Friday, October 14, 2011

Mind the Gap...Year, That Is...

I work in Northern Virginia--rich cultural offerings, highly-educated populace, more sports/clubs/artistic classes than you could dream of, and excellent school systems that offer a variety of challenging courses that can enrich and stretch students' minds.

It can also be a pressure-cooker for many of our kids.  From the time they are in elementary school they are involved in sports practice or dance classes for three to four hours a night, and by the time they reach middle and high school you are also throwing on weekend competitions, games, club sports, and play practices in addition to hours and hours of rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) coursework.  Some of my students regularly go to bed around midnight or one in the morning, only to get up again around six a.m. to start the process all over again.

Thus, many of these students have been on a tightly scheduled, exhaustive merry-go-round for 12 to 13 years of their lives.  Then they hit their senior year, and the college application process begins, which, if you have ever been a high school counselor or the parent of a high school senior, you realize is almost another full-time job on top of everything else.  Is it any wonder that some of these kids are burnt out on school?  Is it any wonder that some of these kids know they want to go to college and simultaneously cannot imagine having to go straight from the insanity of their senior year to the rigorous demands of their freshmen year at a university?

Enter the Gap Year.  What is it?  In its standard form, it is a year between secondary school and college that students take to do some sort of life-enrichment activity.  European students have done it for years, but if feels like here in the U.S. gap years are thought of as only something for the ├╝ber-wealthy.  Not anymore.  While there are not any statistics of note out there about the number of students taking gap years and their attrition to college and ultimately graduation, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that more students are taking a structured year off between high school and university.  There are a plethora of programs out there in a variety of price ranges.  First, though, what students might be good candidates for a gap year?

Typically, the best students for gap years are those who know they are college-bound (they do not have to be the students with the highest grades in the school, but who have maintained solid records), and usually these students are admitted to a college in their senior years and then defer starting for one year, although you will need to check with each individual college to determine how that process works.
"This is for someone who, you know, really is serious about academics. It doesn't necessarily mean they were the best student in high school. It just means that they just want to go to college, that they just want to take a year or even two off before going and they've got a somewhat serious plan for that time off. And this isn't really about people who are, you know, trying to postpone until forever, basically. So these are people who are serious about attending college. They just want to delay the starting point." (source:
There are students, though, who will choose to wait to apply during their gap year in order to be able to write about their post-graduate experience and use it as part of the admissions process.  Additionally, good candidates for the gap year are those students who want to explore some interest or desire in a more experiential, non-traditional kind of way, such as immersing themselves in Spanish through volunteer work in South America or studying art for a semester in Italy.  In my experience, sometimes gap years do work well for students who are not sure what they want to do after high-school--it gives them a year to explore and mature, although they will ultimately have to make some decisions about their future at some point.

There are many advantages to doing a gap year.  In this New York Times article, the students discussed have returned from their gap year programs more mature and more focused on what they want to get out of college and what direction they want their life to go in.  This is especially important when you look at statistics for the graduation rates of students who enter college--not all of them will graduate in six years.  Many of them will not make it from their freshmen year to their sophomore year.  In Virginia, for example, 85% of freshmen at public universities and 73% of freshmen at private universities will continue on to their sophomore year.  This is above the national average for public schools and below for private.  However, only 63% of students who start Bachelor's degrees in Virginia will finish within six years.  (source:  This is above the national average, but still an alarming statistic.  While a gap year is probably not the solution for all the 37% of students who do not finish, for some of these students it may be that having a year between high-school and college to gain in life-skills, independence, and coping strategies as well as pursue interests in a more in-depth fashion would assist them in being more prepared for university success.  A further advantage is that for many students, it can give them an extra year to build skills which will help them gain admission to a favorite college or university.  In this article, Harvard University seems to actively encourage students to consider taking a year-off before beginning college and states that
"Occasionally students are admitted to Harvard or other colleges in part because they accomplished something unusual during a year off. While no one should take a year off simply to gain admission to a particular college, time away almost never makes one a less desirable candidate or less well prepared for college." (source:
However, one needs to be careful of simply using a gap year as a means to gain admission to a preferred school, as seen in this Washington Post article. Admissions offices can become concerned if they feel you are deferring admissions to build up your resume to get into another school.

How do you decide what to do during your gap year?  My best advice to students and families interested in a gap year is that there needs to be some kind of structure to that year.  However, the form of that structure is wide open.  Students can:
  • Work--find a job that pursues a certain interest or helps to build a skill
  • Intern--find an internship that will give you hands-on exposure to a career field of interest
  • Public Service Programs--The program City Year is one of the most popular and standard programs.  Please note it has an admissions process.
  • Volunteer/Travel Experiences--there are a ton of these, but there is usually a cost associated with it.  However, sometimes they are much less than one might think.  I would recommend checking out or plan to attend one of the Gap Year Fairs in your area.  There will be two in the Washington D.C. area in January
  • Post-Graduate Years--oftentimes students will do a post-graduate year at a private secondary institution, especially in sports or in the arts.  An example would be a singer who wants another year of intense vocal and music study to allow the voice to mature more before applying to a conservatory--they may try to do a post-graduate year at Interlochen Arts Academy or Idyllwild Arts Academy.  For more information on post-graduate years and the schools that offer them, click here.
For many students, the gap year will be a combination of these programs--maybe half a year of work and a class or two at a community college with a half a year of travel and volunteering.  The important thing is to be knowledgeable about gap years and the programs in order to better assist our students and families with post-secondary planning.

For further information, check out The Complete Guide to the Gap Year or The Gap Year Advantage:  both books are cited quite often as good sources in articles and literature about gap years.

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