I've talked about the so-called "Gap Year" before. According to aptly named PlanetGapYear.com, a Gap Year is "a period of time when students take a break from formal education to travel, volunteer, study, intern, or work. A gap year is also referred to as a deferred year, year out, year off, time out, time off. A gap year experience can last for several weeks, a semester, or up to a year or more. Typically a gap year is taken between high school graduation and starting college, during college, or between college and starting graduate school or a career."
In my work as an independent college admissions counselor, I encounter a year-gapper now and then. I enjoy working with them because they all have seemed to have a mature and considered outlook on their higher education needs. There seem to be two main motivations for their desire to take a Gap Year: (1) They need to take a break from that long, unbroken chain of years from K through 12, or (2) they haven't yet figured out what they want to do with their lives, so a year of exploring their "hearts" might just bring things into focus. There are no doubt other reasons that high school seniors stop out for a year before college, but these two reasons seem to be the most prevalent, at least in my experience.
Some parents (and even students) may wonder about the wisdom of a Gap Year, so let's take a look at some of the positive aspects.
Our friend, Mark Greenstein, at Ivy Bound Test Prep has written about "Gap-Year 'eye-openers' for a VARIETY for Parents." He has generously given me permission to reprint his wisdom, so read and glean.
Gap year = fulfillment and success.
Not a “13th floor”, but a foundation.
Another anxious parent expressed to me a personal desire to see his son do a post-high-school “Gap Year”, but faces opposition from the some-what aimless son. Allow me to address the gap year virtues for four types of students: 1) the focused, 2) the semi-focused, 3) the unfocused, and 4) the immature.
1) I have endorsed Gap Years for many students who HAVE a post-college focus. For those students the gap year can be the “second interest indulgence” they may have a hard time doing once on a pre-med track or a computer science track. Playing music one more year; indulging in a sport one more year, learning in England or Italy for a year, helping a family member in her business for a year, building my OWN business for a year, or even “reading 100 great books that I will otherwise never get to until retirement” are indulgences that the focused student deserves. Some students who have a post-college focus can do the gap year in their field. They get real work experience and arm themselves to be even better students once arriving on campus.
2) The semi-focused student is one who THINKS she will major in a certain field but is unsure. She doesn’t want to waste a year in college on a field she might not complete. (And her parents don’t want to be paying for 5 years of college instead of four). So instead of paying money for college, she EARNS money for a year or two, working in the field. She does a planned Gap Year. She takes two low-level jobs or two non-paying internships in places where she can witness what those who enter the field in their 20s will be doing. She figures out more about what to expect in a career, and she writes great college applications that show action, not just supposition.
3) The unfocused students who choose the Gap Year get a double blessing. They arrive on campus more focused than before, and often more focused than the average “straight-thru” students. They also get to remove themselves from the whirlwind activity of college admissions that they are not ready for. Senior fall strikes many students unprepared. They have too much to do, and no added time. They feel pressured to visit college campuses to boot. The unfocused junior or senior requires even MORE time-consuming college visits, at the very time when that student should be getting the most out of high school. The planned Gap Year is thus a relief. “We’ve taken the pressure off” is often the best thing parents can say to help their child flourish. When presented correctly, the unfocused students can know they are going places; they will spend a little more time sorting out where.
4) IMMATURE students also get a dual benefit from a Gap year. The obvious one is a year to grow and become more prepared. The real world of internships and/or paid work brings maturity faster than a year in college. For immature students who will live at home for that gap year, just the parents charging $250/mo for “rent” helps them grow up. The more immediate blessing is that most immature students KNOW they are immature; they are daunted by the prospect of four years in a new environment, with even older kids, and remote from mom & dad. The planned Gap Year is an immediate relief to these students.
By “planned Gap Year” I imply that the time before college is done thoughtfully, and the process ideally begun in the JUNIOR year. That opens more opportunities and makes senior year more fulfilling.
By “Gap Year” I include the possibility of two years off before starting college. Entering college at 19 or even 20 is irrelevant. Nobody in your dorm inherently knows how old you are. And to the extent they do, nobody cares. Mature 17 year-olds interact with 20 year olds on college campuses routinely. By sophomore year, when elective courses are prevalent, almost every college class will have three “grades” worth of students.
Thus there is no stigma to arriving on a college campus later than many of your high school classmates. You still graduate with your high school class, attend their graduation parties. Your high school yearbook still lists your graduation year. And if it does not list an intended college, it can list “experiential year” that later you will crow about.
The Gap Year offers an experience you can never get back. Instead of a 13th floor that people used to speak about somewhat ashamedly, the gap year can be a proud launch pad – strong foundation to a tower of success.
One of the subtexts here, I believe, is that a Gap Year can provide a period of introspection, reflection, assessment, and pondering for high school graduates. In today's lightning-fast society, there's precious little time to take in The Bigger Picture of one's life. So, for those of you students who may be reading this, I hope that you might give the Gap Year concept a thought or two. For you parents who may be in a quandary about your high schooler and his/her future plans, the Gap Year may hold some promise for you, too. Let us know what you think.
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