Many of you probably know that my oldest son, who finished his high school work in May ’09 and turned eighteen in August, is taking a gap year. I’m often asked about gap years and why they’re a good idea, so I thought I’d post a few thoughts over the next week.
A “gap year,” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, is a year taken off studies between high school and college. It’s more common in Europe than in the U.S., but it’s a recognized and valid option here as well (although many parents aren’t aware of this). The gap year can involve work, travel, volunteerism, or a combination of those things. (Check out this list of ten things to do during a gap year.)
There are two ways to approach a gap year: either apply to colleges straight out of high school and then ask for a one-year deferral from the college of your choice, or else finish the senior year of high school and apply late in the following fall. Either way, the student should plan on taking the SAT and any other standardized tests during the fall of the senior year, just as if the gap year weren’t going to happen.
The first plan seems to be recommended by many admissions counselor; the fear is that the student will end up with an empty year during which nothing in particular happens (and that doesn’t look good on college applications). However, if the student has an intriguing gap year planned, the second option is a perfectly good one; particularly for home educated students, the application can actually look stronger if it explains that the student is undertaking a challenging, maturity-producing project during the year after high school.
Here are a couple of recent news articles on the topic, should you wish to investigate further.
MSNBC’s Today news site:
Princeton encourages it. Harvard’s a big fan. From Tufts to MIT, some of the most prestigious universities in the nation are urging students to consider something that would make most parents cringe: The idea of putting off college for a year in favor of some much-needed downtime.
It’s called a “gap year.” And while it’s been a common and popular rite of passage in Australia and the U.K. for decades, the concept is now starting to gain significant steam here in America.
Why? A growing number of high school seniors are balking at riding the academic conveyer belt from preschool all the way to university. They’re burnt out. Or not quite ready. Or they want to explore a few interests before deciding what to study in college. So instead of packing their bags in anticipation of freshman year, they’re volunteering in New Orleans or teaching in Thailand. They’re starting the great American novel, or interning to help figure out what they want to do with their lives….
Taking a gap year can actually make kids more focused and ready for the rigors of academic life. In fact, Harvard, arguably the most competitive university in the country, believes so much in the gap year that they encourage every student they admit to consider a year off before matriculation. And Princeton has just announced a new program called the “bridge year” that will allow newly admitted students to spend a year performing public service abroad before beginning their freshman year.
The reason behind higher education’s support of the gap year is clear: Better-prepared students mean higher completion rates. And it’s completion that matters. Parents should remember that getting a kid into college is only half the battle. According to the College Board, three out of five students who enter a public four-year college don’t manage to snag a degree within five years. And nearly 30 percent of all students who enter college don’t return for their sophomore year. Considering the fact that this year’s average price at a four-year private college is a whopping $23,712 per year, it’s a pretty expensive place to dabble. Sending a kid who’s not ready to college is like sending a kid who’s not feeling hungry to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Though the concept may be new to many in the USA, it’s an established tradition elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, for instance, about 11% of the 300,000 college-bound seniors take a gap year before enrolling. Australia puts up similar aggregate numbers in what’s known Down Under as “going walkabout.”
Reliable data for gap-year activity aren’t available for the USA, but guidance counselors and college admissions officers say they’re seeing a surge of interest….[C]ounselors are coming to bless the gap-year option, and colleges increasingly are offering a deferred enrollment option as more and more “gappers” arrive on campus with enhanced focus, motivation and maturity — all of which bodes well for their undergraduate years in college….
U.S. gappers sing the praises of structured programs, but they also say they grew most when they had to live by their wits.
Jacob Feinstein of Brookville, N.Y., has spent the past year doing an internship with a software start-up in New Zealand, taking cooking classes and studying filmmaking in New York City before he enrolls at Harvard University in September. He points to flying alone internationally and living in a house in New Zealand with 11 peers as key experiences that boosted his confidence and life skills.
“Before the gap year, I would have had a lot of hesitancy about flying on my own from New Zealand through Japan and China, two countries that don’t speak English,” Feinstein says. But he did it.
During the gap year, “I became a much more self-sufficient person. Now I’m not stressing at all about living on my own in college.”
Owen Henry of Waterford, Va., opted in 2007 to take a gap year when he received a pile of college rejection letters. His goals for the year: to be challenged, gain work experience and clarify academic goals. He participated in a program for American gap-year students last fall at Oxford University, where he says he spent less than $10,000, and he decided on a career as an Arabic translator.
Since March, he has been handling two tons of sail as a deckhand on the Lady Maryland, a 104-foot-long tall ship and floating classroom in Baltimore. He gets room, board and $6.54 an hour. He has saved $1,600 of this for college, and he plans to enroll this fall at Oberlin College, to which he applied and was accepted during the gap year….
Check back for further posts on this topic: Part II (my own thoughts on the gap year), Part III (our personal experience so far), and Part IV (resources for gap year projects).