Ivey Files

February 20, 2008

Princeton Promotes the Gap Year

I was so excited to hear about Princeton's plans to formalize a Princeton-sponsored gap year for their students before they start college. In this case, the gap year program will be for applicants who have already been admitted to Princeton, but gap years are also a great idea for high school students who have not yet finalized their college plans.

I have almost daily conversations with parents in which I recommend a gap year for their high school students, and most of the time, those parents are resistant. Many of them aren't familiar with the concept, worry that admissions officers won't like it, and wonder if a gap year will put their children at a disadvantage.

I've written here before about gap years, but here are my two cents in summary:

Admissions officers love gap years. Freshmen who arrive on campus after a gap year have had an extra year to mature, see the world, learn about themselves, gain a better sense of what they want out of college, and recharge their batteries. Every day I see what happens when people start college before they're really ready to make the most of it -- you can spot that in their transcripts a mile away. It helps when heavy-hitters like Princeton and Harvard and Yale officially get behind the gap year concept.

To get a sense of the cool things people do during their gap years, see Harvard's admissions website. Below is an excerpt from their page called "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation." Note especially the last sentence: "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."

Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a "time-off" is to postpone entrance to college for a year. For over thirty years, Harvard has recommended this option, indeed proposing it in the letter of admission. Normally a total of about fifty to seventy students defer college until the next year.

The results have been uniformly positive. Harvard's daily student newspaper, The Crimson reported (5/19/2000) that students who had taken a year off found the experience "…so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it." Harvard's overall graduation rate of 98% is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off. One student, noting that the majority of her friends will simply spend eight consecutive terms at Harvard, "wondered if they ever get the chance to catch their breath."

During her year off, the student quoted above toured South America with an ice-skating company and later took a trip to Russia. Another interviewed in the article worked with a growing e-commerce company (in which the staff grew from ten to a hundred during the year) and backpacked around Europe for six months....

Members of one recent class participated in the following activities, and more, in the interim year: drama, figure skating, health-care, archeological exploration, kibbutz life, language study, mineralogical research, missionary work, music, non-profit groups, child welfare programs, political campaigns, rebuilding schools, special needs volunteering, sports, steel drumming, storytelling, swing dance, university courses, and writing - to name some chosen at random. They took their interim year in the following locales: Belize, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mongolia, Nepal, Philipines, Scandinavia, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Uruguay, United States and Zimbabwe.

Many students divide their year into several segments of work, travel, or study. Not all can afford to travel or to take part in exotic activities. A number have served in the military or other national service programs. Some remain at home, working, taking part-time courses, interning, and still finding the time to read books they have never had time to fit into their schedules or begin to write the "great American novel." Others have been able to forge closer ties with parents or grandparents from whom they may have drifted away during the hectic pace of the high-school years....

Students taking a year off prior to Harvard are doing what students from the U.K. do with their so-called "gap year." Other countries have mandatory military service for varying periods of time. Regardless of why they took the year off or what they did, students are effusive in their praise. Many speak of their year away as a "life-altering" experience or a "turning point," and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives. Many come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed in their year away. Virtually all would do it again.

Nevertheless, taking time off can be a daunting prospect for students and their parents. Students often want to follow friends on safer and more familiar paths. Parents worry that their sons and daughters will be sidetracked from college, and may never enroll. Both fear that taking time off can cause students to "fall behind" or lose their study skills irrevocably. That fear is rarely justified. High school counselors, college administrators, and others who work with students taking time off can help with reassurance that the benefits far outweigh the risks.

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.

I agree, this is just not financially feasible for most people. Perhaps living at home and working for money at least part time could make it possible, but where's the value in that? All the "cool" internships you speak of (political campaigns, even private companies) are not paid. The student living at home is also limited to what happens to be available in their neighborhood.

Who is paying for these students to survive during the "gap year"? Obviously, they aren't working to support themselves during this period. Seems more like a vacation for the upper-middle class to me.

Students can experience "life changing travel" through volunteerism and paid internships. I work with companies, award winning from respected organizations such as WWF, where one can learn to teach English to young children in Kenya. (one of many examples) Everyone thinks of safaris and the animals, but many children are suffering from lack of teachers and resources.

I feel that taking a year to "mature", as well as gain valuable educational experiences through travel, is as important as the degrees that one achieves through formal education. Students discover themselves and this would enhance their choices for planning formal education and future career.

Roz Shearer