Time out after school

Many students still don’t know exactly what they want to do by the time they leave school. Many find that taking time out after school to find yourself or to pursue your interests can be helpful. It’s also OK to shift gear after leaving school and to find out what really revs your engine. Here are a few options:


Voluntary social or environmental year (FSJ/FÖJ)

The concept of the FSJ has existed for over 60 years. The FSJ offers young, committed volunteers aged 26 and under the opportunity to do something for their fellow citizens and society. If you’re interested in volunteering you can apply to a recognised provider of your choice. This can be an association or a social institution. Special qualifications are not usually required. What counts is personal motivation. The FÖJ works exactly the same way in principle as the FSJ, just in a different field of activity. A commitment to protecting the environment and nature is at the heart of this initiative.

In the FSJ, some volunteers receive an allowance set by the provider and/or the place of work. The maximum allowance is defined by law and is currently set at EUR 381 (2017). However, the average is only EUR 150 per month, as the focus here is on helping others and taking responsibility, voluntarily and without remuneration. 

Volunteering with Weltwärts and Kulturweit

The volunteer services Weltwärts and Kulturweit offer alternatives to the FSJ. With Weltwärts, volunteers go abroad and get involved in activities relating to development policy. They work for at least six months, perhaps at an Argentine environmental organisation or a clinic in Malawi. During their time abroad, volunteers focus on working together, learning from each other day to day, and cultural exchange. Volunteers are expected to be highly independent and flexible. Working hours are usually 40 hours per week and depend on project requirements. Weltwärts was created by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in 2008, and since then around 26,000 people have volunteered.

Kulturweit volunteers work in cultural or educational institutions abroad. That could mean working as German language teaching assistant at the Europaschule in Tbilisi, in the cultural programme department at the Goethe-Institut in Hanoi, or at the DAAD information centre in Bogotá. Volunteers work for six or twelve months in countries in the southern hemisphere, Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These experiences expand volunteers’ global perspectives and offer them different ways of living and working.

For both organisations, volunteers receive an allowance and free room and board in typical accommodation for the region. You can apply directly on the volunteer services’ web pages:

Federal Volunteers Service

The German Federal Volunteers Service (the BFD, or Bufdi) is still a relatively new concept, introduced in 2011, principally as an alternative to civilian service. As with the FSJ, volunteers can help with various projects and institutions. Short-term entry is also an option and there is no age limit. Providers may also pay an allowance depending on the effort and activity involved. In many cases, free room, board and uniform is included.

Au pair work

Au pairs usually go to a country of their choice to help families around the house and in looking after their children. In return, they receive free room and board and a small allowance. Au pairs usually work for 30 hours per week and are entitled to 1.5 days off per week and paid holidays. Payment varies from country to country. In the UK, au pairs receive between GBP 70 and 80 per week, while in the USA it can be up to USD 200. The household tasks they are expected to carry out vary from family to family. They could include everything from childcare and shopping to cooking and cleaning. You can plan your stay either through a specialist agency (which usually charges a brokerage fee of EUR 350) or by yourself. Many families prefer au pairs to stay with them for between 9 and 12 months. However, shorter stays are also an option. Daily and intensive contact and living with a host family helps you build close relationships in the local area and improve your language skills.

Work & Travel

Work & Travel is an alternative to the classic trip abroad. While living in a foreign country, you take on various casual jobs and use the money you earn to explore the country. The huge variety of jobs on offer range from hotel entertainer to call centre agent to harvest worker, with payment ranging from simple remuneration to working in exchange for free room and board. You often get a particularly good insight into other ways of life, rather than simply seeing the culture as a tourist. Popular Work & Travel destinations include Australia, New Zealand and Canada. You can either organise your backpacking adventure yourself or through a specialist organiser. This costs extra, however, meaning that you have to pay around EUR 1500 for a package including flights to Australia or New Zealand.

Language study trips

This type of trip abroad is aimed at acquiring or improving foreign language skills. There are usually 15 to 30 hours of lessons a week, aimed at developing linguistic abilities in a short period of time. Some language schools offer additional services such as cookery, sports or dance courses as well as sightseeing trips. Activities take place in the local language. Many language school students live with a host family during their visit. Around 140 agencies in Germany offer language study trips. Current favourite destinations include Britain, Malta, France and Spain.


A good way of finding your path to studies or a future career is to take up an internship after your Abitur. This also allows you to build a network in the world of work, develop contacts and potentially work within a company you might apply to at a later stage. A skilled internship can last up to six months or a full year. However, some companies are using interns as full employees on the cheap. Before an internship, you should find out from the company well in advance what your exact responsibilities will be. The aim is to learn something and gain experience that will help you in your future career.

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