Admit This

Gap Year: Smelling The Roses

Have you ever felt like you've been going to school forever?  If you're going to be a high school senior this year, you may have already passed through nursery school, pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, (maybe even "junior high school"), and now high school.

What looms now for you? Four more years of college? Then graduate school? Med school? Dental school? Law school? The mind reels. However, there is an increasingly attractive option for those of you who feel like screaming, "Stop the school merry-go-round! I wanna get off!"  It's called the Gap Year.


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According to Wikipedia, the Gap Year is defined as "Taking a GAP year (also known as year abroad, year out, year off, deferred year, bridging year, time off and time out) refers to taking a year out of studying to do something else. Many people take a gap year before starting college or university, but it can be taken at any time." The Boston Globe's Tracy Jan writes about some appealing aspects of the Gap Year. Here's the scoop:

Worn-out students choose a timeout

More take break before college

As their peers comb through course catalogs, shop for extra-long twin sheets, and seek out future classmates on Facebook, a small but growing number of students accepted by the nation’s top colleges are postponing their long-anticipated freshman year.

The students say they desperately need a timeout after spending their high school years building impeccable credentials for entry into selective colleges. And more admissions officials, concerned about student burnout, are encouraging the high-achieving teenagers to step off the traditional path as a way to fuel their creativity and long-term motivation.

“I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years,’’ said Gaby Waldman-Fried, an 18-year-old from New York City who is deferring her acceptance to Olin College of Engineering in Needham to volunteer at an organic farm in Maine this summer. “I would have five or six hours of homework almost every night. The last thing I wanted to do was more school.’’

Taking a “gap year’’ between high school and college to see the world has long been common in Great Britain and other countries, but the option has gained popularity stateside only in recent years as college admissions have become fiercely competitive.

While there is no data showing how many Americans opt for a gap year, some admissions deans say they are seeing an increase this year following more publicity about the benefits of delaying enrollment.

MIT’s associate director of admissions has used his blog to tout spending a year doing anything students wish and returning more confident and self-aware; 24 recently admitted students have deferred enrollment, a dramatic increase from the usual eight to 10 per year.

Princeton last year created what is believed to be the first college-sponsored gap-year program, offering 20 newly admitted students the opportunity to spend a tuition-free year performing public service in such places as Ghana, Serbia, and Peru. The program helped to double the number of students deferring their enrollment to 48, said Janet Rapelye, dean of admissions.

Middlebury College in Vermont just began including a paragraph in its admission letter urging students to visit a new website about the merits of a gap year . About two dozen students chose to take one next school year, but Robert Clagett, admissions dean, hopes their ranks will more than double in future years after the website begins featuring testimonials from students who have returned from their time away.

“As the anxiety that surrounds the admissions process has increased, getting into X college has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end,’’ Clagett said. “By encouraging more students to step off the treadmill and smell the roses, they can kind of reacquaint themselves with what their education is all about.’’

Backpacking through Europe remains popular, but admission deans report that more students are choosing internships in their academic fields of interest in hopes of getting a leg up in a down economy, or engaging in public service at home and abroad. Whole cottage industries have sprung up to help match students, for a fee, to the right gap year experience as the practice becomes more prevalent.

But the gap year need not be exotic nor expensive, said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College. Too many students still feel the pressure to outdo their peers, defeating the purpose of time off, he said.

“Many of these students think it’s some kind of race and that they have to be involved in some sort of program 24 hours a day,’’ said Fitzsimmons, who has promoted the gap year for decades. “But sitting around might not be a bad thing.’’

Harvard, where more than 40 students each year defer their admission, has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of those taking gap years over the last decade.

Gregory Kristof spent his senior year of high school in Scarsdale, N.Y., juggling six Advanced Placement courses. Outside school, he wrestled, played the viola, and took classes in Chinese and black-and-white portraiture.

“To sort of dive right back into that in the fall would be a little bit much,’’ said Kristof, who is delaying his entry into Harvard to spend a year in Beijing, brushing up on his Mandarin and volunteering to teach English to rural schoolchildren. “I just need a break from studying for a year, and then I feel like I’d be more ready to hit the books.’’

Kristof’s friend, Rick Altieri, will join him in studying and volunteering in China instead of enrolling in Amherst College, where 20 students this year have decided to take a gap year, a 67 percent increase from last year.

Oftentimes, though, parents need convincing that time off is a good idea, said Karl Haigler, who, along with his wife, Rae Nelson, wrote “The Gap-Year Advantage’’ in 2005 after their youngest son decided to take a year off. Many parents are fearful that their children will never enroll in college or that their brains will wither without the structure of classes.

Jim Wismer was skeptical when Olin College offered his son, Matt, a deferred admission, meaning he’d be forced to take a gap year.

“I’m a pretty traditional guy, and the idea of a gap year kind of knocked my socks off,’’ said Wismer, a manager of retail energy strategy in Malvern, Pa. “That whole concept didn’t sit with me very well. The first thing I worried about was the mental atrophy.’’

But Matt Wismer convinced his father with his fast-filling itinerary for the year. Last week, Matt attended the Future Business Leaders of America conference. Then it will be a church mission trip to West Virginia. Next up: trying to land an internship at an engineering start-up. In between, he’s teaching himself to play the piano using a computer program.

The elder Wismer thinks the experiences will benefit his son. “It’s going to force him to stand up as an adult in the world without the protection of school,’’ Wismer said. “I think he’ll be a better student for it.’’

MIT junior Victoria Thomas described her gap year as the best thing she has ever done. She said her experiences working in a renewable energy start-up in San Francisco, teaching preschool in Senegal, learning to fly planes in Colorado, and helping MIT alumni build a flying car gave her a broader perspective about what’s important. As a result, she said, she is much less stressed than her MIT classmates who did not take time off.

“Like most high school students going to MIT, I was pretty driven and high-strung and hard on myself to get straight A’s,’’ said Thomas, who had attended a boarding school in New Hampshire. “Now, I want to do well because I want to really understand what’s going on in my classes and not just taking the test to get good grades.’’

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Need more perspectives? Try some of these interesting threads from the College Confidential discussion forum. The Gap Year: something to consider.

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