Whether you want to teach English abroad or build wells, it's essential to plan ahead, says Miriam Laurance

Whatever stage you're at, taking a year off to do something different can be one of the best times of your life. But it's all too easy to let that year slip by. The key to getting the most out of your time is planning, and now's the time to start.

With up to 15 months of freedom ahead of you, and hundreds of options, it can be difficult to know where to begin. I spent an hour on Google, got bored and picked the first scheme I found in a faraway country.

I might have chosen more sensibly if I had followed the experts' advice, and started by thinking: what do I want to get out of my year? It could be anything from having an adventure to making money and building up your CV. If it's the latter, the Year in Industry scheme gives students a chance to work for a year in a job in science, IT, engineering and business.

You could learn a new skill – scuba diving for a conservation charity in Madagascar, or studying a language abroad. There is a plethora of organisations offering all sorts of experiences. Signing up with one of these gives you the advantage of their advice, contacts and training, as well as support in an emergency.

A popular option is to volunteer abroad. If this appeals, think first about what you have to offer. As a 17-year-old, you may think "not very much". But Lavinia Maclean-Bristol, manager of Project Trust, says most school-leavers from the UK have two advantages: English as their first language, and a good education, which makes them in great demand as language teachers.

Project Trust specialises in 12-month placements around the world, which Maclean-Bristol says, allow volunteers to get the full benefit of the year abroad. "They have time to settle in, relax and enjoy making a real difference," she says.

If that sounds too much, companies such as Projects Abroad offer placements in everything from archaeology to law, for one month or more, and Raleigh International offers expeditions involving three-week projects based around the community, the environment, and adventure. That might include providing villages with wells or building a shelter in a national park. But how do you choose?

A good place to start is a new website set up by the Year Out Group, which has 37 member organisations, all of which are obliged to obey its code of practice. (Check out the guidelines on the VSO website.)

Things to look for include what training they provide, and what they are doing for the community. A few are charities, so you'll have a better idea of where your money is going. These include Project Trust and Raleigh International. Rachel Colinson at Raleigh, says: "Because we only run projects in three countries, we have a permanent presence in those areas, so we can invest in infrastructure and employ local staff."

Another charity, one of the oldest and most experienced, is GAP Activity Projects. If budget is a concern, GAP has a bursary scheme. Many organisations will give fundraising advice. Check whether costs include flights, living costs, and insurance. Few will include visas or inoculations.

There is an alternative to going abroad. Jason Tanner of CSV (Community Service Volunteers) says there are important projects in the UK, too. This might be working with children with learning disabilities, or living with an elderly person who needs help. You'll receive training, support and live away from home, plus you'll get a living allowance.

Small things can affect your whole experience. One of the best things about my gap year in Ghana was living with a family: a great way to learn about another culture. Whatever you're looking for, there's bound to be an option for you, if you take the time to find it.

www.yearoutgroup.org; www.projecttrust.org.uk; www.teaching-abroad.co.uk; www.raleighinternational.org; www.csv.org.uk; www.vso.org.uk; www.gap.org.uk