfolio. Let yourself be inspired by the beautiful nature and fascinating culture you come across, and craft some short stories or poems about each town or city.

Or, for the more ambitious, this could be the perfect time to start your novel. They say that everyone has a novel in them, and what better time to let yours come out than when you are carefree and travelling the world?


More and more people are spending many years of their lives travelling the world, while working on a freelance basis, doing freelance writing, editing, or web design work.

If you are able to do any work that can be done primarily on a computer, and completed remotely, then you have the chance to be a digital nomad too.

Some people are able to earn a good living wage by working remotely, and then make this wage go further by living in countries where living costs are generally low.

There are many websites on which you can look for paid work in areas such as writing, programming, translation, web design, and sales. Try,, or

If you already have a few good freelance contracts, or have made a name for yourself in your chosen field before you set off on your trip, get the word out that you will still be taking on work while you are away.

Update your LinkedIn or professional website accordingly. Unless they know otherwise, your contacts may think that you are taking time off from your work as well, and will pass you over for another contractor.

Similar to starting your own project while you are travelling, you could start writing a travel blog. The difference between this and a personal project is that you could monetise your blog and live off the money you make.

Make sure you keep the content fresh and exciting, and that you dedicate enough time to doing fun things to write about, rather than just writing the same as everyone else.

Try to focus on having a mix of exciting and informative content, and to balance your personal anecdotes with the culture and history of the country.

About the author


Reader, writer, blogger, part-timer, volunteer, all things to all men. I can usually be found wearing yellow clothes and drinking green tea. Some of my favourite things include waterfalls, polar bears, rum, and charity shops.

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