“So, where are you going to school next year?” is a question many high school seniors grow weary of being asked. Increasingly, however, the answer has become, “I’m taking a gap year.”
The National Association for College Admission Counseling website offers students the following advice: “Maybe you’re tired of the academic grind. Maybe you’re not sure why you’re going to college or what you’ll do when you get there. Maybe you yearn to explore far-away places or dig deeper into a career that interests you. If this sounds like you, perhaps now is the time to consider taking a gap year between high school and college.”
Some trace the “gap year” concept to 17th-century “grand tours” taken by aristocrats’ sons, who spent several years traveling around Europe to broaden their horizons and prepare for life.
U.S. News & World Report columnist Rebecca Kern claims the gap year is a long-standing tradition among European students, who take time off to volunteer, work or travel before embarking on their college journeys. Following World War II, some European leaders believed the chances for world peace would increase if young people were given opportunities for travel to understand and experience other cultures.
Macca Sherifi, the travel editor at GapYear.com, traces gap years in the United States to the cultural and social revolutions of the 1960s, as many young people questioned the lockstep progression from high school, to college, to the world of work, which often lacked thoughtful reflection.
Whatever its origins, the gap year idea has taken hold. Many American universities advise new students to postpone enrolling and take a year off before beginning formal collegiate studies. And these opportunities are no longer solely for the affluent.
Harvard encourages admitted students to defer their studies for one year to travel, pursue special projects, work or spend time in other meaningful ways. The University of North Carolina provides $7,500 fellowships for selected students to use toward gap years committed to service abroad. Tufts University provides funds that enable middle- and low-income students to take advantage of a gap year.
A key question: Are there advantages to the gap year?
Nick Adie of Lattitude Global Volunteering observes, “Rather than being extended holidays,” meaningful gap years involve learning to take responsibility for others, adding, “Young people should push themselves out of their comfort zones and do something productive.”
Robert Hingley, a senior adviser to the global investment bank Lazard, explains, “In a shrinking job market, when you have 300 applications for every place, some 100 of them will be stunning, but few will stand out. Those who have taken an interesting gap year will have the opportunity to progress. At interviews, they may well come across as personalities. They will have grown up.”
A 2011 Middlebury College study concluded that students who had taken a year off had consistently higher grades than those who didn’t. Princeton’s Bridge Year Director John Luria says, “A lot of our students say when they enter (after a gap year) they have a greater sense of purpose in their studies.”
Students who have been accepted and want to take a year off must determine individual campus policies, as many U.S. colleges do not formally recognize gap years. “Gappers” often must complete new application packets and reapply for financial aid.
David Stoneberg, editor of the Star, shares his own experience as a “gapper,” who took 18 months off between high school and college. “I worked at a tire store and gas station, which convinced me that wasn’t what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
Before investing the time and treasure, some students would do well to consider whether college is the right choice for them … right now. Gap years can increase students’ sense of purpose, motivation and prospects for success. So, when they answer the “Where are you going?” question, they are more clear and confident about why they are going.
Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: email@example.com.