How to prepare for a gap year abroad

Sara's take:

As high school seniors and their families consider their options for their plans post-graduation--such as going away for college, staying local, attending community college or applying for a degree in another country--I wanted to highlight an alternative option that is now becoming more mainstream than ever--a gap year program abroad.

Gap years abroad can be formal or informal, in a group or solo, work or volunteer, credit-bearing or not, but they are a great way to take a breather after the stresses and pressures of high school while seeing the world, learning about other cultures, making connections and discovering what your true passions are before committing to a full degree.

This week, we're fortunate to have a guest blog post from Samantha Tetrault of Samanthability, who shares some really important tips she learned during her gap year study abroad experience through Semester at Sea and how you can prepare for your own.

Written by guest blogger Samantha Tetrault

I went away to boarding school for high school, so I was shocked by just how nervous I was at the prospect of studying abroad in a gap year program. I’d completed all the paperwork, applied for my visas, and planned everything in extreme detail, yet I still was on the cusp of a breakdown at the Heathrow Airport in London right before my 4-month excursion around the world on the Semester at Sea ship.

I had nothing to worry about though. My gap year study abroad experience was more amazing than I could have imagined, and it shaped me into the person I am today. Now, years later, I’ve been to more than 30 countries and I’ve traveled solo. I incorporate the travel mindset into everything I do, and I attribute this to my gap year study abroad experience in 2013.

If you’re about to embark on a new adventure yourself, congratulations. I know it’s scary and exciting and so many other feelings all at once. It’s hard to leave your home and your school behind for something completely new, but it’s also super worth it.

Because there are some things I wish I knew before that first trip, I’ve decided to share a list of the best ways to prepare for your gap year abroad. There is no one-size-fits-all here, so consider how each of these ideas fit your own situation.

Studying the classics at the National Gallery in London, UK
Studying the classics at the National Gallery in London, UK

Pay close attention to classes

I studied abroad during my gap year program between high school and college, and I was hyper-focused on the classes I would take. I know a lot of students like to take things outside their comfort zones, and there are definitely merits to that.

As a scholarship student, time (and money) really was of the essence though. Getting as many gen-ed classes out of the way as possible was a must, so I needed to be sure my gap year credits transferred easily.

If you’re about to undertake a gap year abroad, check to be sure your classes will transfer, preferably to your major. If you do decide to wait to study abroad until after starting college, it's helpful to study abroad early in your college career. This gives you more chances to take gen-ed courses that easily transfer.

In my gap year studies abroad, I took a science course, an art course, a literature course, and history. Each one of these fulfilled a gen-ed requirement, and this meant I was able to stay on track to graduate early. Talking to an academic advisor at your school before you leave is a great idea.

Sara's Note: At College Apps Abroad, I also help you work this out before you go!

Be honest about your lifestyle

When I was planning my gap year abroad, I imagined myself living the life of glamour. I was going to take advantage of overnight trips, travel solo, and live it up. In reality, the constant go-go-go of travel is exhausting, and I didn’t find myself doing all of these things—which is totally okay.

I was much happier exploring for the day with a friend and then resting at night. For me, partying in each destination wasn’t a sustainable option, and that’s also okay.

Be honest about your lifestyle and what matters most to you. There’s no right or wrong answer. If I had been more realistic about the things I liked to do, I wouldn’t have felt so guilty about “missing out” on things that weren’t a good fit for me.

Sort out your banking

This is a more technical planning tip for preparing for your gap year abroad. Make sure you have a bank account that’s easy to access and that you have a backup plan in case you’re unable to access it.

During my gap year program through Semester at Sea, we were never in a single location very