Six AP courses with a 4 or better? Check.
Sixty hours of community service? Check.
SAT, ACT, SAT II? Check, check, check.
Varsity letters? Check.
Summer internships? Check.
Burned out teenager? Double check.
It’s no wonder teenagers today get to college exhausted and unfocused, not knowing what they want to study or who they want to become. Some students may enter college with a specified major, but few of those decisions are actually based in real-world experiences.
How could they be? They haven’t had time to have any real-world experience.
The bar has been raised so high for the next generation that sometimes I stand back and marvel at how they actually pull it all off. I’m sure if those were the standards when I was in high school I would have never made it to college.
But there is an antidote to all this stress, and it’s not about opting out. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
An idea that began in the 1970s in England has finally made its way across the pond and it’s growing at an exponential rate. The gap year.
A gap year is defined as a period of time between high school graduation and the start of college. The student requests a one-year deferral from the college to which they were accepted and spends the year outside the typical classroom boundaries.
Robin Pendoley, co-director, USA Gap Year Fair and Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, thinks the gap year is a worthy endeavor.
“We see a lot of high achieving high school students who are just burned out and in need of a break from the classroom,” Pendoley said. “They want the opportunity to learn and grow, but without the knowledge being tied to tests and grades. They are looking for a more meaningful experience besides just achieving inside the class room.”
A gap year can take many forms and can be as flexible or as structured as the student and their parents want it to be. Thinking Beyond Borders offers full-year as well as one-semester options, including a Seven-Country Global Gap Year, The China Gap Semester or The South America Gap Semester.
Dynamy Internship Year offers a full-time mentored internship in more than 240 organizations from finance to athletics, healthcare to government, with apartment-style living.
In two of the biggest gap year programs, Americorps and CityYear, students receive a living stipend of $1,000 per month for housing and food, a cell phone, uniforms, health insurance and transportation passes. At the end of their 10-month service, they also receive a $5,350 educational award for college.
The cost of a gap year can range from extremely expensive to fully-funded depending on which route the student chooses. Most programs also offer need-based financial aid. But when you take into consideration a study done by the Department of Education that states, from 2007 to 2008, only 44 percent of students who received their undergraduate degree that year finished in four years or less; the rest were either on the five or six-plus year plan. In light of those numbers, a year spent in self-exploration and reflection could be money well spent.
Jack Reynolds, 2013 graduate of Rye Country Day School, was accepted to Oberlin College and decided to defer for a year before starting next fall. His mother, Sarah, explained their family’s decision.
“It used to be that kids could take time after college to travel, explore, experiment or just chill. But now, there seems to be so much pressure to resume build that there isn’t a chance for young people to just stop and take stock of themselves and the world around them,” Sarah Reynolds said. “A gap year has given my son the opportunity to expand and tryout new things without worrying or even considering how they were going to fit into his long-range plans.”
Jack started the fall in Beijing with CET Academic Programs taking Mandarin and interning at the Beijinger, a print and online magazine. After a few weeks home for holiday break, he left for the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea, where he will travel around the world for 112 days, stopping in 16 cities in 12 countries with 800 other students from 277 different universities. He will earn credits that will be applied to his Oberlin degree.
Worried that a gap year will sidetrack your student or that they will be less prepared once they get to college? Harvard isn’t. In fact, on its website, the university encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel or pursue a special project or activity. And they aren’t alone in their endorsement.
“U.S. colleges are whole-heartedly accepting the gap year. 95 to 97 percent allow deferral, especially for an organized program or plan,” Pendoley said. “In fact, the best colleges are encouraging students to take them. They feel that when the students arrive on campus, they are more serious about their education and have a better sense of purpose and direction, which in turn makes them have a bigger impact on the entire campus.”
Interest piqued? The next gap year fair in Westchester County is Feb. 5 at Pleasantville High School from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs and herself a gap year participant—India, Nepal, Athens and Appalachia—will start the event off with a 30-minute presentation explaining the overall idea of what a gap year can be. There will be representatives from more than 25 different programs on hand to answer questions and speak with attendees.
Most students start looking at programs during their junior year in high school, but many wait until senior year. All high school students and their parents are welcome at the event. The organizers recommend registering prior to attendance at usagapyear.org, but registration isn’t required.
As MIT Admissions officer Matt McGann says, “No one ever regrets having taken a gap year, but plenty of people regret not having taken one.”