If you can dip into the Bank of Mom and Dad, then you wouldn't be reading this post. You want to defer your entry into college, as traveling during your gap year will turn you into a superstar during Freshers Week. And it's not an exaggeration. Not all incoming freshman (college) students) could be as lucky as Malia Obama, though.
A gap year can be the best decision you would ever make IF you use it wisely. Traveling is the first, if not best, option. No one forbids you to drink too many cans of Carlton (if you end up in Down Under), Time is not wasted if you didn't look for job opportunities (away from home). No one will scold you for picking grapes (to fund your travels). You'll only be young once. Traveling can be exhausting. Then again, you can end up in a lifetime of debt if you don't plan ahead. This might be an opportunity in disguise, as lack of money forces you to find a bartending gig. Busking (or begging) would be a no-no unless you fancy your image appearing in the Google search results (under begpacker). There's a better approach.
5 Ways for Gappers to Gain a Great Experience
Don't ever think of traveling for a year. If you're coming from a wealthy family, then you can skip this part. However, the financial crunch would force everyone to plan their spending habits. Traveling is a privilege, but many young travelers are unaware of it. The money will be a huge issue, so consider a few months of being away from home. It will be long enough to see the places of interest in Europe. It might be more than long enough to familiarize with the features of the Outback (if you wish to go to Australia) or savor the postcard-like the landscape of New Zealand (if you happen to be a huge fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's enchanting saga.) You can do meaningful work (between sightseeing), if not find perspective in landmarks while volunteering. We'll get to that part a bit later.
Consider the countries where you can find paying work. Home seems to be the sensible choice, as you don't have to pay much for airline tickets. On the other hand, it won't make your gap year any better than the other (incoming) freshmen. Some will study Spanish, as they plan to stay in any part of South America for a year while others are thinking of Africa The experience will be worth a Haggard, but why not look at Australia. New Zealand is not far away. If you're thinking of teaching English to locals, then China seems more attractive than Thailand. The full-moon party (in the southern isles off the Malay Peninsula) may be included on your must-do list, though.
Volunteering can be a valuable experience. Volunteering may not pay well, but doing it in a foreign country will give your CV a competitive edge. The skills you will learn here can be transferable if you're aspiring to be a marine biologist. Even a humble teacher can be a good material for a novel. It would be too late for a Graham Greene.
Funding on a credit card is not an option. Think about the interest, even if your choice (of the bank) has a lower rate compared to the other ones that you've checked on. It doesn't end here, as you should look into your accommodation, meals, and other expenses. If a job opportunity (or volunteer work) requires you to pay a fee, then do a research. You might get scammed. (And don't ever think that you'll have limited options.) If your parents can't help you out, then you can ask your teacher(s) for a lead.
Take a leap of faith. It's not the same as bungee jumping, but you'll get a general idea behind this oft-used term. No one can tell you what will happen at the end of your gap year, so you better make the most out of your time. Seeing all the places of interest is one thing while interacting with the locals will be another. If you can find a meaningful thing to do, be it work, volunteering opportunity or anything else, then grab it.
What if a gap year puts you in a crossroad
A tempting job offer comes up (after your gap year). For some reasons, you choose to stay in that foreign country. You've become so assured of yourself, such that you're comparing yourself to Bill Gates. Whether wanderlust or something personal, attending morning lectures doesn't seem appealing to you. Think again. You'll spend more money in pursuing a college degree, but it doesn't make it a waste of money. On the contrary, college is a great investment. What you'll learn in that hallowed institution is not offered elsewhere. Furthermore, you'll meet coursemates who might be your lifelong friends. You may have found one (or two) elsewhere, who hardly speaks fluent English, but it will be better to have more circles of friends.
Dropping out may come to mind at some point after looking back at your unforgettable gap year. (Your coursemates are green with envy at your arresting shots of medieval structures in the Mediterranean region while the few are curious to know your attractive ex-colleague of a sort.) There's no substitute to college, as your gap year is like an icing in the cake.